Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Younger Americans’ Reading and Library Habits

Part 1: Younger Americans’ changing reading habits

Technology use and gadget ownership

The changing reading habits chronicled in our recent reports are intrinsically tied to the new formats and devices on which people read. In our late 2011 national survey, we found that younger Americans have high levels of ownership of mobile devices like cell phones and laptops, especially compared with adults ages 65 and older.

Of course, age is not the only factor at play—we also see strong correlations by education and household income. And there is not always a straightforward correlation; for instance, though adults 65 and older are the age group least likely to own any of the gadgets we asked about, adults in their thirties and forties most likely to own e-readers and tablets.6

Younger Americans are also online at higher rates than older adults: More than nine out of ten Americans ages 16-29 (95%) use the internet or email, compared with 78% of adults over age 30.

Our online panel of young e-book borrowers tended to describe themselves as tech-savvy and constantly connected. A respondent in his late twenties wrote that he is “always” online: “I keep my email and browser with Facebook running all the time. I use it constantly throughout the day. I use my phone for texting and receiving weather alerts. I connect my laptop to my TV to watch Netflix. I try to keep up to date on the latest devices.” A high school-aged panelist said, “I use the computer and my iPod Touch all the time to talk with my friends online, email, social networking, picture editing, homework, shopping, just about anything.”

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Another college-aged panelist wrote that while she has many devices, there are some things they can’t replace:

[college student]

Others did not see themselves as early adopters in general; as a college-aged panelist wrote, “I’m not very tech-savvy, but I love my e-reader!”

Echoing the responses from the rest of the panel, many of our younger respondents cited the high cost of new gadgets as a reason for not always staying up with the latest technology trends. “I like to wait to get digital devices until the second or third version and the price has dropped and they’ve worked the major bugs out,” one college-aged panelist told us, adding: “I am not a huge fan of using the internet on the go, but like being able to carry a Kindle with me; it’s lighter and smaller than a book, but has a whole library on it.” Another panelist, a woman in her late-twenties wrote, “I’m a web designer who loves new gadgets but can rarely afford them—so I’m an early adopter of concepts, but not usually of the product.”

Though our e-book borrowing panelists were by definition e-book readers, they didn’t necessarily prefer digital to print, as a respondent in her late twenties described: “I am a very reluctant technology user. I only occasionally request e-books, as I prefer the overall experience of reading an actual book. It somehow feels more warm and personal. However I do take advantage of digital audiobooks from the library, which are very convenient to use while in the car or even while shopping.” A college-aged panelist wrote that while he uses his gadgets for web browsing and other activities, he only reads books on his e-reader— “I don’t like to read on computer screens similar to my tablet and computer monitors.”

Reasons for reading

As discussed in one of our previous reports, we asked all of the respondents in our late-2011 national survey their main reasons for reading. This question is meant to explore respondents’ reasons for reading any type of content, including books, magazines, journals, newspapers, and online content. Among all Americans:

  • 80% of all Americans ages 16 and older say they read at least occasionally for pleasure, including 76% of those under age 30.
  • 78% of all Americans say they read at least occasionally to keep up with current events, including 73% of those under age 30.
  • 74% of all Americans say they read at least occasionally in order to do research on specific topics that interest them, including 81% of those under age 30.
  • 56% of all Americans say they read at least occasionally for work or school, including 81% of those under age 30.7

In general, younger respondents are more likely to read for work or school, or to research topics of interest to them; older respondents are generally more likely to read for pleasure, or to keep up with current events.

As shown above, respondents ages 16-29 are somewhat less likely than adults 30 and older to say they read for pleasure; 76% of those younger than 30 read for this reason, compared with 81% of adults 30 and older.

Younger Americans, particularly high schoolers, are more likely than older age groups to say they read to keep up with current events “a few times a week,” while older adults are more likely to say they do so every day (and are more likely to read for this reason overall).

High schoolers and adults 65 and older are less likely to say they read in order to research specific topics they are interested in; college-aged adults, as well as those in their late twenties and thirties, are more likely than other age groups to say they read for this reason.

Finally, high schoolers (ages 16-17) are the age group most likely to read daily for work or school: 68% read for work or school every day or nearly every day—significantly more than college-aged adults (52%)—and they are most likely to read for this reason overall.

Reading habits: Books

According to our December 2011 national survey:

  • 72% of all Americans ages 16 and older read at least one book in the past year in print, including 75% of those under age 30.
  • 17% of all Americans read at least one e-book, including 19% of those under age 30.
  • 11% listened to at least one audiobook, including 11% of those under age 30.

Overall, 78% of all Americans—and 83% of those under age 30—had read at least one book in any format in the previous 12 months.8

Though the adults over age 65 who read books read significantly more books in the past year than most younger age groups, there are no statistically significant differences by age group based on the median number of books read. (At the same time, those over age 65 were also significantly more likely than younger respondents to have read no books in the previous year.)

The following chart shows both the mean (average) number and median (midpoint) number of books read by members of each age group in the previous year.

What younger readers like most about reading books

We also asked all of those who had read a book in the past 12 months to tell us what they like most about reading books. The most common response overall was learning, gaining knowledge, and discovering information; others mentioned escaping reality, becoming immersed in another world, and the enjoyment they got from using their imaginations. In general, different age groups often cited the same reasons for reading, but some differences stood out.

Adults in their forties, fifties, and early sixties, for instance, were more likely than other readers to say they most enjoyed relaxing while reading and having quiet time. And the very youngest readers, high schoolers ages 16-17, were more likely than other age groups to say they especially liked the entertainment value of reading—the drama of good stories, or the suspense of watching a good plot unfold. (This was also the reason most often given by this age group for reading overall.)

Books read over the past year, by format

In addition to books read overall, we also asked readers whether they had read books in various formats over the past year. As a rule, book readers in each cohort were equally as likely to have read a printed book in the past year. But there were generational differences that emerged when it came to other formats:

  • Among book readers, high schoolers (ages 16-17), along with readers over 65, are less likely than other age groups to have read an e-book in the past year. Overall, 16% of all those ages 16 and older read an e-book in the past year–that amounts to 21% of the book readers in our sample.
  • Book readers over age 30 are somewhat more likely to have read a print book in the past year than readers ages 16-29 (93% vs 90%). Overall, 93% of all readers 16 and older read a print book in the past year.
  • Readers in their late 20s (ages 25-29) are somewhat more likely than other age groups to have listened to an audiobook. Overall, 14% of all readers 16 and older listened to an audiobook in the past year.

Previous reports have shown that despite the growing popularity of e-readers and tablets, a substantial proportion of e-book readers access their e-books on desktops, laptops, and cell phones.9 In fact, just as many e-book readers consume e-books on a desktop or laptop computer as on a dedicated e-reader (such as a Kindle or Nook), and more people read e-books on their cell phones than on tablet computers.

However, there are significant differences in e-reading habits by age. When adults over age 30 read e-books, almost half (46%) do so on an e-reader. Yet e-book readers under age 30 are actually less likely than older e-book readers to own e-readers, and instead consume their e-books on a desktop or laptop computer (55%) or cell phone (41%).

Reading “yesterday”

Among people read a book in the past year, 47% of those ages 16-29 (and 45% of all readers) said they had been reading a book the day before they were contacted for our survey. These “yesterday” readers can paint a picture about what a “typical day” of book readers looks like. In this case, high schoolers and those ages 50 and older are generally more likely than other age groups to say they read a book “yesterday.”10

In addition, high school-age readers, college-aged readers, and readers 65 and older are more likely to say that they read a print book yesterday, while readers in their late twenties, thirties, and forties are more likely to say they read an e-book or audiobook yesterday.

Magazines and newspapers

When we asked about regular news consumption, we found a clear correlation with age:

  • Some 40% of Americans under age 30 regularly read daily news or newspapers, compared with 62% of older adults.
  • Younger Americans are also are less likely to read newspapers on any particular day; among these regular news readers, 56% of those under age 30 read news on a typical day, compared with 78% of those over 30.
  • Additionally, among regular news readers, 71% of those under age 30 consume their news on a computer or handheld devices such as a tablet, e-reader, or cell phone, compared with 51% of older adults.

Younger Americans are less likely than older adults to regularly read magazines or journals, but the differences are less stark than with news:

  • 42% of those under age 30 regularly read magazines or journals, compared with 50% of older adults.
  • Among those who regularly read magazines and journals, 36% of those under age 30 do so on a typical day, compared with 48% of older adults.
  • 45% of magazine and journal readers under age 30 read their magazines or journals on a computer or handheld devices such as a tablet, e-reader, or cell phone, compared with 30% of older adults.

How patron’s reading habits have changed since reading and borrowing e-books.

We asked those who read e-books and those who read digital versions of newspapers, magazines, and journals whether the availability of content in this relatively new format prompted them to spend more time reading now, compared with the past. Overall, 43% of Americans (and 47% of those under age 30) read long-form e-content such as books, magazines or newspapers. Some 30% of all these e-content readers, and 40% of those under age 30, say that they spend more time reading than they used to due to the availability of e-content. Just 28% of e-content readers over age 30 say they are reading more due to the availability of digital content.

“I am reading more now that I have purchased an e-reader,” a college-aged panelist wrote. “I find that by having an e-reader I have developed a habit of reading in my spare time (it’s very convenient to take my e-reader with me) and I am discovering more books to read on my device,” he said. “I read more because I read when I would normally not have a book and be wasting time,” another college-aged respondent said, such as when he has to wait in a line or during the 10-minute break between classes. In fact, many respondents of all ages said that they enjoyed reading a few pages throughout the day on their cell phones, although the practice is more common among younger readers.

Another respondent said that the novelty of her e-reader sometimes made reading more enjoyable. “Having a Kindle definitely makes reading feel a little more fun sometimes,” she said. “Instant access to a new book is very fun too. Whatever you are in the mood for reading and it is right there!”

A respondent in her late twenties described how she fell in love with a whole new format: “Audiobooks changed my life. I can listen to them anywhere and I can enjoy new stories and new types of books without the trouble of having to carry around a lot of stuff with me or fighting with confusing words or font sizes, and I rarely have to worry about getting to my book when I want because the book is usually available.”

Others said that their reading habits hadn’t changed very much. One respondent in his late twenties said that he was more likely to read books while traveling because of the e-reader smaller size and lighter weight, but otherwise was not reading more in general. Another respondent wrote that her habits haven’t changed drastically, and if anything she has a greater appreciation for print books. “I read at least five print books to every one e-book I read. I am almost doing less ‘impulse’ reading because it does not seem worth it to me to click on the extra page for the rest of the summary on something that didn’t look that interesting to begin with. With a print book, it’s very easy to flip it over or open it up to read the blurb.”

“I am reading romance novels for the first time, because that’s the largest category of e-books at our library, and because nobody can see that I’m reading an embarrassing book with an e-reader,” an e-book borrower in her late twenties told us. “I’d say I’m reading more, but part of that is because I want to make the purchase of the e-reader worth it. Also, it fits easily in my purse so I have it with me most of the time. I try to read instead of playing games on my phone, now, which is harder to do with physical books.  Also, reading in bed is easier, because I can lay on one side without having to figure out how to move the book every page to see either the left/right page.”

Among those who had read both print books and e-book in the past year, readers young and old generally agreed on when each format is best. However, younger respondents ages 16-29 were more likely than adults ages 30 and older to say that e-books are better than print books for having a wide selection of books to choose from.

  1. The most recent data available for ownership of all devices is available on our website:
  2. More information is available in “The rise of e-reading” (2012):
  3. The Pew Internet Project updated the book-reading and e-book reading figures after the holiday gift-giving season and reported on those higher figures in “The rise of e-reading” (2012):
  4. Overall, 42% of e-book readers read their books on a computer; 41% read them on a dedicated e-reader like a traditional Kindle or Nook; 29% read them on their cell phones, and 23% read them on a tablet computer. See: “E-books aren’t just for e-readers: A deep dive into the data”
  5. As the national 2011 survey was in the field from November 16-December 21, 2011, the number of college-aged students who said they were reading a book “yesterday” may be influenced by final exams and holiday breaks.
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