BY: ALEXANDRA MADARAS, CONTRIBUTOR
This past year we’ve repeatedly been hit with the same types of headlines: “Generation Z is the New Political Powerhouse,” “Watch Gen Z Kids Take Over the Political Landscape,” “Young People are Advocating More than Ever. ”
Comprised of young people ages 6 to 23, Generation Z has been called the School Shooting Generation, among other cheerful superlatives. Supposedly, we are a generation of militant activism and change, a threat to the current political system, and a sea of fresh political crop that will soon overcome millennials.
It’s true that we see ourselves, the younger generation, rising up all over the news, especially in things like gun control advocacy.
In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, the impact of young student speakers and activists became clear. Just two weeks after the shooting, student activist and survivor Emma Gonzalez reached a higher Twitter following than the NRA.
In my own hometown of St. Louis, student activists formed Students Demanding Action STL to advocate for gun control and held a protest against gun violence in April.
A 2015 study on the demographic of the #BlackLivesMatter movement found that a majority of Twitter users supporting the movement were between the ages of 18 and 29.
Clearly, the younger generation is interested in advocacy of some kind.
But what about what’s not in the news?
From personal experience, some groups in Gen Z may be more complacent than many believe.
We, The People
Until my junior year, I attended a predominantly white, middle-class high school in a professional suburb. On the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting, student activists organized a walk-out in coordination with other schools in the city and around the nation.
Out of over 2,000 students, approximately 120 walked out to sit on the bleachers for a single class period.
Only around 5% of the student body was willing to miss 50 minutes of class and reschedule state testing to protest the senseless killing of their own peers across the nation.
This is the complacency of the Gen Z kids we don’t see on the news.
The kids who don’t walk out, the ones who shrug when you ask an opinion of them, they are left behind and forgotten.
Why do we see this type of inaction in this community?
The “non-political” teen has been ignored in favor of images of young advocates on platforms and speaking to Congress. The truth is, in a sheltered environment, the kids who could be making a difference simply aren’t interested or don’t know how.
A Force for Change
Historically, the middle class has made waves on the political and social landscape. The French Revolution arose from the bourgeois, or middle class, protesting lack of rights and government inadequacy. The counterculture movement of the 1960s thrived on a base of middle-class drug culture. Often, the people who are most easily and effectively able to protest injustice are those who can afford to do so, literally.
According to the German Development Institute, the middle class is a “part and parcel of an inclusive, democratic and well-governed society.”
They examined the rise of new democratic powers throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, and found that a strong middle class was pivotal in maintaining order, peace, and democracy.
In terms of interaction with government, the Institute finds that politically, the middle class has played a huge role in shaping and balancing institutions to accommodate the needs of more people.
They suggest that “middle-class people share a sense of social responsibility through paying taxes, and they expect the state to provide infrastructure, education and social services.”
Clearly, a healthy and civilly interested middle class is key to a well-functioning society and democracy.
The Hard Truth
So why is the young, non-marginalized middle-class not taking political action?
Answers vary, and of course, there are numerous exceptions, but a trend is clear; some people simply don’t care enough, and many of us are unaware of the impact we can have.
When asked, many teenagers often lament that political discussions are too heated, polarized, or confusing. Others claim over enthusiastic friends and family have “turned them off” of taking a stance on issues. Still others say they are simply not interested, or they feel like popular issues don’t pertain to them because they can’t vote yet.
Here lies the issue.
The simple fact is this: if an issue directly impacts us, we are likely to pay attention to it.
If we feel it’s not important to us, or we don’t understand its importance, we won’t.
Safe and sheltered within these groups, we simply don’t feel like forming an opinion on something unless it really applies to us.
Truthfully, the middle-class members of Gen Z, especially white teens and suburban populations, do not experience nearly the scope of issues that other groups do within the United States.
While our peers of color deal with social and job discrimination at an early age, we may take a minimum wage job to save up for a car or a summer trip.
Many of us are supported completely by our parents’ jobs and therefore feel we don’t need to understand issues dealing with expensive higher education, wages and unions, or class politics.
It’s important to keep in mind that not everyone has this choice. For example, impoverished Americans, first and second generation Americans, disabled Americans, transgender Americans, and Native Americans (just to name a few) often do not have the luxury of not being a “politics person.”
Each issue that runs through Congress often pertains to their livelihood and their wellbeing.
While Generation Z kids that have been directly affected by gun violence, police brutality, or immigration policy often stand up and represent Gen Z in politics, the rest of young Americans stay back.
This is simply privilege.
There is nothing inherently wrong with being born into whiteness or the middle class in America. What is unacceptable is when ignorance of our own privilege turns into a complacency that harms others.
The Cost of Indifference
It is especially important to understand that complacency does harm others. Not voting, not taking action, and not speaking out is not just an opportunity for someone else to take your place. Your absence is felt and can cause significant problems for yourself and others.
For example, you might have seen this map floating around the internet.
Let’s say you were a self-identified Republican or Democrat before the 2016 election, but the choice between Trump and Clinton was difficult for you. Maybe you felt like you didn’t like either candidate, or that you didn’t have enough information. If you didn’t vote at all, you may have helped push the vote to a side that doesn’t benefit you or your interests.
If you weren’t old enough to vote, and therefore didn’t try to form an opinion, that presents a different problem. When I asked my peers whether they were going to vote as adults, 96% said yes. But when asked why they were not politically inclined, some said they didn’t feel like they could have an impact without being of voting age.
Voting is just one way to be politically involved. As an underage citizen, campaign volunteering, protesting, and even just sharing information on social media is still open to you, and can be vital to exposing others to different opinions. As a young person, you still have the opportunity to influence the opinions and vote of those around you. Especially in high-stakes situations like a presidential election between two polar opposite candidates, your voice can make a difference.
Staying silent does nothing but leave you unrepresented and exposed to the mistakes that others could make by advocating in your place.
Keep in mind that no matter what age you are, the future of this country still applies to you. The decisions that are voted on now may have an impact on you in the future. Take interest and act accordingly.
This is not meant to be an attack on those who aren’t out in the streets every weekend nor make less politically involved young people feel guilty for what they haven’t done yet.
Understandably, not everyone wants to dedicate their life to political activism. Every young person has the freedom to explore whatever fields and interests they desire.
But there comes a point at which each upcoming citizen has a responsibility to the system they are functioning within. Before we gain the responsibility to vote at age 18, we still benefit from public schooling funded by tax money. We still contribute to and witness discrimination. We still benefit from or are hurt by class divisions. So why shouldn’t we care about politics, if it goes hand in hand with nearly everything about our lives? Why should we not understand the systems we’ll spend our whole lives in?
It seems as though some young Americans are unreachable. They are willing to vote if they are eligible, but not willing to develop strong opinions or discuss them. This must change if Generation Z is truly to have an impact on the future of American politics and the future of our country altogether.
But the uninterested Generation Z is only part of the issue.
The Deadliest Killer: Silence
There are many young people who do care about what is happening around them. They watch the news and form their own opinions and even voice them quietly to friends and family.
But in the current atmosphere, this has become insufficient.
It’s daunting to put yourself out there, and it’s true that discussing politics won’t always keep the peace within personal relationships.
However, some issues are more pressing than keeping the peace. When young black boys are being killed on the streets and immigration policy is tearing families apart, speaking out takes precedence over appeasing those who do not agree. Even with issues that aren’t strictly life or death, a handful of people spreading information could help influence a government decision that could have a huge impact on our own future.
The balance between maintaining positive discussion and standing up for what you believe in is a delicate one. Often, it takes time and practice to learn how to engage opposition in a productive conversation rather than arguing senselessly or ignoring them altogether. But when that balance is reached, amazing things can happen. Keeping a dialogue going about important issues and events prevents the people around you from becoming complacent or ignorant to what is happening around them. Staying silent will do nothing but mask the issue at hand and slow progress.
Understanding civic responsibility is one thing, and truly getting your hands dirty is another.
The question remains: what can we do as young people to get involved?
First, learn how to get informed. Although you might see articles pop up on your timeline occasionally, it’s a good idea to directly subscribe to several news outlets or have news apps on your phone. Try to absorb a wide range of viewpoints; if you’re unsure where you stand on an issue, you’ll be able to read three or four articles taking different stances on it and decide which one makes the most sense to you.
Do your research.
There are thousands if not millions of articles on a wide range of political topics out there. Some come from reliable sources, most are at least a bit biased, and all of them are based on some sort of opinion. The more you Google, ask Siri, and explore, the more well-versed you will be when someone asks your opinion on something.
I admit, I am not the best at this. I still have a long way to go when it comes to research and understanding issues. But it’s absolutely essential to maintaining intelligent and productive dialogue; know your opinions and know your facts.
Another important step is to figure out which types of issues you care about the most. It’s impossible to keep tabs on every sector of politics at once, but if you keep a range of a few in mind, it makes it easier to do research and decide which people to support.
One of the most important things you can do is get involved in local politics.
American government is built in concentric rings of political systems; if you want to understand politics on a large scale, a good place to start is in your local system. Of course, if you’re of age, always vote in local elections so your voice can be represented accurately.
Always research every candidate on a ballot and any propositions you may need to vote on.
If you strongly support a candidate, reach out to their campaign, and you may be able to do some canvassing (talking directly to people about your candidate) or other campaign volunteering. Everyone has skills they can dedicate to a campaign, even as an underage citizen.
Use your strengths.
This summer, Sunny Lu, age 16, from Ladue, Missouri worked with Cort VanOstran, Democratic candidate from Missouri’s Second Congressional District. She attended several town halls with VanOstran and became interested in his campaign.
“I came up to him and spoke to him,” she told me excitedly.
“I got some Cort promo stickers and materials and passed it around to my parents and friends, telling them how awesome he was!”
When asked what kinds of skills she was able to contribute, she mentioned she was asked to do a promotional photoshoot for VanOstran’s paper and online campaign.
However, she adds,
“That was just one thing. I think the most impactful thing is just talking about candidates to voters in your life.”
She told me a story of how she spoke to her father about the candidates he was considering and convinced him to vote for someone that would support their interests.
Describing their talk as a “calm dissertation,” she said “word of mouth really can affect campaigns because people can hear those names repeatedly.”
Even if you aren’t a photographer or student journalist, your voice can make a strong impact. Flipping just one or two voters in your household can constitute your impact on your community.
But as Sunny exemplifies, your passions and hobbies can also help you make change in politics and become more involved. On August 7th, Cort VanOstran won the Democratic primary with nearly 42%.
The Simple Things
There are so many other ways to make an impact.
If you feel very passionate about an issue, you can choose to attend a demonstration or organized protest to voice your thoughts and emotions. Although many denounce protesting as useless or violent, successful protests can actually be a powerful way to show that many people share an opinion and are willing to put themselves out there to spread it. People take notice of protests, which makes them useful for sending messages, encouraging solidarity, and convincing others to join a cause.
If demonstration isn’t your cup of tea, direct contact with people in power and the people around you can be just as important. Writing to legislators and calling senators’ offices may seem useless from the outside; why should they care about the opinion of a 16 year old, let’s say, who can’t even vote them out of office?
The key is time and numbers.
As a teenager, you can let your representatives know that you’re already passionate enough to contact them, and that when you reach voting age, you will expect them to represent your voice or you will take action as a citizen to find someone who does.
And it’s true that one call may not do much, but 300 calls might, and 3,000 are bound to. If you get others in your community to also contact the same people, you can show your representatives that many of their constituents care about this same issue. Then, they are forced to take notice of your voice.
If you’re unsure of who represents you, you can check here.
Sharing is Caring
If you keep your opinions and ideas isolated, they never have the chance to impact your surroundings. If it’s safe for you to tell your friends and family what you care about, do so. If they disagree with you, try to have calm and productive discussions. In class, if you talk about social issues or politics, raise your hand. Ask questions. Debate. Express what you believe. Maybe you’ll bring someone into the discussion that had never thought about that issue before.
One person’s involvement guarantees the involvement of others.
Generation Z can be the people that strike ‘politics’ off the list of things to never discuss on a first date. We already exemplify the strength of young people who have made it through hardships, found their voice, and made an impact. But we cannot effect change if a portion of us is silent and complacent. Each young person has a duty to take an interest in their surroundings and make sure their opinion is developed, informed, and voiced. That is the only way to progress. Whether the impact is big or small, each person can and should care. About others, about their own future, and therefore, about politics.
We don’t have to be scared of disagreement. Nothing huge has ever happened without a struggle.
Generation Z can be a wave of change, like the newscasters predict, but to do so, no one can take the backseat. Like the cliché says: without every drop, the ocean would be missing something. We are all the wave. Only together can we push forward.
Image Credits: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/introducing-generation-z-a-special-edition-of-the-current-1.2987293/generation-z-activists-want-to-change-the-world-1.2989387