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Op-Ed: Generation Z’s surprising optimism should give the rest of us hope

Activists at the Youth Climate Strike march in downtown Los Angeles on Nov. 1, 2019.
Activists at the Youth Climate Strike march in downtown Los Angeles on Nov. 1, 2019.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

It would be completely understandable if those in Gen Z — America’s youngest generation whose oldest members are now in college — were totally turned off from politics. As a politics professor myself, I have spent countless hours with hundreds of undergraduates from around the nation trying to help them understand a chaotic Trump administration, which has operated in an era of deep polarization.

Over the past four years, these older Gen Zers, ages 18-23, have experienced a constant assault on political and democratic norms and have faced crises America hasn’t seen in generations — including a global pandemic, an extreme economic downturn, xenophobia, violence in our cities, the onslaught of climate change and Donald Trump’s attack on our electoral system.

Yet despite these tumultuous events, my students have remained remarkably positive on politics and the future of the nation. They thrive in a world of differences, and seem to genuinely welcome a diversity of ideas, seek empathetic leadership and are interested in serving their communities. It also appears that Gen Zers, having deeply embraced technology, feel empowered by using those tools in forming new political movements.

It turns out that my personal experience with college students may not be unusual at all. In fact, a new national poll conducted by The Times and Reality Check Insights after the November election found that Gen Zers are collectively more confident that America can move forward from Trump than older groups.

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With this young generation poised to become a significant bloc of the electorate for decades to come, that optimism might translate into a greater interest in breaking through the gridlock that has come to dominate American politics.

For instance, when survey respondents were asked whether it was possible to compromise and find common ground with people of different political views, one might have expected predominantly negative responses given the bitter political climate around us. However, three-quarters of Gen Zers (73%) believe that compromise is possible, which is notably higher than baby boomers (ages 56-74) at 62%.

When asked if partisan gridlock and polarization in Washington would likely block the new Biden administration from achieving its goals, a bit over three-quarters of Americans said yes. Yet, Gen Zers are the least pessimistic of all the age groups, with 31% saying the new administration can get things done, compared with far greater pessimism among older groups. Just 17% of boomers and 9% of those in the “silent generation” (75 and older) expect anything other than partisan paralysis for the new Biden era.

The data also show that Gen Zers are more optimistic about President Biden’s chances of governing for all Americans. Biden said in his inaugural speech, “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue.” Sixty percent of all Americans believe he will govern for all. Gen Zers, however, have more faith that Biden will lead the nation in this way (73%), while only 51% of boomers and 54% of the silents thought that was possible.

The appreciable generational disparities may be the result of Gen Zers being the most diverse generation in history, which has an effect on their outlook and attitudes. Gen Zers have grown up in a tech and social-media centered world and they have already developed skills necessary to navigate differences and find compromise. Most consider their top strengths to be the ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective, hold others’ views as legitimate, accept challenges to their own ideas and cooperate with people of varied beliefs.

It is not surprising that a new survey from CIRCLE, the polling group at Tufts University, has found that Gen Zers want to engage politically and more than three-quarters of young people believe that they have the power and responsibility to change the country and that this work goes beyond elections and into regular community service.

Of course, it’s important to note that the outlook of Gen Zers is not static. These young Americans are mostly situated in the middle of the ideological spectrum. About half identify as moderate (49%), 34% consider themselves liberal and 11% conservative. By contrast, only 21% of those in the silent generation identify as politically moderate and 25% of boomers accept that label. Gen Zers, perhaps because they are less ideological, tend to see greater possibility of ending political polarization than older groups. At the same time, because this generation is more centrist, there’s also more room to shift politically in coming years.

The optimism of this young generation will confront strong headwinds given the challenges ahead for the nation. What they have going for them is an understanding of the need to compromise and confidence in the democratic process.

Many in my generation, Gen X (people in their 40s through their mid-50s), became largely disillusioned, cynical and disaffected by the politics of the 1980s and the subsequent financial problems of the late 2000s. Many turned away from the public sphere.

Gen Z appears to be quite different. The youngest generation — despite living through a series of even greater national crises — seems to have come into adulthood more resilient and more engaged.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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