I was born near the end of 2002. I’ve been told many things about my generation: that we are both disillusioned and involved, educated and naive, collaborative and isolated, apathetic and activistic, nihilistic and egalitarian, made up of uncompetitive and unambitious individuals who have high, usually progressive ambitions for our society.
Especially for the past few years, my age cohort has stood under the spotlight of political scrutiny — another voter demographic to add to the mix. Sprawling commentaries on the qualities, attitudes, and latest polls of Gen Z appear like clockwork.
One unflattering word often looms in the resulting discussions: apathy, closely connected to cynicism, futility, and anxiety — lovely words for describing a generation! As concisely noted in a recent episode of the Smerconish Podcast, a general tendency towards hopelessness or political anxiety seems to be a plausible explanation for youth disengagement from Biden since the 2020 election.
The story is well-trodden, and it usually goes something like this:
Bombarded in our formative years by click-maximizing algorithms, we in Gen Z are keenly aware of political turmoil. Sometimes, as in the 2020 presidential election, we take up the banners of activism. Disregarding the pragmatism of conservatives and moderate progressives, we strive for change, and we want it now.
But the media doesn’t always show us the progress we’ve helped make — in fact, it often disregards it in a constant focus on problems. Our faith in the systems built by previous generations thus dwindles, our humor reduces to absurd memes that mimic the chaos we see, and maybe our anxiety brings about a sardonic acceptance of meaninglessness.
That’s certainly a disheartening story — especially when it’s used to describe you and your friends — and I wouldn’t doubt if much of it is internalized by members of my generation, profoundly informing their self-conception.
But, in my limited experience, there’s another way to tell Gen Z’s story, and it’s anathema to the very idea that Gen Z has a single, defining story.
I’m a director at a startup organization, Our National Conversation (ONC), which is dedicated to using nonpartisan articles, podcasts, policy proposals, events, and creative media to combat political polarization and gridlock. We’re almost entirely run by undergraduates and recent graduates, but some older adults and high schoolers are present. We’re generally a Gen Z organization.
In my role, I’ve witnessed a particular facet of Gen Z that adds nuance to the generation’s stereotypical narrative. I’ve seen people who are tired of the recent swell in polarization, but who are far from hopeless, cynical complainers or debate-deaf, anti-pragmatic activists. I’ve seen progressive, moderate, and, yes, conservative members of Gen Z, many radiant with hope and enthusiasm in spite of the media’s presentation of current events. I’ve seen people obsessed with respectful conversation — writing nonpartisan books, creating a website for nonpartisan discussion, and treating progressives and conservatives in Gen Z with equal respect and recognition.
When I look at my peers, I see people fighting against the ingrained political custom of treating groups as monoliths; I see people trying to consciously recognize that there are plenty of stereotype-subverting members of Gen Z.
None of this is to dispute polls that suggest X% of Gen Z is politically disillusioned, that Y% of young Americans currently favor Biden, or that certain experiences and narratives bind many within the generation. However, we must emphasize that such quantitatively sourced narratives are never the full story — that a sole focus on aggregates can blind us to the breadth of truth.
But in the circles of Gen Z, which I’m regularly a part of, the story is different. The story is of collaboration, hope, resilience, discussion, and action, and the challenge is against the custom of constraining stereotypes. And we hope, with a recent Kickstarter launch, that we’re just getting started. That is the story of my Gen Z, a story that hasn’t faded since the 2020 election.
Sam Taylor is a political science student at Brigham Young University, where he minors in philosophy and business. He also helps select and edit submissions for the university’s undergraduate philosophy journal. He is a director and the managing editor at Our National Conversation (ONC), a startup organization dedicated to combating hyperpolarization by inviting and representing discussion from progressives, moderates, and conservatives of numerous backgrounds.