labor The Closing Gender, Education, and Ideological Divides Behind Gen Z’s Union Movement
Nationwide support for organized labor has reached a high-water mark not achieved since the 1960s, with strong support across all generations and highest among Generation Z.1 Members of Gen Z are entering the workforce at a time of growing economic uncertainty, as college degrees no longer promise job stability and young people describe high levels of economic anxiety.2 Among these workers, unions may hold special appeal as a way of not only achieving financial independence and security, but also asserting their voices in the workplace.
A new analysis of 2020 American National Election Studies (ANES) data from the Center for American Progress confirms that Gen Z is America’s most pro-union generation, even more so than older workers were at their age. (see methodological appendix) Gen Zers, defined as being 23 years old or younger in 2020, are more supportive of unions than not only Baby Boomers and Generation X, but also Millennials, themselves long seen as a particularly pro-union generation.3
Unions have achieved widespread support among all generations—especially among Gen Zers—by narrowing traditional educational, ideological, and gender divides; this trajectory is further accelerated by the growing racial and ethnic diversity of younger generations in the United States. The Center for American Progress finds that, as of 2020, on a 100-point approval scale:
- Gen Zers are the most supportive of unions, with a mean approval rating of 64.3 compared with 60.5 for Millennials, 57.8 for Gen Xers, and 57.2 for Baby Boomers.
- Gen Z supports unions more today than Baby Boomers and Gen Xers did at their age.
- The greater racial diversity of younger generations has contributed to high support for unions, as those identifying as Black or African American; Hispanic or Latino; and other or multiple nonwhite races and ethnicities tend to be more supportive of unions.
- Gen Zers with college degrees support unions with roughly the same rating as those without a college degree, at 63.7 and 64.4, respectively, while Baby Boomers and Gen Xers without a college degree are more supportive of unions than those who graduated from college.
- Democrats are generally more supportive of unions than Republicans, but approval among Republican Gen Zers is higher, at 56.4, than it is among Republicans in other generations—the narrowest partisan gap of any generation.
- Gen Z women and men alike have the highest mean union approval of any generation.
These results are particularly striking given the historically high support unions enjoy today. Moreover, many of the trends that contribute to strong support for unions among young workers, including growing educational attainment and racial diversity, are expected to continue as more young Americans enter the workforce. As these young workers seek the benefits of collective bargaining for wages, benefits, stability, and voice on the job, they can build a long-lasting foundation for future victories in worker empowerment.
Background: Young workers are leading new union wins
Workers have won an exceptional series of victories in recent months, building unions at hundreds of workplaces across the country in a wide range of industries.4 Unions have achieved organizing successes at firms large and small, from health care to grocery stores, to technology and game development, to musical instrument manufacturing.5 As part of a broad and growing public interest in unions and worker empowerment, organizers have won elections at hundreds of Starbucks locations nationwide; workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, voted to unionize in April 2022; and employees secured a landmark neutrality agreement with Microsoft in June 2022.6 This wave of organizing rides atop growing public faith in unions—with 56 percent of American adults agreeing that the decline in union representation has been bad for the country as a whole7—even amid shrinking confidence in other major economic actors, such as big business and large technology companies.8
Strikingly, young workers have led many of these successful organizing drives. For example, like many of his fellow Staten Island organizers,9 Christian Smalls, the leader of the Amazon Labor Union, is a Millennial. Similarly, dozens of the baristas organizing Starbucks locations with Starbucks Workers United are members of Gen Z.10 As strong public approval has dovetailed with actual wins at workplaces,11 many commentators are observing the dawn of “Generation Union.”12
Gen Z is America's most pro-union generation
CAP’s analysis of 2020 ANES data confirms the higher support for labor unions among Gen Z and Millennials that a range of polling sources has observed. Both Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have a mean union approval rating of around 58, while Millennials average a 60.5 approval rating, and Gen Zers average 64.3. (see Figure 1) Young Americans’ strong support of unions is exceptional even compared with the historically high approval unions enjoy today among all generations—which an August 2022 Gallup survey found reached a record approval rating of 71 percent, the highest level achieved since 1965.13 These findings are consistent with existing research, including a 2021 Pew Research Center study, which noted that 69 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 reported feeling that “labor unions have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country,” compared with 55 percent of adults overall.14
Union approval ratings over time show that Millennials and Gen Zers have differed from their older counterparts in their attitudes toward unions. Mean union approval among Millennials and Gen Z has exceeded older generations’ approval of unions for years, especially as relatively pro-union Gen Xers’ attitudes toward unions converged with Baby Boomers in the 2000s. (see Figure 2) Additionally, mean union approval among young workers in 2020 exceeded the mean union approval of all previous high points achieved by Gen Xers and Baby Boomers since 1972. Young workers are not only more supportive of unions than older workers today, but also more supportive of unions than older generations were at their age.
Young workers are not only more supportive of unions than older workers today, but also more supportive of unions than older generations were at their age.
Although union approval was low among all generations for a period in the previous decade—likely a product of widespread distrust in economic institutions in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis—approval rebounded by 2016 and has grown rapidly since then, offering a sign of strong public faith in redistributive institutions as an antidote to economic inequality.15 Growing support today among Gen Xers and Baby Boomers has contributed to record union support nationwide, with Baby Boomers in particular registering their highest approval since 1972 and union approval across all generations continuing its steady climb during the past decade.
Young people support unions across race and ethnicity, education, ideology, and gender
A comparison of mean union approval ratings by demographic group within generations suggests that the high support for unions among young workers is the product of narrowing class, ideological, and gender divides in union attitudes, as well as of the growing diversity of America’s youth.
The racial and ethnic diversity of America’s younger generations has played a role in the strong overall union support among Gen Zers and Millennials. While 75.5 percent of Baby Boomers and 65.2 percent of Gen Xers are white, according to 2020 ANES data, only 59 percent of Millennials and 52.4 percent Gen Zers are white. The share of adults who identify as Hispanic or Latino—23.3 percent for Gen Zers and 16.4 percent of Millennials compared with only 12.6 percent of Gen Xers and 7.8 percent of Baby Boomers—has grown with each subsequent generation. This demographic shift toward a more diverse America, which will likely continue for decades,16 has played a role in shaping pro-union attitudes among younger Americans, as nonwhite workers typically support unions more than white workers.17
Not only have unions gained support among the young working class, but they have also overcome the long-standing divide between white-collar and blue-collar workers with increased support among workers with college degrees. Among older generations, individuals with four-year college degrees have a lower mean union approval rating than noncollege-educated individuals, but the approval gap between college-educated and noncollege-educated Millennials and Gen Zers has narrowed, with support increasing among Gen Zers with and without college degrees alike. (see Figure 3) For many young workers, a college degree is no longer the guarantee of a stable career that it once was,18 which has possibly encouraged young people to turn to unions as a source of stability and advancement in pay in the workforce19—even more so as public trust in big business has eroded.20 This increase in support among college-educated young people has been particularly consequential, as young people are more highly educated than previous generations, with 45.2 percent of Millennials having earned a four-year college degree in the 2020 ANES sample compared with 40.8 percent of Gen Xers and 36.2 percent of Baby Boomers. Gen Z is poised to continue that trend.21
Unions have also seen much of the long-standing ideological gap between Republicans and Democrats close. While Millennials and Gen Zers who identify as Democrats are still more favorable toward unions than those who identify as Republicans, mean union approval among Republicans has steadily grown among younger generations, with Gen Z and Millennial Republicans far closer to Democrats’ mean union approval than their counterparts in older generations. (see Figure 4) Young workers have historically expressed ambivalence toward the major parties, possibly eroding some long-standing partisan resistance to redistributive agents such as labor unions.22 Additionally, many young workers—members of Gen Z in particular—entered the workforce in an atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding either the 2008 financial crisis or the COVID-19 pandemic. Collective bargaining’s promise of better wages and more stable jobs that lead to greater wealth may hold more appeal to young people who may identify as Republicans.
Although there is evidence to suggest women find more value in unions than men—and union support among women has grown among younger generations—Gen Z has seen growth in union support among both men and women. Gen Z women have the highest mean union approval among women of any generation, and the mean union approval among Gen Z men has increased substantially in contrast to older generations, whose women are typically more supportive of unions than men. (see Figure 5) Much as unions narrow racial wealth and income gaps, they promote advancement for women in the workforce by narrowing gender pay gaps, shielding women from discrimination through contracts with just-cause protections, and offering high-quality training and apprenticeship opportunities.23 Unions’ crucial role in narrowing the gender pay gap may contribute to strong pro-union attitudes among women,24 especially as many sectors with a largely female workforce, such as home care, offer low wages and few worker protections.25 The benefits of union membership for income, wealth, and job stability may hold growing appeal for younger men as well.
Gen Z is the most supportive generation of organized labor today, partly due to its growing racial and ethnic diversity, but also its broad-based approval across class, ideology, and gender. Unions have attained increased support among both traditionally pro-union demographic groups, including women and the working class, as well as young individuals with college degrees, men, and Republicans. As more young people complete their education and enter the workforce, the trend of Millennial- and Gen Z-driven organizing on the basis of widespread pro-union consciousness among young workers may accelerate, promising organized labor a home in America’s workforce for decades to come.