By Contributor Inica Kotasthane
When this past decade started, I was five years old. I barely knew how to tie my shoes, let alone who the president was. I lived my life oblivious to serious matters like international relations and exponents, focusing on more pressing matters like what shoes my Barbie doll was going to wear and what color Puffle to adopt. Ten years later, headlines have replaced storytimes, and my generation has had to adjust to the constantly changing world we live in.
Through the years, advocacy for issues in politics and social justice has come into the spotlight and with it, arguably one of the most politically active groups of people has emerged: teens. This decade has truly been the time in which Generation Z has matured–of course physically, but mentally and politically as well–as a response to our increasingly dynamic world.
Throughout elementary school, this generation experienced the importance of charity, especially after the devastating earthquake in Haiti. My school, as well as thousands of others across the nation, rallied together to collect shirts, blankets, and toiletries, all to help victims of the natural disaster. For the first time in our lives, we saw that we had the capability to help people hundreds and hundreds of miles away, and this power came as a shock. Why hadn’t we used it before?
This instilled a sense of global awareness and compassion within our country’s kids, which has evolved ever since into, some may say, an overly generous spirit that has become characteristic of this generation. Haiti provided Generation Z’s first true introduction to suffering beyond our borders and provided a new degree of importance for charity in our eyes, which continues to affect our political and social dogmas today.
2011: Same-Sex Marriage
Same-sex marriage became a hot topic in the United States’ politics, and although most of us were too young then to see significant disparities between opposite-sex and same-sex marriage, it changed us all the same. Perhaps the bright rainbows drew our generation’s young eyes towards the LGBTQ+ cause, or maybe it was the subconscious realization that many of us simply couldn’t see anything wrong with loving someone of the same gender.
The gay rights slogan that continues to ring in the hearts of people across the globe was “Love is Love.” While many of us had only truly experienced love from our parents and relatives, from there grew the rudimentary thought that you should love who you want.
Naturally, the issue was much more complicated than letting people love whoever they wished. Religion and social norms were factors we were too young to fully understand, but the belief, childish as it was, remained rooted in many of our hearts: love genuinely was love, it didn’t matter who it was between.
2012: Hurricane Sandy
In 2012, much of the east coast was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, and the nation rediscovered a long-needed spirit of community and neighborhood friendliness. Living in New Jersey, my entire town lost power, and although nearly all school-going kids were glad to have the days off, many of us no longer had running water and had to find places to stay while hurricane relief arrived.
My family and I were welcomed into a local hotel. Despite being crowded into a lobby with dozens of others, the atmosphere remained amicable and warm. I vividly remember an older couple offering my parents their room after realizing that they no longer needed it. It was these acts of kindness that reinforced the benevolent American culture we had lost for so long.
In other areas, Good Samaritans who still had power opened up their homes to complete strangers, providing a warm place to stay for those who were forced to evacuate. Restaurants across the tri-state area offered free meals and bottles of water. Those who had generators connected extension cords and power adapters, encouraging people to charge their phones and let their loved ones know how they were doing. Communities gathered for the greater good, renewing the magnanimity our country values so much.
Sandy did not break us. It showed our generation how we can be stronger united, and this belief in cooperation has carried on ever since.
2013: Sandy Hook
Though the heartbreaking events of Sandy Hook had occurred in late 2012, 2013 was the year in which the nation’s students felt the impact of stricter safety regulations. At many schools, teachers were required to place magnetic strips on the insides of their door frames that would automatically lock in an emergency. Lockdowns and active shooter drills became a normal occurrence, and children would hold their breath in fear until an announcement declared the drill was over. Generation Z was scarred; we had come face to face with the reality that guns could kill, and they could kill us.
Sandy Hook was, unfortunately, only the first of many school shootings and mass shootings that have affected our generation. Importantly, it planted the seed that, perhaps when we were old enough, we would speak out against gun violence. This idea, though only occurring to most of us while we were in elementary and middle school, would eventually blossom into the March for Our Lives movement, establishing Generation Z as a formidable political force determined to make the childhood of the future better than our own.
2014: One World
A majority of Generation Z wasn’t alive when 9/11 happened, but we were old enough to understand the significance of the One World Trade Center’s opening: it signified recovery. Learning about the attacks only through news articles and video clips, it wasn’t easy for the younger generation to sympathize with or understand the gravity of September 11th. However, seeing the national triumph that emerged as a result of One World showed us the importance of healing.
It was through healing that we saw a way to move on from the horrors of the past and make way for a progressive and safe future. It was through healing that we realized there are ways to honor our fallen without forgetting their tragedy. It was through healing that the country allowed itself to recuperate, and enabled kids to understand the importance of restoration. Restoration is what reunited America, and it is these values that remain with us today.
2015: Paris Agreement
From late November to December, the Paris Agreement, an international treaty determined to combat climate change, was drafted in France. The document not only acknowledged climate change as an issue that posed severe consequences to all aspects of human life but proposed various solutions to the problem on both corporate and individual levels. Despite all of this, the very existence of global warming and corresponding issues –rather than the actions to take regarding it–continues to be debated.
Seeing the older generations’ ineffectiveness in tackling the issue of climate change, let alone recognizing it as an issue, Generation Z came to the realization that the responsibility of solving the problem was going to be ours. From this acceptance surfaced a growing movement of youth climate change activists, causing the environmental status of the world to be held to a much higher degree.
Though much of this generation is still unable to vote, let alone make legislation, we have found a voice about the issues we know will affect our lives, regardless of whether current leaders choose to address them or not. We protest and we picket and we pledge that one day when we are old enough to represent ourselves in government, we will use our power to take on the issues our predecessors refused to.
2016: The Presidential Election
Upon reaching a fairly mature age of twelve in 2016, I was old enough to understand the basis of the presidential election, if not the underlying political dynamics. I was old enough to see a widening gap between political parties, to see rallies and marches and debates tearing the nation apart. I was old enough to realize that this election was going to have devastating repercussions no matter who won, and that political beliefs were becoming increasingly polarized, like two sides of a magnet.
My generation thought the country would rebound, that we would find common ground and reunite within a year. We didn’t know that families would turn against each other and friends would have falling-outs. We were never prepared for the torn America we would have to grow up in. Even four years later, facing a new election, we are less prepared than ever.
Unity is crucial to liberty– we’ve learned that–but it feels like there’s little we can do other than wait for our turn to govern. Upon doing so, we will attempt to reconstruct a semblance of the American connectedness we once idealized as children.
A deluge of sexual assault and harassment allegations came out against those in power, many of whom held high positions in entertainment and politics, which were then amplified by the #MeToo movement. People all around the world found a platform to share their stories and receive support from other victims and allies. It was about time for victims to receive justice (in fact, the other name for the campaign is Time’s Up.)
Watching this cause from a social media perspective was enlightening, in a gross and disheartening kind of way. The bright, shining sham of gender equality within high profile industries was unmasked, exposing the disgusting skeletons many influential people had hidden away in their closets.
Generation Z watched with disappointment as their favorite artists and actors were accused by dozens of individuals. The news was riddled with allegations of this and claims of that. We learned that to respect a person was to not take advantage of them; if you failed to recognize and consider one’s boundaries, you failed to respect them. ‘So,’ we thought,’ let’s just respect everybody, okay?’
Twenty-four mass school shootings took place in 2018, and yet only two of them received more than a couple days of media coverage: Parkland and Santa Fe. America had grown numb to the pain of students across the country. The media had successfully ground deaths and injuries down to nothing more than statistics, and eventually, shootings were just a daily occurrence. It was only a matter of time before gun violence in schools faded into the background noise of ‘more important’ issues.
Then the teens stood up. The teens, who had lost their friends, their classmates, their teachers, and their siblings, prevented a complete erasure of the tragedies that marked their halls. The March for Our Lives organization, spearheaded by student representatives from Parkland, took the country by storm, as hundreds of thousands of kids joined the cause to put an end to the slaughter of students. Generation Z had found one of its first unifying issues, prompting walkouts, protests, and tributes in all fifty states. We had become a force whose voices would no longer be silenced by those who believed we were too immature to understand that our lives were on the line. We had found something to fight for, setting the precedent for teenage activism for years to come.
The past year has been a rollercoaster. From today’s position just a few days into 2020, it’s too soon to tell what events from 2019 defined Generation Z the most. All we can hope for this next decade of the 2020s is that we’ve learned from the mistakes (and triumphs) of our elders and that we will use this knowledge to create a better future for us all.