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The Issues That Motivate Gen Z Voters

They’re showing growing signs of involvement with a variety of political and social concerns. Public leaders need to encourage them.

Gen Z climate protesters
Climate change is among the issues with which members of Generation Z are consumed, along with college debt, food injustice and the cost of housing. (Jacob Lund/Shutterstock)
Recently, my wife and I were among the dinner guests of the parents of a 21-year-old Generation Z college student. We and our hosts were a multiracial mix of baby boomers and Gen Xers, and the big issue of the night, certainly for the student, was how out of touch politicians from both major parties are with her generation, whose members range in age from 12 to 27. Understanding their needs and aspirations, and forging a message targeted to them, will be key to political victories and defeats in the upcoming state and national elections.

Keeping young voters motivated has always been a problem, but in times like these — when the two major parties are at a stalemate, COVID-19 and inflation have disrupted our economy, and violence is so pervasive at home and abroad — it is especially important. And as recent voting patterns indicate, young voters are neither unreachable nor unresponsive to political events.

In 2020, according to a Tufts University study, half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 came out to vote, about 11 percentage points more than turned out in 2016. (The percentage varied greatly from state to state, dependent on “the electoral laws and policies that help grow voters,” wrote the authors of the report. For example, 63 percent of young voters turned out in Colorado, while only 32 percent did so in South Dakota.) In a more recent Tufts poll, 57 percent of young voters said they are “extremely likely” to vote this year, and another 15 percent said they are “fairly likely” to vote.

During our dinner, I listened intently to the words of the Georgia State University student. She had many of the same concerns with which others of her generation are consumed: college debt, climate change, food injustice and the high cost of housing that has necessitated her living with her parents, as my daughters did after they graduated from college.

When I listened to her enumerate issues that are likely to motivate her, I heard the voices of my millennial and Gen X daughters, who often remind me that most living Americans are in their age category — 25 to 54, with the average age of 39. For the first time in their lives, they will have to grapple with the possibility of not being able to decide for themselves whether to have an abortion should the need arise. And they are angry and genuinely heartbroken over Israel’s retaliatory bombings in the Gaza Strip that have killed more than 30,000 Palestinians, the majority of them children and mothers.

These big existential issues, along with mental health, poll high among young people in national surveys. Other issues, according to some surveys, include gun violence and jobs that don’t pay a livable wage. In short, they are concerned about their own survival, but they also worry about the survival of our republic and our democratic institutions.

Taking time to interact with young people allows us to reflect on our own lives and beliefs — past and present. I remember where I was and how I felt when I was a teenager and heard about the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Later, when I was a college undergraduate, I was a fellow traveler of the peace movement. Some of those years, I lived with a Vietnam veteran who had returned home and protested the war he had fought and killed in. Later he left this country for South Africa and never returned. The soundtrack of the 1960s still rings in my ears as I recall the lyrics of songs like Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’”, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect.” For a while it seemed like those songs and the movements that inspired them would bring about permanent change. Clearly, that did not happen.

As time has passed, many who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s abandoned, if they had even possessed, the values of peace, justice and equality for all. And worse than that, my generation has failed to pass on to our children and grandchildren a world that reflects those values. All of us, especially political leaders, must bear some responsibility for this. And yet the concerns expressed by our Gen Z dinner companion, and the fact that her generational cohort has been motivated to vote in greater numbers, gives me hope — hope that despite our failures those values are nevertheless making their way to the young Americans who will be setting our society’s agenda in decades to come.

The challenge for public officials today, those who have answered the call to enter the arena for the right reasons, is to further motivate young people and convince them that the values for which some of us believed we would be willing to die for in the ’60s and ’70s are still worth fighting for. We must persuade them that our country, as close as it was to insurrection in 2021, can one day unify around universal principles of freedom and justice. We must prove to young people that their standard of living and job and personal security are uppermost in our minds. I said as much to our Gen Z dinner companion.

Our best chance of seeing these values enter our body politics is in the next generation who will lead our cities, states and country in the future. Before the college student, the only one at our dinner born after the year 2000, left us for the evening, she came up to me and said, “Thanks for sticking up for my generation. That has never happened to me before.” I smiled and thought to myself, “I hope she never changes.”

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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