Presidential candidates should talk directly to seniors, the generational experts urged. After all, they’re passionate about issues, often feel neglected and greatly value face-to-face contact. They’re even often found grouped together.
No, the experts weren’t talking about aging baby boomers or members of the Greatest Generation now living in senior centers. They were focused on an emerging age cohort, Generation Z, some of whom are seniors in high school. Born between 1995 and 2012, the oldest Gen Zers are entering the workforce, campuses and soon the voting booth (an estimated 21 million are eligible, with about 3 million already registered). Often lumped together with much-discussed millennials, they’re distinct in many ways, said the father-son team of David and Jonah Stillman.
Generation Xer David, a nationally recognized expert in generational differences, helped launch We Day in the U.S. and in Minnesota. Jonah (Gen Z), is a 16-year-old student at Minnetonka High School. Together, they formed GenZGuru, which focuses mostly on the impact that Gen Z will have in the workplace. But recognizing Gen Z’s political potential, the duo — along with six Minnetonka High School students — recently traveled together to Iowa to conduct pre-caucus focus groups with first-time voters. Their work, chronicled by MSNBC, shed light on how Gen Z views politics.
“Even millennials saw politicians reach across the aisle post-9/11. My generation has only seen politics completely polarized,” said Jonah Stillman, echoing his own experience and what he heard from focus groups. Citing Northeastern University data, he added that only 3 percent of Gen Zers consider politicians role models.
Every generation is shaped by seminal events. World War II and the Great Depression defined the Greatest Generation. Assassinations and Vietnam seared older boomers, and Watergate and stagflation their younger boomer brethren.
For Gen Z, the defining event was the Great Recession, said David Stillman, who noted that even some cultural touchstones are different. Millennials grew up with “Harry Potter,” Gen Zers with “The Hunger Games.”
To be sure, there are several generational commonalities between millennials and Zers, especially regarding a technologically enabled hypercustomized world (playlists instead of CDs and Amazon “knowing” your purchase preferences, among many). But Gen Z, Jonah Stillman said, is more aware, and wary, of the perils of social media. It also may be a bit more digitally discreet — favoring Snapchat instead of Facebook, for instance.
And yet, their research indicates that it’s not just a virtual world Gen Z seeks from politicians, or people in general. “Eighty-four percent in our national survey prefer face-to-face communication,” Jonah Stillman said.
And other conventional campaign tools like TV ads are “just white noise,” David Stillman said.
When they are used, Jonah Stillman added, they need to grab attention with a positive message in the candidate’s own voice.
A voice with a Brooklyn accent has caught the ear of many in Gen Z (as well as most younger than 65, according to New Hampshire exit polls). This is despite Bernie Sanders being the oldest presidential contender and a self-described democratic socialist. But focus group participants indicated that Gen Z doesn’t immediately identify Sanders as socialist. “He’s just talking to us,” Jonah Stillman said.
Hillary Clinton is trying to, too.
And while the historic nature of her candidacy is appreciated by Gen Z voters, it in itself may not be enough, Jonah Stillman said. “We’re just so used to diversity, we’re well beyond it. Gender doesn’t really matter. We believe that at some point in our lives we’ll see a female president. We’re more passionate about the goals and issues that matter.”
This diversity ethos cuts both ways, however, according to the focus groups. Gen Z “really didn’t connect with Donald Trump, somebody who is going to go against diversity and say all these things about the Muslim community and Mexican community — that’s not going to go over well,” Jonah Stillman said. “We just find him rude,” he added.
This traditional tinge to Gen Z fits with a cohort who appear to be more pragmatic and respectful of paying dues, said David Stillman. And while Gen Z may be justifiably cynical of partisan politicians, they’re more sentimental in identifying their heroes.
“Malala,” said Jonah Stillman, speaking of Gen Z’s admiration of the brave Nobel laureate who nearly lost her life in her quest for education.
And, added son Jonah with no prodding from dad David, “Mom and Dad.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.