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Gen Z is paving the way for activism by country's youngest voters

Updated: Nov 20, 2020

It is not uncommon in popular culture to see young characters win in a fight against a seemingly stronger, greater force and save the world. Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen and Beatrice Prior have been the young heroes and heroines of our favorite stories.

They fight tyranny with passion, a power in numbers and elaborate communication and organization.

But this kind of resistance is not just in science fiction. It’s happening present day in real time, and Generation Z is proving a force to be reckoned with in a battle for equality and change.

Generation Z, the digital savvy age group following Millennials, is on track to being considered the most racially diverse and progressive generation. As a diverse age group in an ever-changing and advancing society, their views and opinions are proving to be a reflection of their cultural context and an indication of a growing generational gap in the population.

The major events shaping Gen Z have been global terrorism, the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Supreme Court allowing same sex marriage to be a constitutional right, and major technological advancements . They were the first American generation to put a Black president in power and they have influenced news on social media like no other generation.

Who is Generation Z?

The makeup of Gen Z is also noteworthy - with 49% of the generation being people of color and surveys finding that 48% of Gen Z identifies itself as heterosexual. This diversity is an indicator that Gen Zers are likely to be more accepting of gender fluidity, LGBTQ+ rights and interracial marriage.

While most of the generation is under 18, the oldest are turning 23 and pursuing higher education at a higher rate than their predecessors. This could be due to an overall lower high school dropout rate seen among this age group and narrowing racial and ethnic gap in educational attainment.

With information available 24/7 and so much via social media, Gen Z has been heavily influenced by news found on social networks like Instagram, SnapChat and YouTube.

Born between 1997 and 2015, members of Gen Z made up one in 10 of the eligible voters in this year's 2020 presidential election. And Gen Z and Millenials combined will equal the total number of older eligible voters.

Studies showed that this generation was poised to make a real impact on the November election in part due to their increasing utilization of social media as a tool of organization and engagement.

This new way of developing and expressing opinions of promoting quality of life through political means could be an indication of how the future will look for civic engagement in a digital media world.

Their participation in matters of political and social issues in the past few years has been highlighted in the media and has created a conversation about the importance of young people's voices in the future of the country.

In fact, some of the country’s most prominent social movements and protests - including #METOO, Black Lives Matter, and climate change - have seen large turnouts of young people, often entirely through online means.

Generation Z has grown skeptical of traditional models of government and business, according to a 2019 Deloitte Millennial Survey. Along with a disapproval of conventionally accepted views on matters of social issues, this skepticism has fueled the desire to make change through organizing on social media.

Oftentimes a protest is a result of members of the public believing they are not being given a say in their own government.

Reese Dickerhoff, president of the College of Charleston Republicans, believes this is happening more and more with college students and members of Gen Z.

“Young people are feeling more and more wronged by those who came before us,” he said. “Generation after generation wrecked the world we are inheriting, and now we are old enough to begin to take a stand.”

Social media provides immediate engagement for activism

Before the age of smartphones and social media channels, information was conveyed to the masses through a few national television news networks and daily newspapers.

With the expansion of social media and digital information, breaking news stories are now spread across the globe within seconds. And the opinions and perceptions of those stories spreads almost as immediately.

In fact, social media is the main way young people get their information in the world, with a Business Insider poll stating that 59% of people aged 13-21 list it as a top news source.

Justin Lederman, president of the CofC Democrats, agreed that a lot of students have stopped watching TV and therefore get all news from checking social media.

“Yes I know that very few people actually watch the nightly news, most don't even have cable, so social media is by far the No. 1 way most college students receive their news (for better or worse),” he said. “Personally, I will admit I spend way too much time on Twitter and that is my primary source to learn of current events.”

Gen Z has taken advantage of their tendency to consume news via social media by making it an opportunity to spread awareness on issues of injustice and fight for change.

A common thread among people frustrated over a lack of change - whether it be related to human rights issues or problems within government - is that the frustration has traditionally manifest itself in people taking to the streets in protest.

But through social media, hundreds of thousands more can join in a movement via online action, helping to engage much younger audiences in the protest.

Perhaps the most stark example of Gen Z’s power to organize via social media and influence American political and social culture was through a prank at one of President Donald Trump’s campaign rallies in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this past summer.

Tik Tok users and KPop stans claimed they registered for hundreds of thousands of free tickets to the campaign event and then never showed up, leaving large sections of open seats at the rally. The viral videos poking fun at the situation were kept under wraps by the organizers, and often deleted after 24 hours in order to keep it a “secret.”

When the event showed smaller numbers than expected on the news and Tik Tok users took responsibility, media outlets and politicians took notice, with U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeting in response, “Actually you just got ROCKED by teens on TikTok.”

Recently TikTok teens took credit for prank calls flooding President Trump's fraud hotline following the Nov. 3 election.

Gen Z takes ownership of big political, social issues

Because some of the world’s biggest issues currently - climate change, health care coverage, education costs - affect young people in greater ways, the generation is being energized to get involved.

Nowhere has this been more obvious than Gen Z’s interests in climate change issues.

Respondents were asked to choose five issues from a list of 23 major problems in the world. Climate change was the most common choice with 41% saying it was one of the most important issues facing the world. The second most-selected choice was pollution (36%) followed by terrorism (31%).

Among 10 environmental issues - including ocean pollution, air pollution and deforestation - global warming was cited as the most important by 57% of respondents.

The interest in climate change and the environment is likely because the youngest generations will be impacted the most by catastrophic changes. Young people believe that older generations that have the right to vote and make changes in policy are not putting in account what they are leaving behind, and their frustrations are evident.

Greta Thunberg is a Swedish teenager who grew her own climate change protest into a worldwide movement. She began her protests by skipping school every Friday in order to sit outside the Swedish Parliament building with protest signs. Her “Fridays for the Future” spread internationally through social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, and influenced millions of young people to participate across the globe.

Youth activists across America took this Friday school strike concept to climate change protests on the street, leading to students in 156 countries and regions participating in the effort.

When Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the United States this past spring, often it was young people leading the way. The New York Times reported that high school students were behind protests in California, Maryland and Michigan while teenagers in a Texas suburb led hundreds in a march.

And it is important to note that the video of George Floyd’s death, which sparked the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, was recorded on the phone of a teenager.

With the movement occurring within the country’s lockdown because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Gen Z took to social media to spread information and awareness about police brutality toward Black people and the fight against systemic racism.

When prominent musicians organized “Black Out Tuesday” on social media - a day where supporters of Black Lives Matter were asked to post just a black square on social networks - it was the youngest generations who made the protest trend. TikTok even suspended normal content on the day.

Marcus McDonald, a 20-something leader of the Independent Charleston Black Lives Matter organization, said he has seen high engagement by the younger generations.

“Engagement is high with young folks, and we had a lot of older college kids who stood in solidarity with us even if they couldn't go to the protests,” McDonald said.

Gen Z has also been rather outspoken on the presidential race, both for and against current President Donald Trump.

Calculations made by CIRCLE show that 49-51% of voting- eligible youth had already cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election, which is 5-7% more than the last presidential election. And it is expected that this number of young voters will only rise as information comes in following the election.

Although early projections show a higher percentage of young voters cast a ballot for Joe Biden, Gen Z members of the Students for Trump organization were active and engaged in turning out the vote as well.

How Gen Z continues to use social media to influence the country’s political and social agenda, is yet to be seen, but 2020 has been an indication of a growing involvement by the country’s youngest voters.

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