Who is responsible for the war in Ukraine? The obvious answer is Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. But many argue Putin’s actions were made possible by the weakness of NATO, and perhaps of the entire post-World War II international system. Our confidence in these crucial institutions is facing a high-stakes test — and the stakes are even higher for observers under the age of 25.
Trust in our foundational institutions is down among Americans of all ages, but it’s particularly striking among the young. According to Pew Research Center studies, about half of Americans ages 50 and older say they trust business leaders, but only 34% of youth do. Likewise, 38% of older Americans trust elected officials, while 34% of youth do. And 28% of older Americans trust government; youth, just 25%.
This is a dangerous trend.
Nearly 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville observed a nation that could handle a freewheeling public sphere because of the extraordinary strength of its trusted institutions. But that strength is faltering. When we don’t trust the media, for example, our sense of shared reality degrades, wreaking havoc on our political system.
And today’s culture encourages us all, but especially youth, to opt out of relationships with people who don’t believe what we do — even if they’re family.
Manu Meel, president of youth bridge-building organization BridgeUSA, provides a compelling analysis of young people’s distrust. The foundational experiences of Gen Z’s political consciousness, he explains, all reflect profound failures of institutions.
For example, 22-year-olds graduating from college this year were age 1 when the 9/11 terrorist acts occurred, and they grew up during the Iraq War. In 2008, at age 8, they watched their families suffer due to the flagrant failure of the most powerful economic institutions. In 2016, at age 16, they saw Donald Trump elected, splitting the country into distinct and vitriolic camps.
And as college sophomores in 2020, they saw the rise of a global pandemic untamed by the best health care institutions in the world — and the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
No youth I’ve spoken with claims the world now is worse overall than what the Baby Boomers lived through. And not all young people feel the same. But most report feeling unable to trust that America’s institutions conduct their affairs in a remotely ethical way. They feel a burden on their shoulders individually to ensure their actions don’t contribute to injury. As one student put it, “We understand ourselves as actors in systems. We don’t want to participate in harm.”
Not all institutions are mistrusted equally. Young men and women I interviewed had a relatively positive perspective on doctors and hospitals, for example. They despise “Big Pharma” but support health care workers (and, by extension, hospitals), perhaps due to pandemic heroism.
Youth have a strong tendency to judge an institution by its essential, deep nature. This leads them to write off some institutions. The police, for example, are seen as fundamentally irredeemable because of the claim that the institution has roots in slavery. To some young people, this overrides any good an individual officer might do. As one young person said, “If I were to support that institution, I would be committing a crime against my fellow man.”
On the other hand, this tendency can lead youth to value the ideal of an institution, even if it’s not currently living up to that image. For example, one young person said she really values Congress in the abstract; she just doesn’t like the people in it now. To my surprise, this self-described leftist said, “I miss when we thought the Founding Fathers were smart not to force senators to be elected. Now they spend all their time trying to win popularity votes.”
John Tomasi, president of Heterodox Academy and a professor at Brown University, comments that the single word that best describes his students’ culture and affect is “vigilant.” This makes sense: If you can’t trust your elders and your institutions to be ethical, you have to be constantly on the alert yourself. You are responsible for ensuring moral outcomes, so you must be vigilant, with your purchases, your social media posts, your parents, your language and your peers.
Moral vigilance untethered to a deep, complex tradition of belief is a dangerous thing. Especially without a framework for forgiveness, it is destructive to individuals, relationships and institutions — to the very fabric of society. We see the first fruits of this in the destructive rise of cancel culture, which encourages mass shunning of individuals and groups due to a single instance of “problematic” speech or behavior.
So how do we win back the trust of Gen Z? How do we liberate them to trust that they are not alone in pursuing an ethical world, and that they can count on their institutions to be beacons of foundational values?
First, we should acknowledge the validity in their critiques. Some institutions have gone downhill, according to such venerable scholars as Yuval Levin, who argues that the rot in institutions is a function of shifting from being “formative” — organizations that shape the character of their people — to “performative,” platforms that people use as a megaphone to shout what they were already going to say.
Second, we should encourage institutions to hold to their core values instead of bending to activist and financial pressure.
Institutions exist to enshrine certain sets of values in an enduring structure: for the media, objective truth; for health care, healing; for the military, protection and service. But these days, due to the enormous pressure from activism and image-focused leadership, you are more likely to see a PR campaign on diversity or environmental sustainability than those core virtues.
Third, institutions must make the case for trust. This means engaging with critiques and the people who level them. As Joy Mayer, the director of Trusting News, an organization that helps newsrooms regain the trust of local citizens, says, “Some newsrooms say ‘Conservative readers don’t believe our facts? Not my problem.’ But when our country is this divided, that isn’t good enough. You have to find ways to reach those folks.”
Her organization teaches newsrooms to spell out why they believe a particular fact is true. Put the sources, and why they are credible, in the article. There was a time when people believed journalists were doing their factual due diligence, but that era is over. To win back trust, institutions must make explicit what has been presumed.
In other words, don’t assume people know that you follow the Hippocratic oath; tell them how. Don’t assume people know your traffic-stop policy keeps vulnerable people safe; tell them exactly why you believe it will.
These solutions are simple, though not easy. To win the trust of young people, and all Americans, institutions must become trustworthy by living out their values even when things get hot. Then, they must make the case for trust, explaining why their actions manifest their values. If they rise to this challenge, our institutions will again earn our trust for decades to come.
April Lawson is director of debates for the nonprofit Braver Angels.