Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Gen Z Makes Its Entrance Onto the Political Stage

Members of the youngest generation of adults are starting to hold office.

people in a crowded street with some holding American flags
Adobe Stock
Editor's Note: This article appears in Governing's Summer 2024 magazine. You can subscribe here.

Generation Z consists of people born since 1997, meaning older members of the generation are already politically active. A survey from Tufts University found that as many as 20 percent of Gen Z would consider running for office, but they’ll have a long way to go to catch up with the baby boomers (who hold nearly half the seats in Congress despite representing only a fifth of the population).

Gen Z may be underrepresented at this point, but here are three individuals already making their mark:

Anderson Clayton, 26, North Carolina Democratic Party chair

Anderson Clayton canvassed in a rural area of Iowa during the 2020 presidential race, but her path toward making politics a career began after she’d moved back home to Person County, N.C., the following year. She was attending a virtual county convention when the local party chair stepped down. “I looked at everyone else and I went, ‘I volunteer as tribute,’” she says, laughing as she references a line from The Hunger Games.
Anderson Clayton, 26, North Carolina Democratic Party Chair

Clayton started with the fundamentals: recruiting candidates, getting people registered and knocking on doors to encourage voters to come out for down-ballot races. She enjoyed some success and decided at age 25 to run against the incumbent chair of the state party. Her victory made her the youngest state party leader in the country.

She says young people like herself are going to change the politics of her state, which is politically divided but largely ruled by Republicans. She’s also angry that her party has mostly ignored rural voters in recent years. “What I can change may not be things people see in the next two years,” Clayton says. “But I am trying to break structural things so that over the next 10 years, North Carolina is going to look completely different.”

Arturo Alonso Sandoval, 25, Oklahoma State Representative

As a kid, Arturo Alonso Sandoval’s mind was occupied by Star Wars, not politics. As high school was winding down, he started knocking on doors and texting voters for local politicians. His main intention was to round out his resume to be more competitive for scholarships to pursue studies in mechanical engineering, but he quickly caught the bug.
Arturo Alonso Sandoval, 25, Oklahoma state representative

Sandoval kept up his political connections after enrolling at Oklahoma State University. He was all set to leave for an engineering job in Austin, Texas, but he got a call from the state senator he’d campaigned for, asking if he’d ever thought about becoming a candidate himself. “No, that’s not something I’d ever considered,” he says. “It’s not very common to see a young Latino engineer running for office.”

He ran and won in 2022, winning again this year by default after drawing no opponents. Many of his state House colleagues have kids or even grandkids his age. Maybe for that reason, he suggests, they’ve been welcoming and happy to offer him guidance. Still, he thinks government needs to be more representative. “I think it’s going to take the younger generations if you want meaningful change,” he says. “We want to have a good mix, obviously, but change is not going to come from the people who have been in office.”

Esme Cole, 27, Vermont State Representative

Like a lot of part-time legislators, Esme Cole does other things for money. In her case, she sometimes holds down two additional jobs. The combined workload, she confesses, makes her think at times about leaving Montpelier.

Esme Cole, 27, Vermont state representative
Wayne Fawbush
But she believes young people should be represented in office. She was drawn in by state Sen. Rebecca White, who’d entered local politics while still in her 20s and encouraged Cole to run. For many young people, politics feels like an impossible goal, but after Cole had worked with the state health department and for a nonprofit, White helped push her out of her comfort zone. “It’s really helpful to see that it’s possible for someone our age to be in that role,” Cole says. “It’s inspiring and it does allow it to seem like a more feasible idea.”

Cole now makes a point of engaging with high school students who maybe can use a little push to enter the political sphere as they get older. She generally comes away impressed that their interests range from climate change to right-to-repair laws (which give consumers the right to alter vehicles and other equipment). She does her best to spark such interests and let them know that, as happened for her, careers in politics are possible from a young age.
Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
From Our Partners