Born in the period 1997-2012 and now numbering some 70 million strong, Gen Z (also known through the monikers of Generation Z or zoomers) has emerged as an increasingly vocal and formidable political voice in American society. What factors have shaped this substantial demographic cohort, what are its key concerns and values, and does Gen Z’s influence have staying power?
Expectations surrounding Gen Z, already high, continue to expand. Having grown up immersed in social media and other technologies, Gen Z knows how to access information, collaborate with peers, communicate key messages and mobilize through the political process. Unlike the baby boom generation activists of the 1960s and 1970s, who were largely white and college enrolled or educated, Gen Z is more diverse in its composition, range of concerns and methods for advancing its agenda.
It also has a chip on its shoulder as it navigates the ageism of previous generations, challenges the various hierarchies of business, government and civil society, and seeks to overcome a host of inherited problems ranging from racism and sexism to climate change and college debt. As a result, Gen Z’ers identify less with the "city on a hill" vista proclaimed by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan or the search for the comfort of a suburban home than they do with advancing an agenda untethered by deference or tradition.
Why is Gen Z worth paying attention to and consequential for the longer run?
Gen Z has emerged from a unique social and political development process. John Della Volpe, who directs polling at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, has chronicled a number of determinative events that shaped Gen Z’s outlook in a book out last year. They include: gun violence/school shootings; the rise of hate speech and white nationalism; racism; climate change; inequality; sexual assault; and high debt associated with the pursuit of a college education
Such experiences have formed the intellectual and social outlook of Gen Z. In Della Volpe’s research, they have described America using the following terms: "terrifying," "broken," "divided," "declining" and "fake." Distilling these descriptors, Della Volpe portrays these post-millennials as "united by fear." In contrast to the baby boomers, Gen X or the millennials, "fear, stress and anxiety were the dominant forces shaping the generation."
Gen Z’ers have a wide-ranging agenda. Five events that have been particularly influential in defining Gen Z so far: the Occupy Wall Street movement; Donald Trump’s presidency; the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting; Greta Thunberg’s climate protests; and the murder of George Floyd.
According to Della Volpe, "Zoomers have endured more adversity than any generation of young Americans in at least 70 years. And they know it." Unlike their millennial predecessors, Gen Z has a greater sense of urgency to address what they believe are existential-scale threats to society. Many of these threats are structural in nature and point to institutional deficiencies (America’s broken political system) and not merely to shortcomings associated with individual policies or people.
Zoomers are having an impact. Gen Z’s political behavior is already demonstrating major consequences. Their lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton in 2016, alongside that of the African-American community, was an important factor explaining Donald Trump’s election as president, especially in critical battleground states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. By contrast, Trump administration policies provided focus and fuel to Gen Z’s more robust turnout for Joe Biden in 2020 and for Democrats in the Congressional midterms in 2022. Indeed, 63 percent of Gen Z’ers voted for Democrats in 2022, concluded a CNN House exit poll.
As more Gen Z’ers reach voting age, their potential political role could be further magnified. By 2028, the combined voting bloc of Gen Z and millennials is projected to be one-half of the entire American electorate. For those skeptical that Americans’ current support for taking action on climate change, reducing the scale of college debt or campaigning for an assault weapons ban will have staying power, these and other issues constitute the core of Gen Z’s political agenda.
Gen Z is likely to retain its progressive values over time. There is much skepticism over whether younger people, their ideas and lives still in a formative stage, will retain their youthful idealism and passions. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of evidence to support the argument that priorities and values acquired early in life are sustained over time. Younger people living through the Depression and fighting World War II exhibited values of thrift, patriotism and sacrifice that persisted across the decades of this generation.
Gen Z is neither optimistic nor idealistic about the future. Viewed through the prism of the issues they care about, much of the world that they know of and personally experience is in crisis. Politically, they have supported Democratic Party candidates, but this represents more of a pragmatic compromise than a longer-term institutional affiliation. At present, the Republican Party offers very few proposals to attract zoomers.
My recent conversation with several business school professors at Duke, the University of Vermont and Yale illustrated additional dynamics competing for zoomers’ attention. In year one of their two-year MBA program at each university, many of their students exhibited great passion for solving the world’s problems and becoming part of an effort bigger than themselves to devise solutions. By the end of their program, their views had evolved to cede greater prominence to their career choices, salaries and place of employment. Does this suggest a waning of their progressive values? Or, rather, in the opinion of my business school faculty colleagues, does this development reflect the persistence of the traditional business school curriculum focused on finance, marketing and other traditional economic concepts and tools that largely neglect thinking about sustainability and the needs of a changing planet?
No generation by itself, however knowledgeable or well-motivated, has had the capacity to singly change the course of American or world history. In many respects, however, Gen Z differs significantly from its predecessors through its broader recognition of global trends, connection to domestic and international peers, and willingness and skills to build intergenerational coalitions to achieve specific outcomes.
As for me, born smack in the middle of the baby boom cohort, I think my best strategy is to get the hell out of the way of the oncoming zoomers, open the door and provide encouragement and support for their formidable skills and commitments. They have earned the opportunity to lead and, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., possess the fierce urgency of now.