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A new look at how turmoil is defining the lives and politics of Generation Z

Young people have been on the front lines of activist movements, including on the issue of climate change.
Chip Somodevilla
/
Getty Images
Young people have been on the front lines of activist movements, including on the issue of climate change.

Teens and young adults get a bad rap.

They're often called lazy and entitled, with a new generation seen as inextricably glued to their phones and TikTok. And when they speak up about issues, it can be met with an eye roll or a knowing sigh.

It's the one that suggests, "Maybe they will get how the world works when they're older."

But the veteran pollster John Della Volpe says that everything he was told — and that most people think — about Generation Z is wrong. Della Volpe is the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics and a former adviser to the Biden campaign, and he explores the evolution of Gen Z in his new book.

Fight: How Gen Z is channeling their fear and passion to save America, covers the coming of age of the 70 million young people in America born in a 20-year period beginning in the mid-1990s. Della Volpe examines the political awakening of this generation that has come largely during the Trump era, as well as what he describes as a "significant mental health crisis," intensified by the state of the country's politics.

The forward to Fight was written by one of Gen Z's most visible activists, David Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Hogg told NPR that older people often thank him for his generation "standing up," eager to pass the baton. But Hogg argued that lasting change requires more than the resolve of young people — it requires a coalition across generations.

Their conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.

Juana Summers: I want to just start here with the basics. You've been leading polling focusing on young people in the United States for more than two decades. What inspired you to write this book?

John Della Volpe: Frankly, I think that everything that I was told and everything that many people think about Gen Z was frankly, wrong. And I wanted to write this book to kind of correct those myths. I think every generation has had its share of angst and turmoil. I'm Gen X, but I don't think there is any generation in 75 years that has been confronted with more chaos, more quickly in their young lives than Gen Z or Zoomers. When we think about this, many of them were born right around 9/11, and it's always been kind of a shadow in their lives. Millions of their parents lost their homes due to the Great Recession. Entering school, they faced lockdown drills, things that my generation had never seen. And the idea of going to a place and being safe never really existed for young people. Just so much chaos, even before COVID-19 and the social isolation of the lockdown, all of this accelerated by social media. All of this happening before they were 25. So that's where they came of age. But rather than melting, it made them harder and made them tougher and made them more focused to do great things for themselves and for the country.

JS: David, in the forward to the book you offer up a rallying cry to other members of your generation What's your message to them?

David Hogg: While voting is important and it's obviously a very important thing for us to do, it can't be the only thing that we do because our generation is not going to wait for progress. As we've seen from all these movements, especially over the past four years, that young people have played a critical movement and from the March for our Lives, to calls for racial justice, to everything else. We have to vote, but we also have to remember that change has to be created inside and outside of politics, because real power in politics isn't just generated with a vote. It's generating an issue and a cultural shift around young people and how we perceive the world that we live in and the world that we want to leave behind.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Student David Hogg addresses the March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, including students, teachers and parents gathered in Washington for the anti-gun violence rally organized by survivors of the shooting at Hogg's school on Feb. 14, 2018, that left 17 dead.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Student David Hogg addresses the March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, including students, teachers and parents gathered in Washington for the anti-gun violence rally organized by survivors of the shooting at Hogg's school on Feb. 14, 2018, that left 17 dead.

JS: John, this book draws from your years of work as a pollster, but also from focus groups you conducted. I want to ask you about a moment from a focus group that you say really stuck with you. You asked what older generations do not understand about Generation Z, and you quote a participant named Grace:

"An older generation would not understand waking up in a classroom and thinking about how easy it would be for someone to shoot it up. The same daily weight on an adult's shoulders over bills or taxes is what children feel about living or dying."

John, what stuck out about that to you?

JDV: I've been asking that question for 20 years. And what I used to hear when I would ask that question is optimism, and opportunity, even in some of the poorest communities across the country, some of the most challenging circumstances. I used to hear young people talk about kind of connection and opportunity is there in America, if you were to work for it. And now what I heard was that [they] don't have the luxury of even thinking about that. Young people were challenged with just the daily weight of living and dying. Grace wasn't the only one — every single hand in that group went up and was nodding their heads. We talked about this on the outset. There was just no place that was safe.

JS: David, I want to ask you the same question that John asked Grace. What don't older generations understand about your generation?

DH: John brings up a good point around the fear and anxiety aspect that Gen Z faces. And I think that the anxiety that comes from gun violence, from climate change to all these other things is something that a lot of generations right now just can't understand, the scale of the existential threat that young people today feel. What I will say, though, is that as we've seen in times before, when generations faced challenges, they come to meet them. Oftentimes, you know, movements find their leaders. I think we saw that in 2020.

JS: Gen Z is a generation that came of age with the hold that former President Trump had on politics and culture. John, how has that shaped them?

JDV: Every generation determines their political values in their teenage years, in their early 20s, and so much of that is shaped by the president that is serving during that period of their lives. While [Gen Z] were looking for an opportunity to unite us, they saw a president and administration more bent on dividing young people.

From the earliest days of the Harvard research, we found that the biggest predictor of whether or not a young person participates in politics or votes is whether they can see a tangible difference in their vote. And that first hundred days, those first six months, those first eight or nine months leading up to Charlottesville were everything that young people need to see about the tangible difference that Donald Trump was making. And obviously in a way that did not comport at all kind of with their values. And it's something that I think was a real sense of ignition to what we saw as a tremendous level of political participation in 2017, 2018, 2019 and obviously 2020.

JS: David, you are a part of that generation and movement that came of age during the Trump presidency.

DH: Even with a president that was a Republican — which most members of Gen Z tend to lean more progressive — even despite that, we hoped that we would be united somewhat in the early days. By the time Charlottesville rolled around and all these other things started happening, it was so abundantly clear to many of us that that wasn't going to happen. Our generation stepped up and decided to unite ourselves.

What I fear at this point, though, is the mental health crisis that Gen Z is facing right now and the burnout and exhaustion that I know so many of us feel, myself included. That despite us turning out at record numbers in 2018 and 2020, that our vote doesn't seem to have made that tangible of a difference. If we can't see that our vote makes a difference... what I fear is that some younger people are going to look at the events of January 6th and see that as the alternative, that it's OK if you don't get what you want in politics to go out and attempt to overthrow the government.

JS: John, what do you have to say to that?

JDV: One of the dangers, as David said it's kind of connected to this, is the sense of alienation that so many young people face. In recent [Institute of Politics] polling released at the end of last year, we have a majority of young people, which is tens of millions of people, saying that over the last couple of weeks they at more than several times felt anxious, hopeless, depressed, isolated, et cetera. And you have 25% indicating thoughts of self-harm.

It's just a just a significant, significant crisis. When folks are so depressed and so isolated and they withdraw, one of the concerns I have for them is to withdraw, spend more time online where they could potentially be more easily recruited into places where they don't necessarily even agree with the ideology, but are looking for some sort of community and then perhaps find themselves in a situation that's difficult to get out of. Whether it's alt right groups or some of the folks like David talked about who participated in the Jan. 6 riot and insurrection, you know, hate groups, etc. That's my concern. We have so many young people, especially young men, who are vulnerable right now.

JS: In the book, John cites demographers who estimate that by 2028 Generation Z and their immediate elders — millennials — will make up half of the electorate. What does that tell you about the future?

JDV: We think so much about this country being divided, and clearly it is. But it's really divided by age. We look at Gen Z and millennials — two-thirds of them support candidates who are Democrats, not Republicans. And once you get to Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation, it's a different scenario. As younger people age, as younger people begin to make voting a more regular habit, there is no question that they will be voting for the values that they've been developing over the last couple of years: concern about the way in which capitalism is practiced, concern about our climate, concern about racial justice. These are the issues that will be driving young people to the polls. They've made a greater impact on these issues than many people may already appreciate, and that those Democrats, as well as Republicans who don't take them seriously today, will underestimate them at their peril.

JS: David, what do we need to understand about Gen Z as we look to the future?

DH: I often hear older people come up to me and say, "I'm so thankful that your generation is standing up, and we can finally kind of pass the baton off to you." It can't be that way. It can't. It's going to take every generation working together in order to fix these things. If our older generations or our country is simply putting it on younger people to fix these things, they're never going to get fixed. Because as powerful as we are, it has to be an inter-generational coalition of people that work hand in hand, and don't patronize or talk down to young people, but lead with young people and our vision and ideas for the future.

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