An Uncertain Future: what politics mean to Gen-Z

Feb 28, 2020 | Features

The 2020 Presidential election will be the test of a new generation. 

Generally defined as those born between 1997 and 2010, the majority of the 72 million “Gen-Zers” will make their first legal foray into the world of political adulthood.

Gen Z’s formative years have taken place in an era of tremulous political uncertainty. Born in the age of Clinton’s impeachment and 9/11 and steeped in the War on Terror, the internet, and general political radicalization—but, at the same time, unprecedented yet incomplete global peace—these young people have been forged by highly unusual societal circumstances. What’s more, the nation’s claim as the economic, political, and social leader of the world is tenuous if not downright nostalgic, while the climate crisis has reached severity bordering on apocalyptic.

Some have said these factors drove the generation into becoming a part of a massive network of teenage activists and protesting opportunities. Those who rise into the national spotlight are both hailed and criticized for their outspoken stances on the biggest political issues of the modern day—Greta Thunberg the survivors of the Parkland shooting are perhaps the most well-known. They are often compared to the Beat Generation and counterculture movement half a century ago, galvanized to action by both high-stakes causes and the instability of their childhood.

But few have stopped to consider whether this rise actually exists—and whether an outpouring of activism is actually how the generation will interact with politics.

At Nueva, at least, that assumption of future activism is debunked, if only by the uncertainty of the student body.

A survey of the upper school student body attempted to explore two main facets of the relationship between young people and politics: students’ political involvement and their attitudes towards politics. Its results paint a highly messy, highly arguable, and at times contradictory landscape of the youth and their relationship with the current political environment. 

Respondents were asked to define what “politically involved” meant to them, and then asked whether they considered themselves to be so; nearly 40% of the 103 responses said they were, progressing from one-third of freshmen to over half of seniors identifying that way. Fifty-nine of 69 reported having attended or organized a protest, the highest participation of any political activity measured in the survey; the next most common was the 32 students who had attended or organized a rally for a cause.

It’s really challenged me to be an optimist, to find a positive perspective, just because there is so much negativity plaguing our government.

Stephanie S. '20

The survey also revealed some cynicism in the way students perceive the American political system. Students were asked the intentionally interpretive question, “Will American democracy as we know it be over in the next 20 years?” Responses were scattered, split majorly between “No,” and “50/50” chance, with 40.7% and 33.6% of the responses respectively. Of the remaining respondents, 18.6% chose “It’s already over”; 7.1% reported that it will end.

The results reflect the complicated and varied reactions that juniors Sian B. and Daniel A. experienced and saw throughout their own political involvement in climate activism.

Sian and Daniel entered the world of climate advocacy in the past two years as they have organized protests and coalitions. Recently they have seen a marked change in their attitudes towards politics—a progression towards deeper cynicism, but also, paradoxically, towards actionable hope.

“I think that as you get involved, you realize that a lot of it is broken…without easy solutions,” Daniel said. “At the same time, I’m also more empowered…As you get involved, you also realize that there is not a lot separating people who are ‘in’ and people who are not, in terms of the ability to analyze situations and jump in and actually have an opinion about politics.”

Sian had a similar experience, and noted that her hope and cynicism differed at regional and federal levels.

“I’m very critical of our national political system at this point, but getting involved locally has led me to be more hopeful in general,” Sian said. “Before becoming politically active, I didn’t know that there were many organizations and motivated groups of people. After I joined, I was more hopeful, at least environmentally, about the future of the Bay Area.”

The pair’s experiences with local politicians and environmental lobbying has, however, ultimately turned them away from futures as “inside players,” as Daniel put it, in the political system, though he and Sian will continue to participate in activism. This distrust of the established political system and turning towards outside avenues of political influence is a phenomenon that they see among other student activists and young people in the Bay Area.

And like Sian and Daniel, many of these students are influenced by the “bombardment” of information about political issues, as Sian put it, that causes students to “turn to this despair that we can’t actually do anything.” She said that the information tends to focus on the negative impacts of climate change, for example, rather than the solutions being tested and the ways the public can affect change. [Add in data from outside study]

The cynicism they noticed among the student activist movement isn’t just relegated to their circles; Stephanie S. ’20, a political volunteer and intern for the female candidate fundraising organization WomenCount, said she’s seen a “black hole” of negativity since being formally introduced to the political sphere last year during Intersession.

As we begin to enter politics, it will be a different style of politics than what gets brought to the forefront. I don’t know if that will manifest in a good way or not.

Daniel A. '21

Stephanie has seen this cynicism especially in the two historio-political courses she’s taking at Nueva, The American Presidency and U.S. Government. The classes inevitably touch on current political happenings; with that, she’s noticed that the classroom opinions can be distinctly homogeneous.

“In both of those classes, it was really difficult to have a diversity of perspectives when it comes to the modern left-versus-right thing,” she said, noting that this lack of opposing viewpoints is common at Nueva as a whole. “I know one open Republican in this entire school. It’s just odd, especially because it feels like America is so perfectly polarized and our school is just equally polarized. There’s also a lot of animosity towards those that hold different viewpoints, and sometimes that can lead to not being able to have civil conversations, not being able to listen, or not being open to learning from other viewpoints.”

She’s seen political outbursts in clubs and in classrooms that are “particularly frustrating.”

“In my opinion, it’s really important to respect, maybe not all, but a much wider range of political viewpoints than just the ones that I believe in,” Stephanie said. “We can learn so much from each other. The polarized state that we’re living in isn’t productive for anybody.”

Increased political partisanship in the past several decades in the U.S. is a well-documented phenomenon, with a number of extensive studies by the Pew Research Center as among most well-cited, and is pointed to as detrimental to productive conversation and cooperation, both across formal political aisles and in the general public. Along with that rise in polarization, average “trust” in the government has decreased sharply to the lowest it’s ever been, according to the trust index created by the American National Election Studies. Chelsea D., the upper school history teacher who runs the American Presidency course, says she “worries” about this distrust developing among Nueva students.

“This era of Trump could generate a feeling of not trusting democracy, not trusting the government, and not having any faith in the system. I also think that when you have the opposite party in power, it’s really easy to feel pessimistic about the state of the world,” said Chelsea, who makes a point of being transparent about her own political background in her classes and trying to create spaces for open conversation. “In some ways that can be good because it might get people to get involved, and some ways it can make people just turn off and disengage.”

I voted because I’m tired of contemplating civilizational collapse on a daily basis.

Arta K,, an Upper School history teacher who also teaches several historio-political classes, believes that education can help as a solution or salve to this issue by promoting civil discussion in classrooms. Given that some of his classes are potentially controversial, like International Relations and Conflict in the Middle East, he always tries to create a safe environment for discussion, especially at a place like Nueva where classes are liable to an imbalance of student opinions.

“In the world of academia, I saw professors who were just clumsy at creating an environment where people felt like they could dissent or even gently disagree with each other,” he said, recalling his own experience teaching college students. “So, it was always my hope as an educator that I could create the other kind of environment, one that doesn’t have those walls. If you’re a good educator, you’re empathetic with all your students.”

He and PreK-12 Equity & Social Justice Director Alegria B. hope to incorporate conversation-based civility at Nueva by creating the Center for Civic Discourse.

However, Arta noted that students are strongly influenced by the world outside Nueva, where Centers for Civic Discourse are few and obscured by the swath of internet and media. The figures on TV, YouTube, and other platforms, Arta said, are increasingly partisan and hostile on both ends of the political spectrum, and aren’t modeling the civility he hopes students will adopt.

“If you’re not seeing it, how do you do it? How do you emulate it?” he said. “Everything is, ‘Let’s own the libs,’ or ‘Let’s own the conservatives.’ You can’t help but ape some of that yourself.”

But just as the internet can be a potentially polarizing influence on students and their relationship with the political scene, it’s also a point of hope to Stephanie, who has seen it used for positive political participation. She says that she and her friends put links to political organizations like Vote Forward in their Instagram bios to encourage their followers to volunteer or get involved in other ways.

“Social media can be such a powerful tool, if it’s used correctly,” she said. “To me, that’s really exciting.”

However, she noted that the internet and social media is a place of misinformation if left in the wrong hands; this problem, she says, is especially one prominent in previous generations, who didn’t grow up in the age of technology.

“We’re better at learning to recognize fake news and misinformation, or we’re at least learning to be doubtful of information that we read on the internet,” she said. “Older generations are so used to having trustworthy news anchors that would never be dishonest. And then they see a post on Facebook that is entirely false and believe it wholeheartedly because they’ve never known anything else. That is incredibly frustrating to watch, and really impacts the political sphere, because we’re seeing so many people that are voting based on false claims.”

For Stephanie, the frustration she feels towards misinformation and polarization drives her to not only be politically active now, but also to plan it as her future.

It actually hurts to see students gang up on any of your other students—it’s an environment that feels mob-ish. I think the act of teaching actually is a little microcosm of civil discussion.

Arta K.

History Teacher

“As a generation, we are going to be a lot more politically involved than the generations above us—at least I hope so,” she said. “It’s one of my goals.”

The survey indicates that the hope is not misplaced, at least among Nueva students. In the survey, 88.3% said they would vote in the first election they were eligible for, and of those who would be able to vote in the 2020 election, 88% reported that they would.

As Gen Z teeters on the cusp of adulthood, these results point to the idea that, despite the cynicism rampant nationally and within Nueva, young people will be politically active as they mature. How their political involvement will manifest, however, remains unknown.

But Arta knows how he wants young people, especially at Nueva, to participate in politics.

“My dream is that more Nueva kids go into the public sector, to bring their intelligence and their humanity and their empathy to government and to public service,” he said. “That’s another reason why I wanted to make a civil discourse intervention; I want to make that public world seem less horrific and disgusting, and more one that you can go into and make a positive impact.”