Giving all millennials a voice

UChicago survey is redefining how journalists talk about young people of color.

The media loves to talk about millennials, and how their digital upbringing, love of feedback, and ‘everyone deserves a trophy’ mentality shapes their thinking. But in reality, this generation can’t all be slotted into the same neat box.

Cathy Cohen

Millennials’ life experiences and opinions are widely varied particularly among young people of color and LGBT communities. To treat them all as if they are the same is a disservice to the generation, and it delivers an inaccurate portrayal of who they are and what they need, says Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

Cohen is trying to change all of that.  She founded and heads the GenForward Survey project, a first of its kind a nationally representative bi-monthly survey of 18-34-year-olds that pays special attention to how race and ethnicity shape how respondents experience and think about the world. “Millennials are the largest and the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in the country,” Cohen says.  “They represent the largest share of the workforce, and the voting population, so it makes sense to pay attention to their preferences on important political issues as well as how they live more broadly.”

What do you think?

Vladimir Medenica, a postdoctoral scholar, and Matthew Fowler, a postdoctoral scholar, discussing their work with the GenForward Survey.

GenForward was launched in 2016 and is funded by grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Open Society Foundation. Initially Cohen’s team, which includes two post-doctoral students and several graduate students, conducted monthly surveys, though they eventually scaled back to bi-monthly.

Each survey features a unique set of questions focused on a key issue, such as millennials’ attitudes about race, gender equality, LGBT issues, immigration, economic concerns and the mid-term elections. They also each include the same 12 tracking questions exploring their opinions of the president, congress, and the republican and democratic parties. This combination allows Cohen’s team to gain insights into many aspects of their lives, without losing the ability to track important questions about politics and policies. “Every survey is different, but we always go back to politics and policy as a touchstone,” she says.

For each survey, the team jointly selects a topic then narrows the list of questions from hundreds down to about 40. The survey is then fielded by NORC, the University of Chicago’s independent social research organization. That process takes about 17 days, then the research team summarizes the data, writes a report and shares the findings publically.

Cohen’s goal with GenForward is to spur new data-driven narratives around the political opinions and experiences of young people of color and other marginalized groups, and to point out the differences among them. She notes, for example, that a plurality of white millennials voted for Trump, but a vast majority of African American (84%), Asian American (76%), and Latino/as (70%) millennials supported Hillary Clinton, according to GenForward survey results.  “Our impulse is to say ‘Millennials do this, and millennials prefer that’, but there is danger in thinking about them as a monolithic group,” she says.

Findings from the May 2018 survey

The new Pew

She hopes the data emerging from these bimonthly surveys will change the way journalists and academics write about and study this and future generations, ensuring that the opinions of all segments are included in the political discussions that shape our country. “We want to be known as the ‘Pew of young people,’ providing data that can be trusted to influence policies and politics,” she says. So far it seems to be working.

NBC News has become the official media partner for GenForward, and its reporters regularly feature the latest data in broadcasts and articles. GenForward has also been cited by virtually every major media outlet in the country, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and The Washington Post, VOX, Nate Silver and many others. “I think we’ve done an amazing job over the past two years,” Cohen says. “It is a lot of work, but we feel like we are doing something special.”

Cohen expects GenForward to continue to be a part of the UChicago years to come. “It’s important that it is in the Social Sciences division given the incredible rigor of research it is known for,” she says. She encourages students interested in fielding their own questions, or participating in the research to reach out to her team. “It’s an incredible opportunity for anyone at the university who is thinking about political action among young people and especially young people of color to get involved.”