How Young Americans Responded to 2020’s Major Moments

2020 will go into the history books as one of the most significant for social causes, including the ways Young Americans responded. Cause and Social Influence studied the actions by and influences on this cohort, ages 18-30, throughout the year in which three major movements occurred and published six reports sharing those findings related to:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic (April and May reports).
  • George Floyd’s death and the movement for racial equality, anti-discrimination, and social justice for Black Americans (June report).
  • The presidential election (October and November reports).

In December, we released our seventh and final report for the year, Cause and Social influence — 2020 Year in Review, in which we take a holistic look at all the data to identify consistencies and differences in behaviors and influences across all three of these major moments.

Key Findings

  1. Young Americans primarily took 3 actions to help others in 2020: Shop local, use social media, and sign petitions.
    • Shop local — This age group viewed changing the way they shop to help others, intentionally buying more local products and making their purchases from locally owned sellers. This was especially true at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak when nearly half (47%) reported taking this action in March – though about a third continued taking this action even as the other major moments unfolded.
    • Use social media — Overall, a quarter to a third of young Americans reported posting and/or sharing issue-related content on social media throughout our research period. The highest months were November at 37% (election) and June at 35% (racial equality).
    • Sign petitions — The group signed petitions circulated on social media and/or provided on a nonprofit’s website. This action was in the top three for half of the months we conducted research, with June as the most active month. Black Americans, particularly, signed petitions in the weeks immediately following Floyd’s death.
Actions Young Americans 18-30 Took to Help Others in 2020; Horizontal bar graph showing the top three actions taken on a monthly basis, March–June and October–November 2020.
(Click image to enlarge) Doing nothing was a popular action March–April, but signing petitions became common towards the end of the year.
  1. Calls to action most often reached young Americans through social media. Though 87% of this age group said they believe social media contains inaccurate information, calls to action that elicited involvement most often reached them via social media. The cellphone recording of Floyd’s death was shared so widely on social media it launched the year’s racial equality movement. In its wake, slightly more than a third of young Americans posted or shared content. However, the election prompted the highest social activity level with a slight margin; 37% posted during the 30 days preceding Election Day.
  2. Young Americans got their news primarily from Facebook and broadcast sources FOX News and CNN. Facebook as the preferred news source was followed by national cable news, specifically FOX News and CNN. Though FOX and CNN traded the two top broadcast spots in March, April, and May, FOX took the lead in June with Floyd’s death and stayed number one for at least 28 consecutive weeks.
  3. Online influencers/content creators as motivators for social action grew. At the start of COVID-19, about a third of young Americans relied on online influencers/content creators (those whose careers exist primarily online) and a fifth on celebrities (e.g., actors, athletes, musicians) for news about the virus. However, these sources rose in popularity with the issue of racial inequality and again with the presidential election. By November, half of the respondents said they were getting their information from online influencers/content creators — a noticeable increase over nine months — and almost a third from celebrities.
  4. Young Americans differed slightly in who they supported with volunteering vs. gifts. Animals/animal rights maintained a large and steady cadre of devotees all year. Respondents volunteered most for animal rights, followed by (in order) civil rights/racial discrimination/social justice, climate change, and healthcare reform. They made donations for (in order) animal rights, healthcare reform, and food banks. Overall giving in 2020 exceeded 2019, especially for donated goods, which tripled. The majority of respondents said their giving to the causes they typically support would not change after the election.

    For Which of the Following Social Issues And/or Causes Did You Donate? Horizontal bar graph showing issues respondents donated to in four months.
    (Click image to enlarge) Top issue by month — April: Healthcare Reform 34%, May: Food Bank 32%, October: I Did Not Donate 42%, November: Animals/Animal Rights 34%.
  5. Young Americans overwhelmingly supported a presidential candidate based on his position toward racial equity. The issue of racial inequality for Black Americans was the largest driver for young American voters in 2020, with 59% saying it was the basis of their decision to support a candidate. Consistent with these figures, 60% of young people in our samples voted for Joe Biden and 28% for President Trump on November 4.

    Respondents Cited the Following Issues as Their Top 5 Reasons for Choosing a Specific Candidate
    (Click image to enlarge) Black lives Matter 59%, COVID-19 44%, Budget and the economy 43%, Civil Rights (related to ethnicities/minorities other than Black Americans) 42%, Healthcare reform 38%.

Download the Cause and Social Influence — 2020 Year in Review to get all the detailed data and insights for each major moment, along with notable attitudes and trends related to each individually.

Derrick Feldmann
Managing Director and Principal Researcher
Derrick Feldmann is a sought-after speaker, researcher and advisor for causes and companies on social movements and issue engagement. He regularly speaks at events and organizations around the world on how causes and companies can drive public interest for social issues. He is author of three books, “Social Movements For Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change,” “Cause for Change: The Why and How of Nonprofit Millennial Engagement” and the just-released “The Corporate Social Mind: How Companies Lead Social Change From The Inside Out,” published by Fast Company Press. Derrick’s work is regularly cited as a reliable data source on today’s cause engagement. He currently splits his time between INFLUENCE|SG, a movement design studio working with leading brands and causes to research, ideate and test new movement approaches, and Ad Council Edge, the Ad Council’s strategic consulting division that advises during the formative stages of public engagement programs.