In the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School, the country was officially introduced to Gen Z. Rarely have victims, en masse, organized so quickly, articulately, and (dare I say at this early juncture) successfully.
Their passionate and fearless pleas for gun control spoken on cable news, in rallies, on social media, and directly to Florida lawmakers and even President Trump, make this time seem different.
The grieving parents of Newtown were unable to persuade enough in Congress to pass meaningful gun legislation. So why might these high-school students, most of whom can’t yet vote, be the ones to spark legislative action where none has been taken in decades?
This group is different than Millennials. Based on insights from “Generation Nation” and qualitative research recently conducted, we’re not surprised to see Gen Z create and lead a campaign that’s moving the needle on such a challenging issue. Through no choice of their own, these kids, who are coping with their own survival and victimhood, while grieving the losses of friends and mentors, have been thrust onto the national stage, introducing the country to their generation with poise and gusto.
From Millennials to Gen Z: Lots Has Changed
Most Millennials grew up in the ‘90s, that single decade sandwiched between the Cold War and War on Terror, a decade known as much for economic stability as for planting seeds that have metastasized into today’s political dysfunction and cultural division.
When school shootings were still isolated incidents and not reflective of institutional failures, there was less urgency to protest. But 20 years later, the only real changes we’ve seen on guns are the loosening of restrictions. And in those 20 years, more than 150,000 students have been in a school during a school shooting. We’re almost at a point, then, where everyone in this country is six degrees from knowing someone who has been personally impacted by a mass shooting.
Columbine, in 1999, inaugurated the era of school shootings, when the oldest Millennials were in high school and Gen Z was not yet born. So, this youngest cohort has grown up watching an intransient political system that now can barely budge on big things, let alone small incremental changes even in the face of growing crises.
They have seen, in their 18 years of life, two presidents elected against the will of the popular vote and political brinkmanship used to prevent compromise. They’ve seen political parties use “dirty tricks” to improve the lives of the donor class and their “base,” while remaining generally out of touch with their constituents.
Cable news and social media have created a world where we don’t even speak with the same set of facts anymore. Extremely popular legislative proposals die in Congress, if they even make it that far. (According to a recent Quinnipiac Poll, 66% of Americans support stricter gun laws, while 67% support a ban on all assault weapons. Universal background checks are supported by a whopping 97% of Americans. But most legislators, including some Democrats, won’t consider banning assault weapons.)
So, back to that initial question: Why is this time different? Instead of getting beaten down and disillusioned, Gen Z has also spent its formative years learning from the successes and failures of their older Millennial siblings and cousins, resulting in a cohort that is savvy, thick-skinned, and even itching for a fight.
Briefly consider a couple recent protest movements that were led by Millennials:
Occupy Wall Street, which grew out of the 2008 Recession essentially as a progressive counterbalance to the Tea Party, was successful in garnering attention to many of society’s problems, while lacking in specific and clear solutions.
The movement was generally unfocused and often rudderless. Was this a protest against the big economic institutions? Or to the government’s response to the recession? A complete rejection of capitalism? Where did social justice fit in? Was this a fight for the middle class or against poverty? Is it okay to protest against big corporations while drinking a latte and texting on a smart phone?
This lack of focus (and a lack of a leader) resulted in a confusing media narrative. As a result, the desire to hold those who caused the 2008 crash responsible never became a sustained national movement, let alone an electoral one, and eventually sizzled. There are no members of Congress today who represent the “Occupy Caucus” and no bankers (except this guy) have gone to jail.
Millennials’ most successful protest movement resulted in the legalization of gay marriage. Although this was a wave that included all generations, Millennials played a significant role in drastically changing public opinion fast. It was a single issue that impacted people on a personal level. It’s hard to argue against love. People’s stories were used as emotional (and persuasive) anchors, making it difficult for voters and politicians alike not to empathize.
As a result, America saw a shockingly rapid sea change. (President Obama did a complete 180 on the issue in an 18-month span.) In 2001, according to Pew, 57% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, while only 35% supported it. In 2017, Pew found 62% of Americans supporting the issue to only 32% opposing it.
Gen Z Born This Way: Diversity Normalcy
So Gen Z grew up watching these protest movements succeed and fail. And since their opinions were formative when it came to big topics like these, they often didn’t understand why or empathize with people on the extreme opposite side of certain arguments. (i.e., allowing teenagers with mental illnesses to buy weapons of war or making it a crime for two adults who love each other to get married).
While many Millennials’ thinking in terms of gay marriage has “evolved” from the days they played “smear the queer” during elementary-school recess in the early ‘90s, Gen Z grew up with LGBT people being much more accepted and even normalized. According to “Generation Nation,” while more than 90% of Boomers, Xers, and Millennials report they are straight, only 73% of Gen Z self-identifies as such, an enormous difference that reflects a massive cultural shift.
Gen Z is the most diverse generation in American history. And these kids grew up in an era that has learned to celebrate diversity. The chart below shows how this diversity impacts Gen Z’s experiences compared to those of the three older generations.
More than 80% of Gen Z say they have “friends who are of a different race,” compared to only 69% of Millennials. And this is how Gen Z grew up: being diverse is not something particularly special to them. It’s normal. It’s who they are. It’s their America. While many older generations see today’s teens as forward-thinking, Gen Z sees these older Americans as behind-the-times and has no patience for them to use their age and anachronisms as an excuse. Time’s up.
A common misconception about today’s youngest generation is that they are, as a result of growing up among a diverse group of peers and with a progressive president in the White House, automatically open and accepting and will usher in a wave of liberal dominance for the next two decades. Sorry liberals, this is not necessarily the case.
They seem to be cynical, bearing the weight of years of governmental failures, yet at the same time surprisingly hopeful and determined. They can acknowledge Washington’s dysfunction and their certitude for change in the same sentence. They don’t care for party loyalty or extreme ideological positions. They are moderate, they are pragmatic, genuine and determined. They want real solutions that solve real problems, and they want it now. This is what young leadership looks like.
We’re Not Gonna Take It
When we first began to analyze the results of “Generation Nation,” together with 747 Insights, one response by Gen Z baffled us. Only 47% of this generation claim to have an open mind when it comes to social and political issues. This was the lowest percentage among the four generations. How could it be possible that this multicultural generation was also the most close-minded?
Unlike other generations, Gen Z doesn’t have an open mind when it comes to restricting the rights of people based on how or where people are born or whom they love. So, they appear to have less tolerance for intolerance than any other generation. They’re not putting up with what they see as stone-age views when it comes to race, sexuality, immigration, and now guns. From the Black Lives Matter movement to #MeToo to the fight to protect their Dreamer friends and classmates, this generation is sick of groups and individuals who think their rights are more important than others’.
They understand that power can corrupt, that no politician or celebrity is infallible, that their voice deserves an equal right to be heard, and they are ready for a place at the table.
So when at a CNN Town Hall a student cut off Senator Rubio when he was trying to avoid directly answering a question, or when another student, with such raw emotion, eloquently told President Trump to ban AR-15s, we were introduced to vintage Gen Z. And with the sheer number of students we have seen on TV from that school, it’s evident that we’re weren’t seeing just a few telegenic teenage activists.
Emma Gonzales, a different Parkland student asked NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch about restricting gun rights at that same CNN Town Hall. Loesch tried to steer the conversation toward mental illness, calling the shooter "nuts" and "crazy." Gonzalez retorted, "I think I'm gonna interrupt you real quick and remind you that the question is actually, do you believe it should be harder to obtain these semi-automatic weapons and modifications to make them fully automatic, such as bump stocks?"
When Gonzales spoke a few days earlier at her school, she defined, with clarity and eloquence, how she sees her generation differently than Millennials. “Companies trying to make caricatures of the teenagers these days, saying that all we are self-involved and trend-obsessed and they hush us into submission when our message doesn't reach the ears of the nation, we are prepared to call BS.”
This does not seem like a short-lived movement or one that can be solved with some token-legislation or lip service. These kids are in it for the long haul.
Obama speechwriting alum Jon Favreau recently reflected on Gonzles’ powerful speech on his podcast, Pod Save America. He believes this time is not going to follow the typical pattern we’re used to seeing after a tragedy: lots of thoughts and prayers, some short-term outrage, empty legislative proposals, and then in a week we move on to something else, without any actual change. “Emma Gonzales' refrain on BS is not just a refrain on guns. It is sort of an answer to an entire older generation of politics. That the phony-ness of politics these days...of conspiracy theories and how ridiculous it is, instead of trying to argue it point by point, you just call out the bullshit,” he stated.
Post, Share, Like, Tweet, Talk
Millennials founded Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. Millennials like to post, share, and plaster their lives (and then comment, dissect, and brood about other people’s lives) all over social media. It’s a generation that desires attention and feels required to record everything of significance (as well as much that’s not so significant) on social media.
It comes as no surprise then that social media is Millennial territory: 68% “often” or “very often” post on social media compared to only 36% of Boomers, 54% of Xers, and 56% of Gen Z. Only 49% of Gen Z considers social media an important part of their life compared to 61% of Millennials. And, only 28% of Gen Z uses social media as a preferred communications method vs. 38% of Millennials. Social media is more of a generational than a lifestage outlet.
In fact, Gen Z has been moving away from Facebook for a while. So, this generation is, therefore, impacted less by fake news, Russian bots, and other misleading new sources. They also don’t watch TV (especially cable news) at rates compared to the older generations. So there are certain national debates that this generation has skipped, resulting in new ideas and energetic hopefulness that this time something will change.
But Gen Z is more media-savvy at their age than any of us were when we were teens. They have spent their childhood in front of their parents’ cameras and their own selfie sticks. They know how to talk in clear and powerful sound bites. They’ve shared images and videos, in real time while shutting down trolls and conspiracy theorists online. They know what goes viral. They are ready for a fight and have tools and skills to sustain a national campaign.
While trolls ravaged the families of Newtown, the students at Parkland know how to fight back. A recent Buzzfeed article examined this idea. “A look at the Twitter feeds of students like David Hogg shows that they are a remarkable foil for the pro-Trump media’s trolling tactics. Like the pro-Trump media, they, too, are an insurgent political force that’s native to the Internet.”
Favreau believes that the Twitter fights between far-right trolls and Parkland students reveals a lot about Gen Z. “It's an interesting look into the age these students are growing up in now... They're all on Twitter… they know this [digital] world just as well as the Trump conspiracy theorists know this world. And they are winning that fight.
They use memes, screenshots of yearbook photos, humor and sarcasm to outwit a bunch of Internet trolls who have never received so many counter punches. Gen Xer Dan Pfieffer, President Obama’s former communications director, believes this is a turning point on the gun issues because of the Parkland students. “These kids just give you great hope for the future of America...They are more Internet savvy-about how to deal with cyber bullying than a lot of politicians. There is a generational gap here.”
“Our kids have inspired a revolution”, and I am proud to be part of never again.”
- Diane Wolk, teacher at Marjory Stoneman High School
The rallying cry for Occupy Wall Street was, “The whole world is watching.” Reflective of the inherent self-promotion of this generation, Millennials wanted to move the needle and make an impact. But again, their lack of focus around tangible solutions to complicated problems resulted in a failed movement that could have been seen as self-promotional.
So far, in its early stages, Gen Z’s anti-gun slogan is “Never Again.” Borrowed from the previous Greatest Generation’s call to never forget the Holocaust, today’s students, who have experienced such horrors first-hand, have put their foot down and are ready to call out your BS.
It’s a slogan that takes the individual out of the fight. It’s not about them. It’s about those who they have lost and those they want to save. And even with so many of these students getting airtime on network TV right now, it’s still so clear that they are doing this, not to be on TV, but to get their message out. They don’t care for their 15 minutes of fame. They hope it’s a 15 minutes that will lead to change.
Alfonso Calderon, a junior at Marjory Stoneman, said: “Everybody needs to remember we are just children. A lot of people think that disqualifies us from even having an opinion on this sort of matter… This matters to me more than anything else in my entire life. And I want everybody to know, personally, I’m prepared to drop out of school. I’m prepared to not worry about anything besides this…I know everyone else here will fight for the rest of their lives to see sensible gun laws in this country, so that kids don’t have to fear going back to school.”
And you know what’s amazing? These kids have actually gotten things to change. Politicians have, at least for now, budged their positions on a range of issues: increasing background checks, banning bump-stocks, raising the age to purchase assault weapons, which all seem to be realistic and incremental changes that could happen. Senator Rubio, who has an A+ rating from the NRA, shockingly changed his positions on a few of these issues. Yes, these position changes are small, and not yet officially codified into law. But a bunch of teenagers made this happen where everyone else failed. (And failed for 20 years.) And they did it in a week and are not satisfied one bit.
So meet Gen Z. Meet the thousands of students who walked out of their schools to advocate for gun safety across the country. Students who were thousands of miles from Florida and have a thousand different things they can do. They might not have been in the national forefront for long, but Gen Z is here, not going away, and ready for change.