Our World to Shape

“This is your generation’s world to shape,” President Barack Obama told high schoolers in his virtual commencement speech to the Class of 2020. 

Our world—in which schools have closed due to the coronavirus for more than 90 percent of the world’s students, half of whom do not have the tools for online learning; where, in the U.S., there is a concentration of economic power in the top 1 percent not seen since the 1920s, and where marginalized groups suffer from police brutality; where carbon emissions increase each year as scientists warn they must be cut in half before 2030 to avoid the worst case scenario; where democracy slips and authoritarianism tightens its grip.

“It might be a sobering realization,” Obama said.

So who is this new generation, battered by unprecedented crises, slated to save the world? The name is Generation Z. Not very exciting or special—Gen Z is just two letters after Gen X. Some think it should be i-Gen, as in iPhone, iPad. Others prefer Homelanders, because we spend more time at home than our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents. Some have recently pushed Zoomers.

Born between 1996 and 2012, Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation yet, the most liberal yet and on track to be the most well-educated yet. Only 22 percent of Gen Zers approve of the Trump presidency, compared to 57 percent of the Silent Generation (1928 to 1945) and 43 percent of Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964). One third of our generation knows someone who uses gender neutral pronouns, and most approve of the NFL protests. None of this is very surprising, but the following might be. 

Only 8 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 believe the government is working as it should be. Fewer than 1 in 5 consider themselves “very patriotic.” These were the numbers before the pandemic—they have likely plummeted. According to a Pew study, our generation is far more skeptical of government than the past several.

Our generation will have to grow up fast. According to a March Pew poll, more than half of the oldest Gen Zers (18-23) said that they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a pay cut because of the pandemic. Entering adulthood during an economic crisis will likely make Gen Zers more cautious adults than they already are. If we grow up like other crisis generations—the Greatest Generation and Millennials, for example—we will likely have fewer kids, higher mortality rates and higher divorce rates.

A majority of Gen Zers see increased diversity as good for society, a majority believe the earth is getting warmer due to human activity and a vast majority think the government should be doing more to solve problems. 

Gen Zers have a lot on our political bucket list. We recognize the problems, and have no problem pointing them out. But the big question that we must be asking ourselves, and that others will soon be asking us, is: What will we do about them?

The Greatest Generation, which fought in World War II, produced the labor movement, which shortened work days and created weekends. Labor activts pushed Congress to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which set the 40-hour work week, phased out child labor and set standards for minimun wage.

The Silent Generation produced the civil rights movement, which ended lawful segregation. It forced congress and President Lyndon Johnson to pass the Civil Rights acts of 1957 and 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Made up of mostly Baby Boomers, the gay rights movement helped elect the first gay representatives to Congress, expanded hate crime legislation to include gay and lesbian people and pushed Congress to pass nondiscriminatory policies in employent and housing that included a plank for sexual orientation. 

The work of these generations’ young activists translated into legislation that forever changed America. They have set a high bar for political advocacy. Our ambitions should be no smaller than theirs, our marches no shorter.

But activism is only one of the ways to make change. There are a lot of good ideas pushed by determined activists that will never go anywhere if Mitch McConnell or Donald Trump are still in office. If we want to fix the issues that older people have failed to, we have to seize the reins of hard political power and focus our energy on policy making.

The 92 percent of us who don’t believe the government is “working as it should” should take Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s example and become a part of it. Criticism only goes so far. If we are dissatisfied with our government we shouldn’t disassociate ourselves from it; we should remake it ourselves. Living in a democracy gives us the privilege to determine what our government looks like. But if we don’t, it also allows us no excuses.

It will be a lot harder to claim we are dissatisfied when the reins are in our own hands.

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle,” Martin Luther King Jr. said. Many of us in Generation Z are still waiting in the wings. But soon, it will be our turn to struggle for change. There is an American tradition that after a crisis—the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II—the nation emerges better and stronger. It will be up to our generation whether or not that tradition is kept.

Nick Penniman ’22