Finding fault lines in the next generation

GenForward’s extensive in-depth interviews reveal how young adults experience Chicago

For more than two years, the innovative GenForward survey has polled thousands of young people across the United States—particularly those of color—about their views on everything from education to immigration to racism.

Founded by Prof. Cathy Cohen, a leading scholar on race and politics at the University of Chicago, the first-of-its-kind project has received nationwide attention for its examination of adults under the age of 35—an understudied and over-generalized demographic. The bi-monthly survey fills a gap in the national discourse, which often ignores young people of color even when they are disproportionately affected by pressing political issues.

“Whose voices matter, and whose voices are we listening to?” said Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science. “It’s hard to think about the country, where we’ll be in 10 years or even two years, if we’re not paying close attention to how young people are thinking about the world.”

Past surveys have produced new understandings of millennials through robust national polling. For its latest project, GenForward adopted a different methodology and a local focus for the first time.

Released Jan. 28, the study zeroes in on Chicago to understand how young adults—especially young adults of color—experience the city differently from their white peers. “Race & Place: Young Adults and the Future of Chicago” is based on 200 in-depth interviews with residents between the ages of 18 and 29 in the summer and fall of 2017. Researchers spoke to young people across the city, but targeted most of their interviews in five neighborhood areas of different demographic compositions.

UChicago PhD candidates Margaret Brower and David Knight proposed the project to Cohen and co-directed the study, believing this research would center the voices of young Chicagoans and illuminate how experiences and opportunities diverge within a single city.

“We were disturbed by the negative and narrow focus on marginalization and gun violence in the dialogue on Chicago’s young people,” Knight said. “That’s never the whole story. We wanted to understand how young adults, particularly those of color, negotiate the city’s myriad constraints in order to find safety and dignity, and craft a future for themselves and their communities. We wanted to capture that complexity.”

“When we pay attention to the stories of young people,” Brower said, “we start to see a clearer picture of what inequality, opportunity and resistance look like in our city.

“These narratives help us reimagine a Chicago where all young people can thrive, discover joy and experience power—regardless of where they grow up and live in the city. This report is meant to help facilitate that conversation.”

Among its many findings, the report discovered 36 percent of young Chicagoans want to eventually leave the city due to safety concerns, racial inequalities and lack of opportunities. For young adults in Englewood, which is predominately black, that figure rose to nearly 43 percent.

Those responses may not bode well for local population trends. Chicago was the only major American city to lose population from July 2016 to July 2017, dropping 0.14 percent for a net loss of 3,825 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Eleven of the 24 other largest cities in the United States saw population spikes of over 11,000, with San Antonio and Phoenix gaining more than 24,000.

The study revealed widespread concern and disappointment about the responsiveness of politicians, access to quality education, public safety and discrimination by police in neighborhoods that are predominately African-American and Latinx. It also detailed how attitudes toward such issues differed between young people of color and young white adults—as well as where their thoughts overlapped and intersected.

Rethinking ‘two Chicagos’

The results, Cohen said, disrupt the popular idea of “two Chicagos,” an oversimplification that flattens the nuances in how various communities experience racism.

For example, nearly all young black adults from Englewood surveyed felt discriminated against in job interviews or in the workplace because they often had to leave their neighborhood for employment. Latinx and Asian-American youth, on the other hand, were at times more insulated from such discrimination—thanks in part to economic opportunities provided by Latinx- and Asian-owned businesses within those neighborhoods.

Perceptions of freedom varied among different groups of young adults, according to the study results. African-Americans more frequently described freedom as a personal attitude and outlook, while Latinx young adults stressed self-acceptance and appreciation. Asian-Americans often described freedom in terms of economic opportunity and prosperity, while a plurality of young white Chicagoans reported feeling free everywhere in the city.

Many respondents also highlighted how they remain attached to Chicago. Young adults in Chinatown-Bridgeport, Englewood and Pilsen cited their bonds with their families and communities—and feeling safe despite what they called inaccurate media portrayals of their neighborhoods.

Asked where he felt happiest, one 23-year-old Latino resident responded with “right here in Pilsen.”

“I like seeing people walk around and smelling the bakery, the fresh bread,” he said, “and seeing people dressed up to go to work and seeing parents drop off their kids and talk to other parents.”

These are the types of voices Cohen has worked for years to elevate. In 2005, she launched the Black Youth Project as a platform to highlight the concerns and ideas of black millennials. About a decade later, she founded GenForward, using survey data to detail the attitudes of millennials and the complexity of their lived experience.

For Cohen, this latest project represents not only an academic venture, but a chance to “give back to the city where we live.”

“There are many ways in which these young people love Chicago,” she said. “It is imperative that we assess if the city is meeting the needs of young people so we can begin to build a Chicago that these young people deserve.”