© 2022 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

What's at stake for Gen Z voters, from climate change to the Supreme Court

A student-led climate change march in Los Angeles in 2019. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)
A student-led climate change march in Los Angeles in 2019. (Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)

An estimated 50% of 18-to-29-year-olds voted in the 2020 presidential election according to Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

It’s one of the highest voter turnouts for young people since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971.

Sixty-five percent of 18-to-24-year-old voters preferred President Joe Biden to former President Donald Trump in 2020. But nearly two years into his term, Biden’s approval rate among voters 30 years old or younger hovers around 1%. Most of those voters fall solidly in Generation Z, people born between 1997 to 2012.

“A lot of young people feel disaffected and they’re not looking at a White House that is able to deliver a lot of issues they’ve been waiting for much of their lifetime,” says Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

Biden’s advanced age, 79, is often cited as the driving force behind Gen Z’s disconnect with his policies. But the younger generation’s overwhelming support for 80-year-old Sen. Bernie Sanders disproves that theory. During the 2020 presidential primaries, Sanders recorded nearly three times more Gen Z votes than Biden.

“Sanders is a very good example of how someone who is of an older generation can still speak to the concerns that really bother younger Americans,” Zelizer says. “So it’s possible an older candidate can say the right things.”

More than age, Gen Z voters disenchanted with the Biden administration point to legislative inaction on progressive issues like climate protection, gun control and public healthcare. As issues compound, young voters perceive the White House as an institution that does not take their concerns seriously, Zelizer says.

“These are generations of younger people who lived through school lockdowns for shootings. That’s not an imagined threat,” he says. “I think they’re frustrated. It’s not simply that the leaders aren’t saying the right thing. It’s that the government is not producing responses to these crises.”

Youth dissatisfaction leading to increased political action is not a new phenomenon. Political scholars and researchers draw similarities between today’s activists and those of the ‘60s and ‘70s, specifically those who organized in opposition to the Vietnam War.

“Back then, bipartisan alliances in Washington prevented action on all sorts of issues that they cared about, from civil rights to student issues,” Zelizer says. “The 1960s became a story of young people taking to the streets, protesting on campuses and really persuading politicians to listen to their agenda and to start dealing with the questions that mattered to them.”

Historical evidence of youth mobilization making change, coupled with 2020 voter turnout, shows the power young people have as a voting bloc. As the oldest members of Gen Z turn 25 this year, they become eligible to run for Congress, further impacting the U.S.’s political landscape.

“That’s what we actually saw between the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. A new generation came of age and they entered state and national politics. And I think if that happens today, they will be putting issues like climate change front and center,” Zelizer says. “They’re going to be forcing the hand of those who say wait or those who say ‘no.’”


Shirley Jahad produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Grace Griffin adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.