Corey Seemiller, PhD
Generation Z (born 1995–2010), not Millennials, comprise our youngest voters. These post-911, recession kids are coming of age in a time of great political division, and in a world where issues are amplified through access to social media and technology. While they may be young, they see, hear about, and feel the world’s woes. But, is this enough to draw this young generation to the polls? If left just to chance, probably not as youth have historically voted at lower rates.
But, every generation is unique and is situated in a contextual era that can help explain the behavior of its members. So, if we can get a better understanding of who Generation Z is today, we may be able to uncover what could get them to the polls. Through our two national research studies of Generation Z college students, we were able to discover barriers that may prevent voting and offer ideas to increase political participation.
Complex Political Ideologies
In our research, we found that a large number identify as financially moderate to conservative while at the same time, socially liberal. With an ideology that blends both conservatism and liberalism, it may be hard for some to find their place in politics. Are they moderate Republicans, conservative Democrats, Independents, or something else? Not having a specific party may create some element of disconnect for a generation trying to find their way. And, if they don’t feel connected, they may opt out of participating in it altogether.
The New Normal is Abnormal
Some in Generation Z also point out that a lack of cooperation and bipartisanship gets in the way of making people’s lives better. There is a deep concern among many that unethical actions and disrespectful behavior of politicians is the status quo. Despite their short political history, many can’t accept that the way things are today is the new normal in politics.
Many in Generation Z believe that politicians focus on matters unrelated to the concerns of young people, leaving them feeling dismissed by the very politicians elected to represent them. With concerns around the environment and human rights, many believe lawmakers are not doing enough to ensure both people and the planet are safe, healthy, and cared for now and in the future.
A Broken Political System
With 75% being motivated by making a difference for others and many seeking careers that make others’ lives better, this is a generation that wants to create sustainable and meaningful change. But, many believe our political system is inefficient, and perhaps even broken.
One Gen Zer said, “Our political system is in need of a redo.”
With their desire for creating change and interest in entrepreneurship and invention, some may be compelled to develop solutions on their own for eradicating social problems rather than vote for lawmakers who may not ever address these issues.
Getting Generation Z to the Polls
While it is important to understand why some may not vote, voting is a critical element of a democracy. So, what will get Generation Z to the polls?
1. They have to believe that politics is an avenue for creating real, sustainable change. While they may have opinions about the political system, they need to be reminded of examples where political decisions have had a major impact: good, bad, or otherwise. Talk to those in Generation Z and let them know that their voice and their vote has real impact.
2. They want politicians who care about issues important to them. Thus, they must see themselves reflected in candidate statements, campaign websites, and rally talking points. Not only is there a concern that their issues are unaddressed, but many may still be shopping around for the candidate of choice without a commitment to one party or another.
3. They seek out politicians committed to bi-partisanship. While everyday people can’t necessarily influence the divisive partisanship in today’s political system, encouraging those in Generation Z to vote for leaders who want to work across the aisle could be a selling point.
4. They want leaders who strive to make everyone’s lives better and embrace the diversity of identity, circumstance, and worldview. They are turned off by hateful rhetoric and identity politics. They don’t want blame games, insults, and more so, targeted policies that hurt others.
5. They are motivated by those they trust most. This is a generation that seeks guidance and inspiration from family and friends. We found in our research that the people they trust most are those closest to them. So, it’s likely going to be those in their inner circles who ultimately get them to the polls.
Having the voices of all Americans in the political process is a fundamental underpinning of democracy. And, knowing that many young people may skip the ballot box should be of concern to everyone. It is incumbent on us, as generational elders, to help get this cohort to the polls. Our democracy will be better for it.
Image courtesy of John Mounsey, Pixabay.