Can Generation Z Save America? (And Should They Have To?)

John Della Volpe Wonders If Demography Can Save Democracy

Families, tribes, sects, classes, cliques, clubs, and associations are all groups of individuals organized by either vital, existential ties of “proximity” or on the basis of one’s own free choice. Generations are fundamentally different. One cannot disassociate, leave, or pass from one to another. You don’t choose them. They choose you. Some are tight-knit; others have less solidarity. They don’t start and end on particular dates or flow in a certain predestined cycle or rhythm. Their lines are gray. Generations are what happen when a group of people coming of age share the experience of living through certain historical events. Values naturally emerge. They inform worldviews, ways of thinking that are carried for a lifetime.

This is the story of Generation Z. Its members include a group of about 70 million young people in America born in a roughly 20-year period beginning in the mid-1990s. They are the most diverse and most educated generation in history. Approximately half are white (non-Hispanic), a quarter are Hispanic, 14 percent are Black, 6 percent are Asian, and 5 percent are either of mixed race or another background.

Zoomers are more likely than any other generation to be raised in a household where at least one parent has a bachelor’s degree, and a majority of recent high school graduates are enrolled in a two- or four-year college or university.

Less than 80 percent of Gen Z put themselves in the straight or heterosexual bucket. Those in Gen Z are more than twice as likely (12 percent) as millennials to self-identify as bisexual, and six times as likely as Generation X. About one-third of Gen Zers say they know someone who prefers to use gender-neutral pronouns; this compares to a quarter of millennials and 16 percent of Gen Xers who say the same.

Tethered to their screens and connected to the world, Gen Zers have never known their country at peace. The oldest Zoomers, including my own children, were just starting their education when nineteen terrorists hijacked four airplanes on September 11, 2001, killing almost 3,000 people. They are old enough to have voted for or against Donald Trump in two presidential elections. The youngest Gen Zers were forced to attend elementary school from home during the COVID-19 lockdown. Many learned to write and solve math problems through Zoom; the joy that recess and play dates with non–socially distant friends can bring delayed.

Zoomers have endured more adversity than any generation of young Americans in at least 70 years.

Millennials, sometimes referred to as Generation Y, can be thought of as their older cousins. The oldest millennials, born when Reagan was president, are now settling into careers. Less likely than previous generations to have a spouse or children at this stage of their lives, those that do are snapping up suburban and exurban homes wherever they can. With community service and volunteerism in their DNA, many continue to serve their country, at home and through military service abroad. One even made a pretty good run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020 and now serves in the Biden cabinet.

The parents of Generation Z were mostly born in the 1960s and 1970s. We know them as Generation X, a label used at various times since the 1950s to describe alienated youths. In the 1980s, it finally stuck on a generation that displays “centrist tendencies in a political climate that celebrates the extremes” and is sandwiched between the larger “baby boomer” and millennial cohorts. Solidly middle aged, many are currently shepherding their children through high school or college, while caring for aging parents during their peak earning years. Gen X is shouldering much stress. Gen X writer Alex Williams reminds us that less than half of people born during this time consider themselves part of the generation; they lack the strong ties and central identity other generations have in common.

Generation Z’s grandparents commonly straddle two generations. Those in their sixties and early seventies represent baby boomers, so named after the uptick in the post–World War II birthrate that began in the mid-1940s. Others, who are now in their mid-seventies or older, are part of the silent generation, a relatively small bunch, born between the Great Depression and the start of the Second World War, that birthed rock and roll, the civil rights movement, and our current, 46th president.

To understand Generation Zers—who they are and why they do what they do—we need to understand who raised them, who came before, and who are still present in their lives. Millennials, Gen X, baby boomers, and the silent generation are coexistent with Generation Z. Zoomers are America’s younger cousins, children, and grandchildren. The values, actions, and attitudes of these older generations continue to shape, oppose, and, increasingly in turn, be shaped by those of Generation Z.

*

After traveling around the country in 2017, talking to Gen Zers from all walks of life, I soon became confident that young Americans were connecting the dots between the troubles now facing them, the generations of leaders who were disregarding their concerns, and a president who was uninterested in even paying lip service to the idea of national unity. They would soon turn their personal trauma into purpose that would upset politics as we know it.

A year later, after the heinousness of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and with the fighting spirit of Generation Z already taking hold, I identified, through the release of the Harvard IOP youth poll—a project I’ve directed since 2000—a once-in-a-generation attitudinal shift about the efficacy of participating in the political process. These findings, I believed, were the precursors of increased political participation and presence of young voters in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.

We have raised Zoomers to be an uncommonly empathetic generation.

At the time, respected political analysts and friends dismissed these conclusions, which were featured in a May 2018 New York Times article. Their analysis told a different story; they were not buying that young people would show up for a midterm election. I was reminded by them of the overhyped baby boomer, Generation X, and millennial youth voter waves of the past, that more often than not never fully crested. They weren’t wrong on that score. Missing from their calculus, though, was that every generation of young voters is unique—and I believed three (not equally weighted) factors stood this moment apart.

First and foremost was Donald John Trump and his extraordinary talent for making politics tangible, while tapping into and bringing out the very best and the very worst of people. His young, mostly white, and rural supporters were giddy. Borders were closing, and concrete was being poured on the southern border; their vote mattered. Hillary Clinton supporters were distraught: Obamacare was jeopardized, the environment imperiled, and white supremacists were marching in Charlottesville—again, the consequences of politics on full display.

Second, a powerful, purposeful, and diverse grassroots movement was forged from the literal and figurative assault on their generation in Florida—a movement committed to registering and turning out a new generation of voters with access to the technology and tools to turn their goals into reality.

Third, there was evidence that the actions of both Trump and the grassroots organizers were already having a discernible impact, as measured by spikes in Generation Z’s voter registration and increased participation in primary campaigns, like the one that toppled the chair of the US House Democratic Caucus and brought Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), a then-29-old activist, former waitress, and bartender from the Bronx, to Washington.

Unlike other election cycles, when young people were detached and struggled to discern the difference between the values of one party and the other, I could both feel Gen Z’s passion and also objectively measure its impact. In November 2018, Generation Z and other young Americans exceeded even the rosiest expectations and turned out in historic fashion to vote Trumpism out of office, though they would have to wait two more years to do the same for its namesake. Voters under age 30 doubled their participation relative to the last midterm election four years earlier; they also increased their share of the electorate by nearly one-third.

After listening to their concerns, tracking their progress, and seeing these election results, I became convinced that we were witnessing the earliest days of the members of a new generation facing their fears and claiming their stake in America.

One of the most challenging questions I ask Gen Zers today is to name the time in their lives when they were most proud to be American.

Generation Z, the youngest members of the under-30 youth cohort, was the catalyst for turning a good outcome into a great one for Democrats as they seized control of the House from Republicans in 2018. The 6-point margin Republicans received in 2014 shifted into an 8-point deficit four years later, a stunning 14-point turnaround. And no subgroup in the electorate shifted more in Democrats’ favor than young voters. According to analysis of the CNN-published exit polls, in 2014, voters under thirty supported Democratic candidates by 11 percentage points (54 percent to 43 percent); by 2018, the margin of support from this group more than tripled, to 35 percentage points (67 percent to 32 percent).

While participation in politics was narrowing the turnout gap between Generation Z and older generations, their views on bedrock American issues like capitalism, racial justice, inequality, democracy, climate change, the role of government, and our presence in the world were quickly diverging. Political differences along the lines of gender, education, race, and ethnicity have long been factored into electoral strategies, politics, and market forecasts. The generation gap, on the other hand—the increasingly differing views of Americans in their teens, twenties, and early thirties from those over sixty (sometimes over forty-five)—did not exist twenty years ago and is still largely underexamined. Yet it is the factor most likely to shape America’s future in the mid-21st century, as voting patterns have quickly revealed.

In 2000, when the first millennial was eligible to vote, young and older Americans supported Al Gore and George W. Bush at about equal rates. However, by the time of the 2018 midterms, the first referendum on the presidency of Donald Trump, Generation Z favored Democrats by a striking 37 points. Among voters slightly older, between the ages of 25 and 29, the Democratic margin was 33 points.

In the 2020 general election, as greater numbers of Gen Z came of age, modern youth-turnout records were broken. The share of the youth vote increased, and Joe Biden’s share of the under-30 cohort was larger than in every other Democratic campaign this century, with the exception of Obama’s in 2008.

A values-based ideological gap that divides Americans by year of birth, mostly nonexistent in 2000, is now a driving force in local and national political contests. Every day younger and older Americans wake up to different Americas. Many older people still see their country as the “shining city on a hill” that Puritan John Winthrop envisioned almost 400 years ago and that 20th-century presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan invoked at key junctures in their political careers. The coming-of-age experiences of Generation Z, on the other hand, marked by rising inequality, discrimination, an endangered environment, and a fractured politics, comprise a conscious rejection of American exceptionalism.

“If we want to make our best guess (net of age) about what a person thinks or what kinds of practices he or she engages in, we would be better off knowing what year the person was born than what year we are observing them.”

One of the most challenging questions I ask Gen Zers today is to name the time in their lives when they were most proud to be American. More often than not, I get blank stares, or examples of random sporting events like the USA soccer team finally beating Ghana in a 2017 friendly match. I’ve found that young Americans have no such trouble answering my follow-up question about a time when they were ashamed of their country.

Young people vote, or engage in any activity, when they seize upon the material difference participation can make. That is the first lesson I learned from studying millennials before 9/11 and through the Bush, Obama, Trump, and now Biden years. Stifling economic inequality, Donald Trump’s presidency, the March for Our Lives movement, George Floyd’s murder, and the specter of climate change have made politics come alive for this generation.

Generation Z knows the difference it made in the 2018 Democratic takeover of the House, in electing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in 2020, and in Democrats regaining control of the Senate in January 2021. Gen Zers are also aware that youth involvement in 2016 nearly anointed Bernie Sanders as the leader of the Democratic Party, while their lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton helped elect Donald Trump.

Social-change-theory experts Stephen Vaisey and Omar Lizardo say that “if we want to make our best guess (net of age) about what a person thinks or what kinds of practices he or she engages in, we would be better off knowing what year the person was born than what year we are observing them.” Following this approach argues against the theory that today’s young voters will abandon progressive values for conservatism as they age. My research, too, suggests that this won’t happen. Instead, Generation Z has placed the issues raised from my 2017 focus groups—the ones keeping Gen Zers up at night, and the ones holding America back—at the forefront of our national agenda.

They will change America more than growing up in America will change them.

When I was sharing this thesis with friends, I was asked more than once, “So, why does Gen Z fight?” We are fortunate to live in the “richest” society the world has ever known. A place where a biracial son of a single mother can be president, and a Black, Asian American woman can be vice president. Millions of Americans are doing just fine, living out the American Dream, struggles and all. But what Generation Z understands, even at this young age, is that others are not doing well. Tens of millions of Americans are struggling in important and consequential ways. We have raised Zoomers to be an uncommonly empathetic generation.

They may see things that others do not. They may feel obliged to “correct us” during a family dinner or challenge what we have grown to accept. There’s nothing wrong with this. We can talk it out. They love a debate. But don’t be fooled; change is in the air.

As a consequence of an unfolding climate crisis, economic upheaval, gun violence, civil unrest, and increasingly brazen displays of intolerance, white nationalism, and hate, Zoomers have endured more adversity than any generation of young Americans in at least 70 years. And they know it. The failure of older generations to resolve these challenges weighs heavy on them. For them, America at times has resembled a dystopia. But they won’t sit back and take it. They’ve decided to fight their own war against injustice and inequality right here at home. They can be this century’s “Greatest Generation.” Every day, they are fighting for America’s future. And they’re already winning, causing a sea change in politics, the economy, society, and the ways we live, love, and work.

If you want to understand what America will be like ten, twenty, thirty years from now, it starts with Generation Z.

______________________________

From Fight, by John Della Volpe, courtesy St. Martin’s Press. Copyright 2022, John Della Volpe.

John Della Volpe
John Della Volpe
John Della Volpe is the Director of Polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, where he has led the institute’s polling initiatives on understanding American youth since 2000. The Washington Post referred to John as one of the world’s leading authorities on global sentiment, opinion and influence especially among Millennials and in the age of digital and social media. John appears regularly on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and his insights on the Millennial generation are found in national media outlets in the U.S. and abroad, including the Daily Show with Trevor Noah.





More Story
Zora Neale Hurston on What White Publishers Won’t Print This essay was originally published in Negro Digest in April, 1950. I have been amazed by the Anglo-Saxon’s lack of curiosity...