National Survey Finds Warning Signs For American Democracy In Civic Outlook Of Young Adults

Data Also Reveal Optimism on Polarization

September 21, 2023

Media contact: Andy Solomon,, (202) 841-9049 

Princeton, NJ, September 21, 2023 – Americans aged 18 to 24 are dissatisfied with the political system and pessimistic about democracy, lack critical civic knowledge and trust in government institutions, and are less likely to vote in the 2024 election than the general population, according to a national survey commissioned by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. 

The survey, The Civic Outlook of Young Adults in America, sheds light on young adults’ civic knowledge, civic engagement, and commitment to democracy, at a time when more than 31 million of them are poised to shape the nation’s future. It finds that: 

  • Young adults are dissatisfied with our political system (57%), and most have no or little trust in government institutions (52%). 
  • Young adults, regardless of education level, lack basic civic knowledge, answering an average of only 1.6 questions correctly out of four standard civics questions; only 4% answered all four questions right. 
  • Fewer than half (48%) are planning to vote in the next general election, compared to about two-thirds of the general public. 
  • The two primary political parties are failing to attract young adults. 61% do not identify with either major party – 29% identify as independent, nonpartisan, or other party and 33% as unsure or do not identify politically in any way. Only 22% identify as Democrat and 17% as Republican.

The data also provides reasons for optimism, including the potential for addressing polarization:

  • Most young adults (51%) describe themselves as at or near the ideological middle, meaning moderate, somewhat conservative, or somewhat liberal. Only about one in four describe themselves as very conservative or very liberal. 
  • 37% find conversations with those who have different views to be interesting and informative. By contrast, only 22% of Americans of all ages find those conversations interesting and informative. 
  • Seven out of ten young adults are somewhat, very, or extremely proud to be American. 
  • Across the political spectrum, young adults choose shared values to define American democracy: equality (55%), justice (51%), and fairness (49%). 

The research reveals a strong correlation between increased civic knowledge and engagement in our democracy:

  • 66% of those who score high on civic knowledge intend to vote in the next general election versus only 44% of those who score low on civic knowledge.
  • 51% of those who score high on civic knowledge state that their vote matters versus only 47% of those who score low on civic knowledge.
  • 80% of those who score high on civic knowledge plan to engage in at least one civic activity in 2024 versus only 64% of those who score low on civic knowledge.
  • 62% of those who score high on civic knowledge reject violence that suppresses opposition versus only 49% of those who score low on civic knowledge.

Respondents cite a lack of feeling informed as the top barrier for participating politically, and young adults who are involved in their communities are more likely to feel satisfied with our democracy. These findings open a path toward progress: increasing civic knowledge could drive greater engagement. 

“This poll is a wake-up call. We urgently need to do more to civically prepare, activate, and support young adults because the future of our democracy depends on it,” said Rajiv Vinnakota, president of The Institute for Citizens & Scholars. “If we listen to, learn from, and collaborate with Gen Z, we can understand how to strengthen the systems and institutions that have lost their trust. All of us must step up and play our part – from schools and employers to community and religious groups, from political parties and elected officials to parents and neighbors.” 

“We need to meet young people where they are because we have the potential to transform the state of polarization in our country,” said Manu Meel, CEO of BridgeUSA, a youth-led nonprofit organization that creates spaces for open discussion between students about political issues. “This data shows that engaging young people in productive conversations across lines of difference requires us to articulate not only why these dialogues are important, but why young people’s voices matter in setting up American democracy for success in the 21st Century.”

The Civic Outlook of Young Adults in America website provides additional information, including an executive summary and analysis of the survey results, key findings, topline data, and cross-tabulations. Conducted by Citizen Data, the poll surveyed 4,008 Americans across the country, aged 18-24, from August 21-25, 2023. It is part of a multi-year research initiative to measure youth civic preparedness in America, part of Citizens & Scholars’ mission to support and cultivate young people to become civically well-informed, productively engaged, and committed to democracy.


The Institute for Citizens & Scholars cultivates talent, ideas, and networks that develop young people as effective, lifelong citizens. We unite the left, right, and center to develop breakthrough solutions that create stronger citizens in our country, and we bring these solutions to life by forming strategic partnerships with an intentionally diverse group of young people, scholars and education leaders, and civic and business leaders—including the 27,000 world-leading Fellows in our network. Together, we’re on a mission to ensure that Americans everywhere are civically well-informed, productively engaged, and committed to democracy. 

Media contact: Andy Solomon,, (202) 841-9049

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