In brief Gen Z and activism
- Generation Z aren’t looking like they’ll be heading to the ballot box any more than the cohorts of young people before them. In Britain, 71% of 14-16 year olds say it’s likely they will vote in a general election – the same proportion of Millennials who said the same thing in 2005.
- Other types of political activism haven’t seen a boost either. School children don’t see themselves engaging with MPs as much, but this may be more to do with how they view MPs specifically, rather than a mass political inertia among the young.
- Online political engagement is looking more important – three in ten British teenagers think it likely they will contribute to a discussion or campaign on social media.
- European Gen Z are pretty left-leaning, particularly in Spain where 15-21 year olds are six times as likely to identify as left wing than right wing.
- Some political divides also seem to be becoming more generational. For example in the UK, on issues like immigration, where Generation Z are half as likely as Baby Boomers to think immigration is a major concern (16% compared to 33%).
- In the US, half of adult Generation Z (49%) see themselves as close to a political party – actually slightly more than Millennials in 2001. This halts the pattern of cohort-on-cohort decline in generational party identification.
- There has been a stark increase in school-aged social action. Three in ten (29%) 14-16 year olds in the US are regularly active in their neighbourhood, community or an ethnic organisation, compared with just one in ten (10%) in 2005.
- Gen Z seem to be more likely to value ethical purchasing. A quarter of teenagers say they have avoided certain products because of the conditions under which they were produced or what they are made from (26%) – an increase from 19% of Millennials in 2005.
THE IMPLICATIONS AND THE FUTURE
Digital democracy and i-voting
So, teenagers are not trailblazing on traditional channels of political involvement, but neither are they selfishly doing nothing. They are actually pretty similar to previous generations of young people – which means that if we want to increase engagement, we may be better off focusing on shifting the context for participation. There are already calls for the democratic process to catch up with the way in which younger generations interact with society. Many companies and social enterprises have developed software for governments to help engage with citizens more efficiently online. For example, the Open Town Hall app allows local governments to interact through surveys, online forums and meetings in a more participative way that supplements public hearings and representative democracy – the more traditional ways for local governments to engage with citizens.125
the future of democracy?
In 2007, Estonia became the first country in the world to use electronic voting in parliamentary elections. The so-called ‘i-voting’ system is part of the digital revolution of the Estonian governance system – which offers an ‘e-Court’, where citizens can file a claim into a 24/7 portal and have their first hearing confirmed within the hour. Estonians also have an e-identity which unlocks all online services to Estonian citizens and can be used for travelling in the EU, medical care and digitally signing documents.
With the i-vote system, Estonian citizens all have the option to vote electronically by logging into a computer with their e-identities. Voters remain anonymous as details are removed before the authorities count the vote.
For those who can never make up their mind, the i-vote system allows people to re-cast an i-vote as many times as they want – the final vote cast will be the one that’s counted. And should voters end up wanting to cast their vote in person, a polling station vote will always trump an electronic one.
The Estonian government estimates that 30% of citizens used i-vote in the last election and that, in total, 11,000 working days were saved because of efficiencies introduced by the i-vote system.
Whether internet voting will be introduced in national elections is more controversial, particularly in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and scares about foreign interference in elections, where concerns around data security and use are high. But, already some countries have introduced or piloted some form of online voting into election processes including Belgium and Switzerland. Estonia, however, is the first country who has permanently introduced internet voting, or ‘i-voting’ in their electoral processes.126 Estonia propounds that their system has reduced costs and increased voter turnout. But, many countries (such as the UK) are keeping the door open to electronic voting, but not yet embracing it.127 There are still concerns around security and fears that electronic options will devalue the symbolic, almost ritualistic gesture of voting. Yet, with the combination of no generational boost in engagement in traditional politics, with lightning-fast technological advancement, will internet voting become just too obvious to avoid?
Volunteering as a social antidote
The seemingly unwavering levels of young people participating in volunteering is a cheering prospect – and the indication that volunteering is more ingrained into the psyche of school-age Generation Z is even more heartening. Not only is volunteering good in itself, but there is evidence that it could help to counteract some of the issues young people struggle with in the modern age. As highlighted in the Technology section, Gen Z are more likely to be depressed and less likely to interact with others face-to-face. Volunteering has been linked to alleviating loneliness and depression – improving social connection for a generation who are screen-first. For example, an evaluation of the National Citizens Service (NCS), a voluntary development programme for 15-17 year olds in the UK, indicates involvement in their three or four week plan can lead to long-term improvements to social mobility and social engagement.128
Future of charity: innovative and integrated
The changing nature of corporate social responsibility means purpose is more integrated into the core of startups – Tesla, Toms and Patagonia built sustainability into their DNA from scratch. This could mean that a working population in the 2030s will have a much more conjoined view of employment and organisations’ social impact.
Generally, Generation Z will be likely to contribute to society through technological innovation. Already there are countless examples of digital social action, such as ‘Be my eyes’ – a social network pairing blind users with sighted ones; ‘GoFundMe’ – the famous personal fundraising website to raise money for a life event; ‘Instead’ – an app that spells out trade-offs between spending money on small things and instead donating to charitable causes. Some of these have been developed by larger tech companies like Google, but many are by smaller startups. What is clear is that we can expect an increased focus on developing products and technologies that play a role in social action, and integrating these into the workplace.
THE CURRENT EVIDENCE
Turn out your young
To start with, let’s consider the most obvious indicator of political involvement – voter turnout. Despite contradictory media claims that a ‘youthquake’ is coming to rock the ballot box, or that the snowflake young are showing even less interest in political affairs, Gen Z are not set to cause a generational stir – in either direction. Events since 2005 have made no impact on the proportion of British 14-16 year olds saying it’s likely they will vote in a general election. Gen Z are just as likely to say they would vote in a general election now as Millennials were at the same age in 2005 – seven in ten (71% of Generation Z and 72% of Millennials).
Generation Z (those who can at least) do definitely vote less than older age groups. But, young people have always voted less – it’s a continuous trend throughout Europe and the US. For example, in every US presidential election since 1963, young adults (aged 18-24) have been the least likely to vote. And taking recent elections, where at least some of Generation Z were able to vote, their turnout was just as poor. In the US election of 2016 which saw Donald Trump elected president, turnout among 18-24 year olds in 2016 was 43.4% – well below the estimated overall turnout rate of 55.5%.129 The 2017 UK General Election showed 18-24 year olds as the least likely age group to have voted, with an estimated 54% casting a ballot, against a national average of 69%.130
As we’ve seen in other sections, differences within cohorts are often more important than changes between them – and the characteristics and attitudes of families are again a key influence on individual young people’s views of voting. Among 11-16 year olds who say their parents often or always vote, 82% say they would be likely to vote in a general election, compared with just 55% whose parents only sometimes vote, and 29% whose parents rarely or never vote. This supports the theory that voting is a social norm – with people more likely to vote if they think others are doing so. Children whose parents vote often are more likely to be doing well in school, part of higher income families and with both parents employed. This indicates differences within generations could be more important to determining voter turnout in the future. The young have suffered from some scale of democratic deficit for decades, but the real disenfranchisement is seen among the young and poor.
Joining the party?
Yet, there may be a generational bottoming out of the declines we’ve seen in party loyalty over recent decades. One of the strongest generational effects identified in a number of countries including Britain, France and the US, is a cohort-on-cohort decline in attachment to one particular political party.131 For example in Britain, one in five (20%) of Millennials in 2014 said they identified with a specific party – trailing behind Generation X (28%) and nearly half as supportive as Baby Boomers (38%).
But, Generation Z children, in Britain at least, seem more open to joining a political party than Millennials were at the same age. When surveyed in 2018, about one in six (16%) of 14-16 year olds think it likely they’ll join a political party, which may not seem like much, but is a shift from the one in nine (11%) of Millennial teenagers thinking the same thing in 2005. Teenagers are also less likely to write off joining a party in future – seven in ten (69%) think it’s unlikely, compared with nearly eight in ten of
Millennials (78%) in 2005.
There is a similar indication that Generation Z might have halted the generational rejection of party politics in the US. Half (49%) of Generation Z old enough to be measured (aged 18-21) have hit adulthood saying they are close to a particular party – actually slightly above the rate Millennials identified with a particular party when they were old enough to vote in 2001 (46%). Whether this is a start of a new trend among young people is unclear at this early stage, but at least for now, this certainly breaks the pattern of generations coming onto the political scene less likely to be close to a particular party. Party loyalty seems to have hit rock bottom.
The kids are all-left
But, who will they vote for? Voting and political orientation are different, and political orientation as a concept is multi-dimensional – it’s not as simple as placing Generation Z on a left to right scale. Yet, until more of Gen Z can vote and be measured on various social and economic attitudinal questions, we’re not going to be able to definitively pinpoint them on a political compass.
However, we can look at voting intentions to get some sense of where Gen Z’s political loyalty lies. Generation Z across Europe are generally more likely to identify as left wing. Using data from Eurobarometer, we can see that Generation Z across a range of European democracies are much more likely to consider themselves as ‘left wing’ (one to three on a ten-point scale) than ‘right wing’ (eight to ten on the same scale), with Poland the only exception. It’s worth noting, though, the large proportions who consider themselves neither one nor the other – most Gen Z in most countries put themselves in neither box, which fits with our theme of Beyond Binary.
Looking in more detail at Britain – there is a clear generational divide when it comes to voting. Both of the youngest generations are much more likely to say they would vote for Labour compared with older generations: two in five Millennials (41%) and Generation Z (40%) would vote for Labour, compared with 30% of Generation X, a quarter of Baby Boomers (24%) and 17% of the Pre-War generation.
What is interesting about the Labour vote is how it is has relatively recently seen a generational split. Up until 2010, Labour popularity was much more at the whim of period effects – with popularity fluctuating across all generations depending on the wider political context. Their popularity steadily decreased across all the generations from a high when they were in power in the late 90s, until they lost power in 2010. Since then, the generational divide has gotten wider. In 2010, the difference between the oldest generation’s (Pre-War) and the youngest generation’s (Millennials) tendency to vote Labour was just nine percentage points – fast forward to 2018 and it is well over three times that (24 points).
On the other hand, the Conservative vote has always been more generationally driven, but it too has reached record levels of division. The generational difference has become exaggerated over the 2017 election period into 2018, as the Conservatives have suffered a Millennial drop, while enjoying a boost among older generations. Generation Z are coming onto the voting scene with very low interest in the Conservatives (only 17% say they would vote for them).
But, voting intention is also closely connected to life stage – the older people get, the more likely they are to vote for right-leaning parties. And cohort analysis indicates this is less connected to generational factors and more to do with the psychological impact of the ageing process. While the patterns above look very worrying for right-leaning parties, they should not be concerned their electorate will die out completely and be replaced by cohorts who are generationally less likely to vote for them. If they follow the same pattern as previous cohorts, Gen Z will vote less for left-leaning parties and more for right-leaning parties as they get older.132
Who belongs? Generation gap on immigration
These political preferences are often reflected in some of the key social issues in Britain – for example, cohorts having a distinct outlook when it comes to immigration. Over the last 20 years the issue has increased in saliency as net migration has increased sharply across Europe. In Britain, concern about immigration as a national issue exploded in the early 2000s – from less than 5% considering it the most important issue up to over a third in 2015, before falling away again after the EU Referendum.
But, this rising concern was not equal across generations. Immigration became a far greater concern to older generations – in 2016 28% of Generation Z placed immigration as the most important issue, compared with a third of Millennials (34%), 46% of Baby Boomers and over half of the Pre-War generation (52%).
Concern in Britain has dropped across all cohorts since 2016, but the generation gap remains stark – Generation Z are still half as likely as Baby Boomers and the Pre-War generation to see it as a key issue (16% compared to 33%). What this means is we should expect Generation Z to remain far more liberal on immigration.
Just as politically active
Looking at wider factors of political activism, there doesn’t seem to be either a youthquake or a snowflake storm on the horizon, among British teenagers at least. On a number of different metrics, there’s been no generational shift in secondary school children seeing themselves as politically engaged in the future. Generation Z 14-16 year olds are just as likely to see themselves signing a petition as Millennials of the same age in 2005 – despite the massive difference in ease and immediacy of signing petitions due to the birth of e-petitions.
The biggest change has been how likely young people are to see themselves engaging with MPs on issues they’re concerned with. Just 15% of Gen Z teens would contact their MP, compared with a quarter of Millennials (25%) in 2005. As the chapter on Trust shows, this doesn’t seem to be a trust issue: Generation Z are just as likely to trust MPs as other age groups, but perhaps they don’t see them as relevant to the issues or concerns they have.
Perhaps the real changes in political activism have been the increased options available. A shift to engaging in politics digitally – actively and even passively – could be more on the cards in the future. Nearly a third of 14-16 year olds see themselves contributing to the discussion on a campaign online or on social media (30%). In the US, the Youth Participatory Politics (YPP) survey indicated that young people don’t even necessarily have to be actively engaging in political activities online to be encouraged into political discussions. Young people involved in non-political online communities were more likely to participate in politics and take part in online political discussions.133
Volunteering is partly correlated with life stage – and seems to always have been for as long as we have measures. The youngest and oldest members of society generally clock up more hours, arguably because they simply have more hours to give. It’s not really surprising, therefore, that adult Generation Z are one of the most active age groups in the UK: 63% of 16-24 year olds (most of whom are likely to still be in education) and 70% of 65-74 year olds (who have hit retirement age) volunteer at least once a year.134
In the US, volunteering follows a similar pattern, although middle-aged groups (35-44 year olds and 45-54 year olds) were the most likely to volunteer through or for an organisation at least once in a year (29% and 28% respectively). But, 16-19 year olds still do their bit – with a very similar proportion as these middle age groups (26%) giving time at least once year.135
Generationally, however, it’s a mixed picture. Among school children in Britain, there seems to have been a cohort shift towards higher social activism – particularly in terms of giving time informally and regularly to the community. Nearly half of 14-16 year olds (46%) say they have given their time to help out people in the community in the past two years, compared with just 30% in 2005. And three in ten (29%) are regularly active in their neighbourhood, community or an ethnic organisation compared with just one in ten (10%) in 2005.
Also, more see themselves getting involved in the future – half (50%) of 14-16 year old Generation Z say it’s likely they’ll work with an organisation or charity to help people in need, compared with 43% of 14-17 year old Millennials in 2005. Little evidence of selfish tendencies here.
These changes may be a reflection of a UK-wide push towards youth schemes encouraging young people to participate in the community. For example, the #iwill campaign partners with over 700 businesses, schools and charities to encourage social action among 10-20 year olds. The spread of the National Citizen Service (NCS) has led to an estimated 400,000 young people in the UK taking part in its three to four week programme encouraging social mixing, embracing challenges, having greater responsibility and independence, and becoming involved in social action in communities.136
In contrast, in the US there’s no evidence that Generation Z are any more selfish or any more active than previous generations of young people – volunteering rates among US teenagers are fairly stable. In 2002, 27% of US Millennials (16-19 year olds) volunteered at least once a year, which is on a par with US Generation Z teens today.
Ethical young consumers
A final and important thing to note is the increase in British teenagers who say they have avoided certain products because of the conditions under which they were produced or what they are made from – from 19% in 2005 to a quarter (26%) in 2018. Considering Millennials were often (wrongly it turned out) identified as the generation leading the revolution towards more ethical purchasing, this is an interesting finding and could possibly indicate the beginning of a generation growing up in society which is much more concerned and aware of issues related to ethical products. This is likely to reflect the fact that these discussions are embedding into the media and more companies’ core strategy – the environment is changing and the latest generation of young seem to be picking up on it.
FINAL THOUGHTS …
Speculation about what kind of citizens Generation Z will be is ramping up – will they vote, how will they vote, are they conservative, are they liberal, will they be more involved in the community? In truth there are elements of increased social activism, but also political inertia within Gen Z – the likes of which ended up prompting the media to give Millennials (the rather harsh, and arguably misplaced) nickname of ‘selfish snowflakes’.
From the snowflake angle, there is clearly a disconnect between young people and political involvement that has not been solved in Gen Z. They are no more likely to vote as any other generation were when young; there is no change in their likelihood to sign petitions, take part in protests or demonstrations, and they are less likely to engage with their MPs. The answer may come with changing the environment rather than trying to change the generation. Technology and an adaptation of the democratic process itself could bridge the gap between the young and their political context.
Yet, this concern that young people are unshackling themselves further from traditional political parties has slowed to a stop with Gen Z. Whether this is something to do with them as a cohort or as part of a period shift is not yet clear – but, they seem more open to engaging with particular parties.
In terms of social involvement, it’s simply not true to label young people as selfish – they’re some of the most involved age groups in the US and Britain. There’s even evidence in the Britain that they are getting more involved than other cohorts of young, which may be a direct result of increasing opportunities (which always comes out as one of the key drivers of social action – people firstly need to know the option is there). Volunteering face-to-face in communities could be particularly important for a generation getting less and less of their social interaction through physical connections.