Poll: American Youth Somehow Optimistic About Future

Nearly two-thirds ‘hopeful’ about years to come

Clarksdale High School students / AP

Despite a sense of dread heading into the November election, young Americans are more optimistic about the direction of the country than they were nearly a decade ago, according to a new report.

Nearly two-thirds of high school students today are hopeful about the country’s future while more than half of high school graduates expressed the same sentiment, according to a study conducted by the nonprofit Horatio Alger Association.

The findings mark a sharp turnaround following nearly eight years of declining optimism among young people between 2001 and 2008. They also stand in contrast to a Rasmussen Reports poll released last week finding that less than a third of likely voters believe the U.S. is heading in the right direction.

"When much of our daily conversation and media coverage is focused on the challenges the nation faces, young people do not reflect the same levels of cynicism or loss of hope," Greg Wolniak, the director of the Center for Research on Higher Education Outcomes at New York University, said Tuesday morning during a media event in Washington, D.C.

But while young Americans are optimistic and hopeful about the future, Wolniak said they are not "giving a free pass" to public leaders or institutions in the U.S.

"Today’s young people express a distinct lack of trust or confidence in certain institutions, most notably the federal government," Wolniak continued.

The study found that only one-fourth of high school students and graduates are confident in the federal government. Meanwhile, only six percent of high school graduates consistently trust that the government will do what is right for the nation.

The younger generation also feels strongly that the 2016 presidential election will alter the direction of the country, according to the report. More than half of recent high school graduates believe the election of either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will make a large difference in America’s future, while only 14 percent said it would have a small impact or none at all.

"It may be that expectations for the upcoming election to change the direction of the country reflect hope for a more trustworthy and satisfying government," the authors of the report write.

Peter Hart, the founder of Hart Research Associates, said while today’s youth face lingering economic effects from the Great Recession, high unemployment rates, a polarizing political climate, and an ongoing terrorism threat, they remain hopeful about the future of America.

"They are probably the most challenged generation since the great generation or those who grew up in the Great Depression and served in World War II," Hart said Tuesday. "That’s what the state of the nation’s youth is—hard times, but at the same time, young people willing to meet the challenge."