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Politics & Policy

5 ways San Francisco’s younger voters differ from their elders

Abortion rights activists participate in Pride in San Francisco, Calif., on Sunday, June 26th, 2022. Juliana Yamada/The Standard

Gen Z and millennials have taken on politics by storm, holding national electeds’ feet to the fire on issues like gun violence prevention and climate change. And they’re invested in local politics, too: Gen Zers like this teenage transit advocate have advanced important conversations about San Francisco’s biggest issues. 

While voters aged 18 to 34 are the city’s most progressive, their voices are often left out. A large chunk of zoomers have yet to reach voting age; voter turnout among younger generations remains abysmally low nationwide; and few elected officials in SF identify as a millennial or Gen Zer. 

About 28% of San Francisco voters are between the ages of 18 and 34, according to The Standard’s Fall Voter Poll. A third work in the tech industry, nearly all are Democrats, a majority are public transit riders and SF’s youngest voters are more than twice as likely as the average San Franciscan to be currently dating someone—sound about right for the fast-paced 20-somethings of the city? 

Check out our findings below to see how younger voters see politics and culture in San Francisco. 

SOTA students walk out of class on April 15, 2022 to protest sexual assault on campus. | Camille Cohen

1. Younger voters are SF’s most transient population … but also some of the happiest residents.

Though more Gen Zers will reach voting age and swell the vote in the coming years, younger San Franciscans are still the most likely to leave the city soon. 

About 23% of young voters intend to leave SF in the short-term, compared with just 16% of all voters. Only a third of younger folks say they want to stay in SF for the long-term—a finding underscored by data from the 2021 American Community Survey, which showed that young people comprised 69% of the 58,000 people who left SF between 2020 and 2021. 

And yet, voters aged 18 to 34 report the highest levels of satisfaction out of any age group in San Francisco. Nearly half of young voters are somewhat or very satisfied with living in the city, compared with just 37% of all voters. 

Maybe it’s the ample outdoor space, bars and restaurants or beaches—whatever the case, young people love San Francisco, and have historically reported higher levels of satisfaction than their older peers. The Standard’s Spring Voter Poll showed Gen Z and millennials were the happiest generation with life in the city, and other figures point to the city as a job-friendly, trendy place for young folks.

Allan Ndovu, 26, and Allison Lettiere, 23, sunbathe with Lettiere’s roommates’ dogs in San Francisco in Golden Gate Park.
Allan Ndovu, 26, and Allison Lettiere, 23, sunbathe with Lettiere’s roommates’ dogs in San Francisco, on August 14, 2022. | Marissa Leshnov for The Standard

2. Housing seen as a top concern to young voters

With two different housing measures on the November ballot, housing has become a hot-button topic in local politics. Turns out, young voters are the age group most concerned about housing affordability—perhaps because they have had less opportunity to accumulate wealth and navigate a crazy real estate market to purchase a home. 

Like LGBTQ+ voters, younger poll respondents expressed concerns about the rising NIMBY movement in SF, questioning byzantine permitting and construction processes that, in their minds, have blocked new housing and left behind the city’s vulnerable populations. 

“I'm a fifth-generation San Franciscan, who grew up with civil servant parents in the Outer Mission,” said Kyle, a 33-year-old living in the west side of the city. “I currently live with three roommates while being a full-time teacher and just wish I could afford at least the studio on my own.”

These concerns seem to have pushed younger voters to support affordable, below market-rate housing, at rates much higher than their older peers: Nearly half of voters aged 18 through 34 say they want to see all types of housing built, and two-thirds say they want to allow single-family homes to be split into multiple units to increase available housing. 

Younger voters don’t have a lot of love for the tech industry either, voicing concerns that its sky-high salaries have made SF inaccessible to service workers and creatives. Half of young voters wish the city were less dependent on the tech industry—all the while maintaining that they worry about the increasing emptiness of downtown

“Folks deserve to live and thrive in SF without paying more than half their wages in rent, and the city should be working to incentivize artists and young people to live here and continue building our communities up," said Brooke, a 32-year-old woman. 

3. Support for Progressive Crime and Punishment Policies 

As with housing, younger voters also tend to support more progressive policies surrounding crime and homelessness. Voters aged 18 to 34 were less supportive of the San Francisco Police Department, as well as more critical of policies meant to increase SFPD’s access to private surveillance cameras. 

At 86%, young voters also honed in on the city’s homelessness crisis and its root causes, with two-thirds attributing the crisis to drug abuse and lack of support for the mentally ill. 

Another 52% see drug addiction as a core part of the problem; and half think the city should support supervised injection sites for drug users. Echoing their more progressive stances on policing and crime, young voters were less likely to see police arrests for drug dealing/usage as a viable solution for homelessness in SF. 

“The city is beautiful and amazing in some parts but also just a cluster of human suffering in others,” said Philip, a 25-year-old man who identifies as an independent. “I think we've taken an approach that leaves people with low executive function and mental illness to rot. That is terribly demoralizing.”

4. Liberal Gen Zers and millennials pushed toward the center

Both nationally and in San Francisco, younger voters lean left on the political spectrum—a fact that may have driven SF’s younger voters to support more progressive crime policies and rehabilitative approaches to drug use. 

Yet, a sizable number of Gen Zers and millennials still say that they became less progressive over the last year. 

The cause for shifting tides? Perhaps the same web of challenges plaguing most SF voters: concerns about safety, crime and dirty streets, as well as dwindling faith in City Hall

Even so, all signs point to younger voters’ continued leftward lean, with 77% identifying as Democrats, up 11% from spring polling. Many also tend to see progressive policies as crucial, but ultimately unrealized or poorly implemented in San Francisco. 

"I'm really frustrated by how inaccessible San Francisco has become to live in and how many of my childhood friends who were born and raised here have been pushed out because they can't afford to live here, and/or because of the anti-Black racism,” said Lauren, a 32-year-old. “I think San Francisco would be more progressive if it were more accessible and that more progressive policies would make it more accessible.”

5. Politically active, but still the most apathetic. 

Though most San Franciscans polled by The Standard said they felt increasingly compelled to vote in the November general election, younger voters can’t seem to find the motivation to care. 

Just 47% of voters aged 18 to 34 report feeling extremely motivated to vote—even though 40% think voting is an effective way to improve city politics. Nonetheless, young voter motivation has steadily increased in the lead-up to the November election.

National studies find that youth voters may instead seek alternative forms of political activity, such as the recent student-led protests about sexual assault at SF public schools, and other local demonstrations surrounding reproductive rights and Iranian freedom.

Amid a global pandemic, a worsening climate crisis and attacks on reproductive rights, young people are demanding more from their local and national leaders. Many Gen Z and millennial voters see their activism and advocacy as a core feature of what makes San Francisco diverse and progressive.

“It is the variety of communities that I am in that is the strongest indicator of my love for this city,” said Jacob, a 29-year-old man living on the west side of SF. “Some of these communities could only exist in this unique environment. The liberal and vibrant culture of SF is a fabulous foundation for which these communities can grow.”

Karen Kwong, a senior at SOTA leads, chants as students walk through the school to protest Sexual Assault on campus on April 15, 2022. | Camille Cohen