Parkland and the political coming of Generation Z

Parkland and the political coming of Generation Z
© Getty Images

Does Generation Z, Americans born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, look at politics differently from previous generations, like Baby Boomers or even Millennials, such that they will change America and remake the world in its image? Right now it is too soon to tell but their reaction to the recent school shootings, in particular at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., might portend a coming of political age or consciousness moment that could change America over the next 20 years.

Political scientists often overlook generations as an important variable in politics shaping attitudes and behavior. More often the focus is on race, gender, and socioeconomic status. When age is considered the claim is often made that as people get older they become more conservative. Yet ignoring generation influences misses a critical factor in politics.

It was sociologist Karl Mannheim in 1928 who first talked about generations. Since then others have looked at generations as a social variable. Mannheim argued that a cohort of people born around the same time often develops a consciousness or awareness about themselves that define their political outlook for the rest of their life. A generational consciousness is triggered by some major event in adolescence that defines a set of political values that shape the views both initially in youth, and approximately 20 years later when that group matures and assumes leadership positions when they can act on their beliefs.

Some evidence suggests that political views or values once defined as adolescents are permanent and rarely change even as we age. Yes, factors such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status may mediate or affect attitudes, but in general a generational consciousness has two stages: the initial formation and then eventually its re-emergence when a generation takes power.

The Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, were shaped by the JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations as well as the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. That generation is split in terms of Democratic and Republican party support and is beginning to exit the political arena along with the Silent Generation (1924-1945), which forms a major base of the Republican party. The exit of these two generations creates an existential crisis for the two major parties, especially when one considers that the Millennials (1982-1994) hold views at odds with the two major parties on a range of issues. Contrary to the mantra of some, demographics are not destiny, generational attitudes are.

Yet while many have focused on the rise of Millennials as they begin to take leadership positions (Millennials are now the largest voting bloc, and the oldest are now 36 and eligible to run for president of the United States), few have thought about Generation Z, those born between 1995 and 2010. The oldest Gen Zs are 23. How do they difference from Millennials?


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