2020 is only the beginning.
For the first time on Nov. 3rd, a significant block of Gen Zs (aged 13–23) will be able to vote, initiating the beginnings of a political shift that will continue as their numbers increase with each election.
In 2020, Zs will make up 10% of eligible voters, as 24MM will be 18+ (vs. 2016 when only those born in 1997 & 1998 could vote). Critically, Gen Z will outnumber the Silent Generation (the pre-Boomer cohort aged 72+), creating a marked shift in the demographics and political priorities of our voting electorate. In a political system that’s been dominated by Boomers+ for decades, Gen Z/Millennials will now match their numbers at 40% of eligible voters, while the Boomer+ block continues to shrink (40% in 2020 vs. 68% in 2000). Move over Boomers, indeed.
This generational change is significant, as Gen Z/Millennials have fundamentally different political priorities and demands of our political system vs. older generations. Some of this is driven by their demographics. As Zs are the most diverse generation (see Welcome the Non-White Majority), non-whites will account for 1/3 of national eligible voters in 2020, while over 1/2 of Gen Z/Millennial voters in 9 states will be non-white (including swing states like AZ, FL, GA and TX). Gen Z’s diversity makes issues of racial equity, criminal justice, immigration reform and gender rights very personal, just as their acute experience of climate change makes environmental policy a non-negotiable for them.
Gen Z is uniquely engaged in these issues, despite their young age. Their formative years have been dominated by movements like March for our Lives (gun reform), #metoo, the Women’s March, Youth Climate Strikes and Black Lives Matter. Zs have assumed leadership roles in many of these movements, putting themselves on the front lines of social change and asserting their political voices. Their civic participation has given them an understanding of how public policy directly impacts these issues and their generation. Having achieved voting age for the first time, this election elevates their influence on the policies they’ve been fighting for.
While younger voters historically have lower voting rates, there is evidence that relevant events drive youth voter turnout. Following Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 and the Stoneman Douglas shootings in 2018, Gen Z/Millennial/Gen X outvoted older generations in the 2018 midterms, representing a 16-point bump in Gen Z/Millennial turnout vs. 2016 (with 30% of eligible Gen Zs voting and Millennial turnout growing from 22% in 2014 to 42% in 2018). This suggests Zs recent political activism will galvanize higher turnout rates in 2020.
We asked Zs what events awakened their political awareness and will drive them to the polls this November. They cited Black Lives Matter, the climate crisis, Donald Trump’s presidency, gun regulation, recent attacks on the LGBTQ+ community and women’s reproductive rights. These collective experiences make Gen Z more united on issues that have historically divided older generations (e.g.: climate change). Importantly, only 11% of Zs say the U.S. is heading in the right direction and only 8% say the current government understands Gen Z’s priority issues.
“During the 2016 election, I was 16 and everybody around me had opinions that were so polarizing and I was in the middle of all of it. It was hard not to become engaged because it seemed like the stakes were so high. Even though I couldn’t vote yet, I quickly developed my own opinions and beliefs. I will be able to vote in the upcoming election and it is super important to me.” 20, OK
“When the BLM protests started happening, I realized we need change and need someone politically who wants to help us achieve what minorities have been fighting for years.” 18, IA
“When I was 15 and abortion bans were being passed all over the United States. I remember how angry I was seeing people be okay with this, so I began researching and speaking out against it.” 16, CO
“At 16 I realized how unsafe school was when somebody broke into our school and had a gun. That moment made me want to change things.” 20, CO
Separately, having lived through the past 4 years of political divisiveness, Gen Z sees clearly that our current political system is not working. Only 13% of Zs say they have confidence in our current political system, and most believe we need systemic change. While older generations may remember examples of bipartisan cooperation, Zs have witnessed little of that in their young lifetimes. Instead, Gen Z sees polarization, dysfunction and a lack of productivity. That said, Zs believe in government and are the generation most likely to say “government should do more to solve problems”.
Only 21% say it feels like we live in a democracy right now, as most do not believe the current system represents the interests of the people.
“A democracy is a system of government run by and for the people. The U.S. doesn’t match that description at all, because no politician has the people’s best interests at heart.” 16, ME
“Democracy to me is a government where the people have the power. There are many things people have rallied for and nothing has come of it. The government did not do anything about the police system when there were protests for months about it.” 18, OH
“To me, democracy means each person’s voice is heard and counted. This is at risk of being taken from many people if the U.S. continues to make it difficult to vote for certain demographics.” 22, DE
“Democracy is where every human being has an equal say in this country, no matter economic status, color, sexuality, gender identity or religious affiliation. I don’t believe the US today meets this definition due to the current administration’s negative view on POC and the LGBTQ+ community.” 17, NJ
When asked the #1 thing they’d like to change in our political system, Gen Z most often cites the electoral college and two-party system. Only 12% of Zs say our two-party system is working. They see it creating a seemingly unsurmountable chasm, preventing collaboration or progress and thereby undermining our democracy.
“I want to change the fact that people are defined by the two-party system instead of thinking for themselves as individuals.” 14, GA
“I want to change our political parties. They segregate us into groups which we receive pressure to align with. If we focused on real world issues instead of fighting each other we may fix problems we could never dream of before.” 15, HI
“The two-party system has gotten so out of hand that it is just constant bickering that never leads to change. The immaturity of presidential candidates definitely doesn’t help as they both spew hateful words about the ‘far left’ or ‘far right’, ‘libtards’, etc. All this division does is prevent change and reform.” 20, OK
In response, an unprecedented percentage of Gen Z define themselves as “Independent” vs. “Republican” or “Democrat”, despite the fact the majority align with progressive policies on the left. Fully 1/3 of Zs we interviewed preferred to identify as “Independent”. Zs value self-definition and do not like to be put in boxes, whether on gender, ethnicity or political affiliation. The rejection of the two-party system is also driven by Zs inclusive, collective nature. Zs pride themselves on being an open-minded generation; they value diversity and discourse with people of different backgrounds and perspectives, and see this as key to a functioning democracy.
“I don’t want to be classified with either side. I have my own views separate of political parties. Whatever I align with is based on my own views, not a party’s views.” 14, OH
“Being independent allows me to see issues from both sides rather than blindly digging in on one side for every issue.” 16, NC
“I don’t label myself under a party because I think that opens my mind up to others’ opinions, even if I disagree with them.” 19, MI
“I believe being an independent is very important because I can see both sides to each party. One thing I believe strongly in is acceptance of everyone, although certain mindsets force me to lean one way more than another.” 23, ME
This generation’s unprecedented involvement in political activism demonstrates their desire to engage and have a stake in our democracy. Their unification around key issues makes them a power block that will grow with each consecutive election, as more and more Zs come of age. Think about this: someone who turns 18 this year will be voting until 2080, based on life expectancy. Their powerful ideas on the future of our political system, such as their desire to move beyond two-parties could have a profound impact in the years to come. Beginning this November, they appear poised to get to work.
“Gen Z has many new ideas that could improve the country but if we don’t vote they won’t be represented.” 15, KS
“Gen Z is the generation that is the most ‘woke’. As such, we know what we need to do if we want to shape our world correctly and make a change.” 17, NJ
“It is extremely important for Gen Z to vote. Gen Z has the power to change the future for the better. We have the ability and responsibility to dictate how the years to come unfold.” 19, NH
“Gen Z can change the dynamic of our country’s politics and will guide a new era of America.” 23, NE
We will all be watching as this future generation steps up the polls and begins to assert their political power.
AnneMarie Hayek (Evans), Founder/President, ZSpeak & Global Mosaic