Will Gen Z care about America’s 250th?

Part II: How We Can Build Coachella, Not Fyre Festival

Made By Us
(History) Made By Us

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by Caroline Klibanoff, Executive Director, and Kaz Brecher, Innovation Strategist

Looking for resources? We’re gauging interest in regional 250th Incubator Workshops that would bring together host institutions and Gen Z to design together. Sign up here.

In part 1, we shared that the way we measure civic engagement, especially among youth, masks a gap when it comes to institutions meeting the real needs of Gen Z. While civic readiness is important — like knowing how the government works and being prepared to vote — civic opportunity is arguably more fundamental, as it reveals why someone might be compelled to take part in learning and action in the first place. We proposed evolving the equation to include two key focal points: desirability (appealing to a real need) and civic spirit (the pride and imagination required to care).

There’s no more urgent opportunity for transformation than the upcoming 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the semiquincentennial, in 2026. But as we approach the 250th, how confident are we that those in the critical path of the country’s future will care?

A man at a podium asks a crowd, “who’s excited for the 250th?” and hands go up. Who’s invited Gen Z? No hands. Adapted from a 2012 webcomic by Brazilian artist Lute: Who wants change? Who wants to change?
Adapted from a 2012 webcomic by Brazilian artist Lute: Who wants change? Who wants to change?

It’s hard to imagine a U.S. 250th commemoration that comes anywhere close to the viral buzz of a Marvel movie or the frenzied fandom of a Taylor Swift tour. It’s not too hard to imagine the opposite: the 119th Congress shouting from the steps of the Capitol that it’s time to celebrate…while Gen Z-ers walk by with Airpods in on their way to work.

There’s not only more competing for people’s attention than during the bicentennial, but the ways we connect and communicate are fractured and layered. Amid a daily onslaught of pings and promises, fakes and BeReals, a souped-up and top-down 250th could fall as flat as Fyre Festival. We have a short runway to get this right, and as more planning begins to take root at the national and state level, we must look through the ColourPop-lined eyes of those with the most at stake.

There’s a lot on the line. A commemoration that’s disorganized, out of touch, or simply a snoozefest could lead to widespread disinterest and disengagement, diminishing trust in institutions. It could lead to alternate celebrations co-opted by groups with partisan or destructive motives. It could undermine the national appetite for playing any part at all in American life — threadbare already, with a recent poll reporting steep declines in patriotism and community involvement.

American values, like patriotism and community involvement, show steep drops over 25 years. (WSJ/NORC)

So how do we ensure the 250th is meaningful and relevant? We can learn from the gaps in the existing civic engagement landscape. We know there’s a glut of supply when it comes to civics resources and ways to take part. We know there’s immense demand by Gen Z for credible information and ways to be heard. But the lack of connective tissue between the two means supply isn’t meeting demand. Institutions and Gen Z are often operating in different universes — culturally, socially, demographically, physically.

A recent example: the Biden White House invited popular influencers for a behind-the-scenes tour on government. Nia Sioux, 21, posted what she learned about the midterm elections to 8.3 million people on TikTok. But her young followers were confused — they assumed she was speaking about her UCLA midterm exams. Indeed, exams are likely more urgent and important to the average 21-year-old student. Institutions and Gen Z are not in the same conversation.

We talked about audience-centered design in Part 1, and there’s a well-heeded guideline in design thinking: you can’t GET people to do anything. You have to design for the underlying need.

View larger. From Citizens & Scholars: The Civic Readiness Map (left) shows efforts to measure the civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions of individuals. The Civic Opportunities Map (right) looks at civic infrastructure: all the systems, platforms, programs, laws, and processes that help people to solve problems, make decisions, and build community. The gap? Readiness is not connected to opportunities.

A common marketplace, where supply can meet demand, would help — but it’s not enough to create a new exchange point, like a website or a school. Rather, we need easy, irresistible on-ramps to access that exchange point. Who’s going to the marketplace when DoorDash is easier and more front-of-mind?

Don’t build an expensive book talk series with high profile speakers in a gigantic auditorium; fund local book club gatherings in social spaces or people’s homes. Don’t launch a new video collection; have a young content creator introduce your existing video content in an on-trend short clip. This looks like institutions venturing into youth spaces with curiosity, instead of expecting the reverse to happen. For the 250th, it might start with considering how to align with a massively popular moment overtaking 11 U.S. cities in the summer of 2026: the World Cup (!)

One of the most powerful on-ramps we’ve discovered by iterating Civic Season year to year is leaning into personal, micro experiences that address an individual need. This summer, we’re centering #MyCivicSeason with a build-your-own-itinerary feature, a workbook to help users navigate their personal journey to active civic engagement, and hyper-local, social events (pizza parties, in fact!). We’ve learned that personal meaning is a highly desirable and effective on-ramp to the collective, so we’re doubling down on helping people find what appeals to them as a way of illuminating what matters to us as a nation.

Meet us at a pizza party this summer.

Modeling is also a powerful on-ramp. Anyone working with behavioral dynamics knows that if you want to get a donkey to move, neither carrot nor stick are most effective. You just need a few other donkeys heading in the other direction, and the natural curiosity and desire to belong will move the donkey.

An example: the Civic Alliance, a network of more than 1200 companies activated to support civic engagement, worked with ViacomCBS to integrate voting into the fabric of popular streaming shows, complete with a how-to toolkit for Hollywood. A character might have “Election Day” circled on their calendar — subtle, participatory and effective.

Euphoria taps into the zeitgeist. Hollywood is one great on-ramp to model and invite civic engagement.

The cultural institutions that will be successful in leveraging the 250th anniversary of the U.S. to boost their own relevance will be those that prioritize what the public wants and cares about. This doesn’t mean dumbing anything down; in fact, when it comes to sharing history, Gen Z wants the raw data, the thoughtful critique, the seriousness and gravitas of credible institutions, from debating the “History Wars” at SXSW to in-depth, heavily sourced Teen Vogue explainers.

What it does mean, however, is that we can’t simply make the 250th about the Revolutionary War, though obviously integral to the story. It’s not enough to just go broader, sharing a more inclusive history, though that is essential. It means getting real about what real people think about, which is not 1776, but whether they’ll make rent this month, or what show to binge, or whether they’ll feel more hopeful or depressed after attending an event. How might we answer with total clarity what they’re sure to ask: Is this for me? Who else will be there? Do I fit in? Do I even know how to access…? Why should I care about it? Embracing Gen Z’s daily reality is the only way to cut through the noise and attention spans.

Signals and Blind Spots for the 250th

At Made By Us, we spend a lot of time with our ears to the ground, examining the landscape around us to better serve our 18–30 year-old audience. Because we take a collective, ecosystem-building approach, we get inputs from many varied perspectives, with the goal of creating products and services with (we hope!) fewer blind spots.

From this, we’ve undoubtedly observed some bright spots. The history and cultural sector is excited and getting organized around this event, in large part thanks to wrangling and preparation by the American Association of State and Local History. The national commission hit roadblocks, but with new leadership, is beginning to move forward. There are more than 30 state commissions coordinating affairs locally, and institutions like the National Park Service, National Endowment for the Humanities and Institute for Museum and Library Services have set up grantmaking.

We also see significant blind spots. Despite the opportunity this commemoration brings, there are some worrying indicators that perhaps it won’t serve us as well as it could.

Blind spots for the Semiquincentennial

Beyond field-wide constraints, there are circumstances “on the ground” in American life that we ought to consider. Some key signals from Gen Z’s reality:

  • Gen Z holds mistrust toward institutions generally, but especially in education; 44% say public schools teach history accurately and 27% trust education officials to be politically neutral.
  • 78% of 18–29 year-olds want to learn history through entertainment, but 90% of museums and historic sites are not using TikTok, Reels or Snap.
  • Even when basic needs are under threat — 4 in 10 Gen Zs say they have no emergency savings and are just barely getting by — young people prioritize their values as consumers and employees, and hold companies accountable with their word and their dollar.
  • 55 percent of Gen Z report having either been diagnosed with or having received treatment for mental illness. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re less well, but they are definitively more aware and seeking more support than older generations.
Murmuration, Dec. 2022
  • Gen Z finds information in a multifaceted context using lateral search. What does this mean? They use simultaneous channels and apps to hold multiple streams of conversation and investigation at once, flitting from mode to mode, all on mobile devices. So entering their world is no longer about going viral, but rather authentic integration into communities and usage patterns.
  • Truth is becoming more and more contested. 64% of Gen Z think they see false or misleading online every week. With a lack of faith in institutions and leaders, and an awareness of power structures in information — from algorithms to profit motive — Gen Z are savvy, picky consumers.
  • Finally, in this post-truth era, many cultural organizations face backlash when it comes to celebrating U.S. history. 3 years out from the 250th, there are very few structures in place to mobilize collective support or present a united front for nuance and truth, let alone hold a celebration that finds common ground.
2022 saw an escalation of the “history wars,” an extension of cultural battles about our nation’s story.

Without considering what impacts people’s daily lives, and how they’re coping, we might not really know what we’re up against. A business-as-usual, top-down commemoration isn’t sufficient to create meaning and engagement. We ought to know — Gen Z’s skepticism and lack of connection to July 4th was the very impetus behind Civic Season. We worked with a group of young leaders from Civics Unplugged who brought up the idea that Independence Day could be so much more than hot dogs and fireworks, or just a day off — if re-imagined, it could drive real patriotic participation in community and country.

So…what could we do?

In line with our proposed additions to the ways we can better measure civic opportunity, we are excited to host what is perhaps the biggest laboratory for collective experimentation around “what might we imagine” for the 250th. Civic Season is an open-source playground with extensive space to try new things within the framework of a powerful campaign. The loose, light structure allows for adaptations to local markets, select issues, or communities; layers of design and implementation choices create a common ground for diverse, varied institutions and Gen Z-ers to come together and dream and scheme; and it provides “safety in numbers” of so many organizations participating and driving it forward. It has a resonant, sticky through-line but is elastic enough to hold all of our stories and to evolve over time.

An organization participating in Civic Season for the first time in 2022

One thing we can do is to use this upcoming summer to lean into experimentation and stretch ourselves to better understand and serve Gen Z. But any organization can start today to assess their own Gen Z readiness and begin to make changes.

Sometimes there’s resistance to embracing younger generations’ realities, or fears of alienating older generations, but more often, we hear capacity constraints. We don’t have staff time. There’s no template. We’re juggling a million things. How do we start. We want to be clear that these constraints are real and heard, and that the answer is not a total institutional overhaul or even starting a TikTok.

Rather, incremental changes are going to be more feasible for organizations and better for staying agile and responsive to changing needs. Offering your same program but in the evening and with a crystal clear title? Great. Turning an exhibit panel into an Instagram carousel? Well done! Teaming up with another organization to collab with a popular streamer and share the cost and the credit and the risk? Gold star.

Made By Us is of course here to help, with research, trainings and support — reach out any time for more information. We’re holding a course on social media with AASLH later this month.

And in a major shift in thinking, at least for most museums, Gen Z is an audience that’s okay with you trying new things, changing your mind, evolving your approach and showing that you’re learning, too. This is the generation of hybrid school and work, blurred race and gender lines, and multiple identifiers (artist/Doordasher /paralegal/health girlie). They resist an either/or, a binary simplification, and this fluidity extends across their lives. They want major institutions to bring the expected gravitas and credibility to the work, and if you dabble in a rogue meme, they won’t be mad. If you share an amateur video rather than a highly produced one, well, that’s the realness they’re looking for. If your 250th programming poses a question rather than answering it, that seems more natural. This generation isn’t just the Coachella generation, but the one that livestreams their personal Coachella experience, chaotic collage style, to friends around the globe while texting the group chat about a SCOTUS decision. Think Everything, Everywhere All At Once.

With this serious, fluid generation at the helm, a maximalist view appeals. The 250th anniversary can embrace a both/and approach — we can retain some of the pomp and circumstance from tradition, and it will benefit from giving equal weight to the joy, the fun, the promise, and the plurality. Instead of promising the moon and delivering a Fyre Festival that leaves our democracy even worse off, we propose that those of us in a position to design the 250th consider how we could evolve.

Don’t mind us, we’ll be stockpiling glitter for the 250th.

Taking our young friends as a model, we *could* even consider making space for the kind of liberating, self-creating rituals Gen Z uses to continually reinvent their identities and take charge of their story. We might find that it’s a deeply American behavior, and a good practice for a self-governing nation, to continually redefine itself. As we reflect and refract our story through more versions and perspectives, trying on ideas and narratives, we shed old limitations and make room for the gargantuan possibilities to come.

While something as far-reaching as the 250th anniversary of the United States is for all Americans to celebrate, with democracy in the balance, we can’t afford *not* to stick the landing with young people. Our newest active citizens have the most at stake and the most potential for a powerful experience that propels the country forward toward the next 250. We ask institutions and leaders to look inward. What can you do today to make the 250th the memorable, catalytic event of a lifetime ?

Looking for resources? We’re gauging interest in regional 250th Incubator Workshops that would bring together host institutions and Gen Z to design together. Sign up here.

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