Generation Z, the Zoomers, or whatever term may be used to describe the generation born between the late 1990s and early 2010s once the chaos of contemporary terminology settles upon the riverbed of history, may become the most important generation of the 21st century. Being far more than the first generation to be raised in a fully digitized world, a detail regularly lauded by social commentators whenever the topic of Gen Z is mentioned, Gen Z is fundamentally reshaping the social, cultural, and political landscape due to a range of important factors.
Among the most significant events of recent times where Generation Z displayed their potential for long-term change was the 2020 United States Presidential Election, the first Election where enough Gen Z were old enough to carry a noticeable electoral influence. The data is nothing less than astounding, showing a vast generational divide. A simple observation of exit polling data for that year shows that while every other age bracket was split between Joe Biden and Donald Trump with single-digit margins, the margin among the youngest age bracket was a staggering 24 percent (1). The generational gap was so wide that if only young people voted in the 2020 Election, even states such as Missouri, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, states with significant Republican majorities, would have voted for the Democratic candidate (2).
It can be reasonably argued that, given the unique and controversial nature of 2020’s incumbent, the results of the election may have been skewed by a backlash against Donald Trump and therefore Gen Z’s leftward shift is less significant than suggested. At first glance, a survey of Gen Z voters does suggest this, with nearly half of Gen Z Biden voters claiming they were voting against Trump instead of voting for Biden. However, other data from the same survey puts the integrity of this argument into question, with 38 percent of Gen Z identifying as “liberal” and only 18 percent of them identifying as “conservative” (as opposed to the more equally split national average) (3).
Further analysis of the fact that a larger percentage of Gen Z Biden voters were voting against Trump may suggest the opposite of the initial implication. Despite having more Gen Z identify as “liberal” than “conservative”, the percentage of Gen Z identifying under the Democratic Party is about the same as previous generations. Instead, Gen Z voters are more likely to identify as “independent” (3). Combined with the fact that Gen Z is more likely to vote “against Trump” than “for Biden” the implications are clear. Gen Z is a generation opposed to the current political establishment, a generation keen on creating a new political paradigm.
Therefore, Gen Z is not a generation of Democrats. On the contrary, to Gen Z they are that party of deceitful corporatists, that party of crooked politicians who vapidly preach progressive values they do not understand behind the podium while, behind office doors, they make negotiations with lobbyists who line their pockets with blood stained gold. As voting third party would have the same political influence as tossing one’s ballot into the sea, Gen Z finds themselves forced to make a narrow decision between the Democrats and that other party; to Gen Z, they are that party of delirious reactionaries, that party on the verge of schism as they come to terms with the consequences of spending four years prostituting themselves to right-wing populism.
When presented with the data and arguments above, many still refuse to believe the serious implications of Gen Z’s unusual political behavior. Often such individuals would cite the conventional wisdom that all generations experience a similar phase, and just like every generation, Gen Z would eventually move back to the center of the traditional Overton window and become more accepting of the current political order. In investigating the accuracy of this piece of conventional wisdom, one study decided to place it against the empirical evidence surrounding the long-term political affiliation of adults. The results show that, while the propensity to change one’s identification from “liberal” to “conservative” with age is greater than vice versa, the instances of such change are uncommon (4). In other words, the majority tend to adhere to their general political beliefs. Admittedly, for reasons that will be discussed later, Gen Z may alter the course of their political trends in the near future. However, it is very unlikely they would simply return to traditional voting patterns.
The argument that individuals become more moderate or conservative with age operates under the assumption that, as young people tend to be more progressive, historical voting patterns should always demonstrate a greater propensity to vote for the progressive party (in this case, the post-civil rights movement Democrats) among young people. Therefore, the 2020 election results should not be anything extraordinary. This assumption is easily put into question upon examination of historical exit polling data, where there seems to be almost no correlation between age and party affiliation. For example, in the elections of 2000 (5), 1996 (6), 1988 (7), and 1976 (8), the vote distributions between the Democratic and Republican candidates among the youngest age bracket are very similar to that of every other age bracket. The shift towards the left among young people did not start until 2004 (9), which is coincidentally the first election with significant involvement among the Millennial generation (a generation who will be discussed shortly). With each consecutive election, the youngest age bracket has only been moving increasingly left, with 2020 being a prime example. Therefore, the higher propensity for young people to vote left is a recent phenomenon, a unique trend set by the Millennials and only accelerated by Gen Z.
This begs the question of why exactly such trends are happening in the first place. When met with this question, a common response would be to attribute these trends to the rise of the internet. While such a response is intuitive, it does not fully capture the complex nature of the youth’s condition. The internet is ultimately a catalyst, and while a catalyst can be a powerful thing, it cannot be the root cause. Therefore, while the internet has played a major role in creating these trends, their true cause must be something else. Before moving on, it is important to address that this text will not discuss why Gen Z is moving specifically towards the left, a very different discussion that may be reserved for another time. Rather, the aim is to answer the much broader question of why Gen Z’s voting patterns are different compared to previous generations and will likely remain different, even if they do change from a generally leftward shift to something else entirely.
One of the few constants of human history is the existence of injustice. To experience, to inflict, or to hear of injustice is an inseparable aspect of the human condition. Whether one lives in the past or present, is young or old, rich or poor, their exposure to injustice is inevitable. However, while the existence of injustice is a constant, the magnitude of injustice and how it manifests is not. Yet, this is a fact often neglected, often in a manner tied with prejudice; individuals discredit, ignore, or deny the injustices faced by those they share prejudices against as a means of internalized dehumanization. Such is the case with today’s generations, where the differences in material conditions between young and old hinder their ability to perceive each others’ exposure to injustice.
The older generations, most notably the Baby Boomer generation, with their growing share of national wealth (10), seldom receive empathy from the younger generations. Such antagonism makes it easy to forget the injustices faced by the Baby Boomers, injustices that are still fresh in many of their memories to this day. The Baby Boomers remember the existential dread of the Cold War, a time where the world was split in two by the ideological giants of Mosk and Merk, both powerful enough to end human civilization with a flick of their fingers yet reckless in their pursuit of global hegemony. They remember when they were once called atheist, unpatriotic, and cowardly by the so-called Greatest Generation as they were seized by the arms and thrown into the front lines of Vietnam.
Despite the many tribulations faced by this generation, it is a well known fact that the Baby Boomers today have grown to become a generation known for their relative prosperity. Often ignoring or undermining the socioeconomic factors that have allowed them to accumulate such wealth despite the social upheaval, many among this generation lead themselves to believe that it is their individual decisions and characteristics that have created this outcome (a mindset that is arguably inevitable when one gains a vested interest in the maintenance of the status quo). Therefore, when exposed to the political trends displayed by younger generations, they perceive such trends as the youth attempting to shift the blame of outcomes they are responsible for onto other factors. The Baby Boomer believes that since their generation has persevered through the injustices of their youth, the youths of today should be capable of achieving the same level of success in spite of the injustices they face; the only thing stopping them are their supposed sense of laziness, entitlement, and irresponsibility.
The error of this thinking, however, lies under the assumption that the extent and nature of injustice are constant when the only constant (as stated previously) is injustice’s mere existence. As mentioned earlier, while the Baby Boomers’ past was full of injustice, defined by geopolitical anxiety and a growing mistrust of authority, it was also relatively prosperous for its youth, with the majority of Baby Boomers and Gen X achieving homeownership (11). The injustice of the present, however, is far more intimate. While injustices far from home are still present in the consciousness of today’s youth, more of them must now also preoccupy themselves with other social and economic injustices that have or will affect them directly. As such, with both social and economic incentives to challenge the status quo, fresher grounds are created for radicalization.
To be Gen Z is to have been raised with the awareness that there exists little hope for the world and themselves. It is to see the growing inequality of wealth and income that is challenging the integrity of the once pioneering middle class (12, 13), it is to see the diminishing value of a college education as student debt and worsening job prospects transform the mighty degree into an ineffectual sheet of paper, it is to see the costs of rent and healthcare balloon to such levels that they can effortlessly banish a six-figure earner into a state of debt and poverty overnight (14, 20), it is to see the active shooter drills as the safety of the learning environment taken away from their childhood experience, it is to see the consequences of the botched war on drugs that have defiled the very rights of citizenship as the wretched and needy are rounded into concrete enclosures en masse (21), it is to see the cities, once able to compete with the likes of Paris and Milan in beauty and magnificence, defiled by the ideologies of postwar technocrats to become endless fields of sprawling asphalt, carved by freeways that stand over the graves of once mighty neighborhoods (15), and it is to see the onset of ecological collapse as the destruction of all that is good on this planet is ushered by the greed and arrogance of humankind.
The factors mentioned constitute a fraction of the vast array of issues that have and continue to contribute to the political trends observed by Gen Z, for the perseverance of these factors has convinced them they can no longer rely on the existing political establishment to properly address them. It is important to point out that the importance of each factor on an individual basis can vary significantly based on political affiliation and personal experiences. However, the one thing that does unite most Gen Z is their collective dissatisfaction with the current state of the world and their desire to improve it.
While Gen Z may be most radicalized by the present, they are not the first generation to inherit it. The Millennial generation may share many similarities with Gen Z, but a key difference between the two is that while the upbringing of Gen Z was defined by hopelessness, the upbringing of the Millennials was defined by the opposite. The young Millennial lived in a decade of miracles; their experience was defined by the dawn of the information age, the end of the Cold War, incredible economic growth, and general political stability. With the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the biggest scandal of the nation being a petulant sex affair, historians and philosophers alike declared the end of history.
Thus, the Millennials were raised believing that history would end but grew up to find out that it was just beginning. The 21st century’s formative years were defined by two recessions and a neverending war on terror. The Millennials, who once looked at adulthood with excitement and anticipation, found themselves existing between paychecks (16). Dreams of having children became dreams of clearing six-figure debts, dreams of homeownership became dreams of abandoning their decrepit studio apartments. To be a Millennial is to be betrayed by a world that was rendered into a drunken state by the slightest taste of hope. When met with the desperate pleas of why, in denial of abandoning their childish delusions of optimism, older generations conjure elaborate scapegoats that conveniently fall upon the victims.
Gen Z likely once accepted that the Millennials were at fault for their own economic despair, believing that they serve as a cautionary tale against laziness, entitlement, and poor financial skills. However, as they grew older, some realized that they were seeing the Millennials through a mirror. Through the Millennials, Gen Z received a grim warning for the future, one that is not obfuscated by temporary optimism. As such, Gen Z found themselves radicalized at a younger age. The differences in experience between the Millennials and Gen Z can be likened to two people tied upon a railway. The first one would be asleep, blindfolded and comfortably wrapped in thick cushions, blissfully unaware of their predicament until the sudden siren of an approaching train. The other would be bound with ropes, completely aware of their fate yet absolutely powerless to stop it.
With little hope for the future, some early Gen Z joins the late Millennials in passively accepting the bleak, hopeless, and absurd nature of their existence. Such individuals are labeled by both themselves and their detractors as the Doomers, a term first popularized along the fringes of the internet during the late 2010s that eventually crawled itself into mainstream discourse. The Doomer is the most extreme manifestation of the growing nihilism and existentialism of Gen Z and the Millenials. To the Doomer, all purpose of existence in both the material and abstract sense has been lost. The Doomer, as such, lives a life of isolation, rotting in their bedrooms while engorging themselves in fast food and alcohol during the day and aimlessly walking through the darkened streets at night.
The Doomers, of course, merely represent the most extreme manifestation of the hopelessness and nihilism characteristic of younger generations. A more common outlet of expression can be found in their humor. The Millennial generation embraced a sense of humor defined by dark themes and surrealism. Such humor is not only isolated within online communities, but also present on mainstream media with shows such as Bojack Horseman, the Eric Andre Show, and Rick and Morty, many of which were produced by Millennials themselves. This is not to say that nihilism did not exist in the generations preceding the Millenials. Rather, what makes the Millennials unique is how much these themes have become a defining characteristic of their entire generation.
The Millennials, of course, do not represent the first significant wave of dark and nonsensical humor. Just over a century ago saw the rise of Dadaism, an artistic movement defined by its nonsensical nature and its rejection of reason. Such a movement rose as the world was shattered by the First World War, where conventional attitudes and values, especially those towards war, religion, and nationalism, were put into question as the sheer horror of this Great War was made known to all corners of the globe. Just like the Millennials, the Dadaists reflect a generation betrayed by the values that once nurtured them as their society becomes traumatized by the chaos of their present.
If the Millennials’ humor reflects a generation who have abandoned their old values in the face of a hopeless reality, then Gen Z’s humor reflects a generation who never had any hope to begin with. A Millennial may find humor in jokes about the inevitable heat death of the universe or the futility of existence, while someone from Generation Z may find more entertainment in the distorted exclamation of a randomly generated world or an otherwise unimpressive image so excessively processed to the point of being completely incomprehensible. While there is plenty of overlap regarding the cultural aspects of both generations, some of the Millennials’ humor that once struck older generations as unconventional may feel underwhelming to Gen Z, and likewise, some of Gen Z’s humor is so utterly broken and nonsensical that it may even leave the Millennials confused.
The expression of the hopelessness and absurdity of one’s perceived reality, through humor or otherwise, does not equate to an attitude of absolute hopelessness as seen in the Doomer. On the contrary, as shown by the political trends previously discussed, Gen Z is eager to address the issues that serve as the root of their frustrations and anxieties. Whether this propensity to engage in politics is done out of hopefulness, desperation, or both, ultimately depends on the individual. However, the aspect most relevant is that the Gen Z who are aware of the state of their world are not willing to lose hope in the face of hopelessness.
When placed under dire socioeconomic straits, many find themselves in a state of desperation for relief. Such desperation has historically created a strong propensity for individuals to fall under the seductive spell of populist rhetoric, and Gen Z is no exception. Despite an overall nationwide shift to the left led by Gen Z, they are an instrumental part of both left and right-wing populism. Due to the nature of populism, there exist many overlapping ideological beliefs in today’s left and right-wing populism, such as policies regarding protectionism and foreign intervention. Yet, the differences related to other issues are so significant that both factions of populism tend to be fundamentally opposed. This, however, comes with a unique exception, a less common group of young populists who perceive politics as a struggle between themselves and their broad, arbitrary notions of “the elite” or “the establishment”. Ready to switch between Bernie Sanders and Doland Trump as if they were running on the same ticket, these individuals could spend one day advocating for Medicare for All alongside their progressive peers and the next day chatting “America First” as they storm the Capitol alongside their right-wing acquaintances.
Fundamentally, populism is a volatile tool, for it answers not to reason but the romantic power of raw emotion, a power that can spark the hearts and minds of the common person in a manner no theory nor empirical investigation could. On one side, it possesses the power to erect and strengthen the pillars of democracy by offering a voice to the disenfranchised masses. On the other, however, by prostituting itself to the worst of their prejudice and superstition, it can pulverize the pillars of democracy into mounds of smoking dust. As such, the popularity of populism among Gen Z can produce unpredictable outcomes (with the presidency of Donald Trump being a testament to that). Therefore, it is a phenomenon that should be treated with great caution.
The social and political trends of Generation Z have been a topic held with great interest for many years, and these years of observation have shown that this generation is fundamentally unpredictable. Just half a decade ago, Gen Z was slated by many to be a generation of conservatives (17, 18, 19). However, recent developments have challenged the implications of such, and perhaps future developments would challenge some of the implications I have made in this text. However, whether Gen Z would continue pushing America to the left, return to the right, or approach a direction that transcends the standard dichotomies of the political compass, I am still firmly convinced that Gen Z’s determination to reshape the status quo and their mistrust of the established order will remain the same for decades to come. With the rage of this angry generation rooted in the injustice of the present and the failure of those in power to address it, for better or worse, they are destined to forever change the political climate as we know it.
Edit (08/04/2021): Minor errors fixed
Edit (08/10/2021): Source list modified, sources added
Edit (05/30/2023): Video embedded