Recent polls and articles suggest that the “millennial vote” could determine this election. But the youngest voters in this election are not one generation, but two. The values and voter preferences of millennials aren’t the same as those for the younger, emerging voting block of Generation Z, born 1995 to 2012. Generation Z needs to be courted differently than millennials, and neither candidate is doing so.
For this election, there will be 14 million Gen Zers who are eligible to vote. That might not seem like a lot, but let’s not forget that in the 2012 election President Obama oupolled Mitt Romney by just 5 million votes. The first comment many make when talking about first-time voters is, “Young people don’t come out to vote.” That’s an excuse for not trying to reach them. The bigger question is: Given that they’ve been ignored, why would they vote?
As generational theory goes, each generation experiences its own milestone events and conditions that shape them, resulting in unique and different personalities and values. After coming of age in tough economic times, Gen Zers are more practical than earlier generations, more skeptical of “hot air.” Gen Z kids saw their Gen X parents’ net worth fall by 45 percent during the recession. They believe the system is broken — but they don’t look to politicians to fix it. A study by Northeastern University found that only 3 percent of Gen Z considers politicians to be their foremost role models.
In millennials’ formative years, they witnessed Republicans and Democrats reaching across the aisle to rebuild the American spirit in the wake of 9/11. Millennials even saw politicians like Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, who could not have been further apart across the aisle, collaborate. Compare that to Gen Zers, who have only witnessed political polarization in which Democrats and Republicans actively work against each other to block progress.
When it came time for millennials’ first election, Barack Obama’s message of hope not only resonated with them, but his deliberate and strategic use of social media made millennials feel important, heard, and needed on Election Day. Compare that to Gen Z: They have not heard a single candidate — or the media — acknowledge that America has a new generation voting for the first time.
Knowing this will be Gen Z’s inaugural vote, I went to the Iowa caucuses with my Gen Z son this past February. We were excited to see what was on the youngest voters’ minds. Our focus groups with first-time Gen Z voters revealed that they wished candidates spoke about more than being able to afford college. Gen Z is worried about their health and the cost of health care. They want to hear practical plans — not platitudes — about solving the health-care crisis.
In Iowa, Gen Zers also talked about new issues such as benefits for people without traditional jobs — freelancers, contractors, consultants — which, they pointed out, politicians aren’t talking about. According to Forbes, by 2025, 40 percent of our workforce will be participating in the freelance economy. Of course this is on the mind of Gen Zers; they’ll only be in their late 20s and early 30s in 2025. Yet where are the politicians on the issues driving this new economy that Gen Z will likely depend on?
The answer for candidates isn’t to grab cellphones and send more Snapchats, or suddenly toss around the phrase “Gen Z.” The answer is to bring this new generation to the table, solicit their views and listen to them. Get to know their concerns and dreams. Involve them in policymaking. And, most importantly, look them in the eye. Don’t assume that communicating via a TV screen is best — our research shows that 82 percent of Gen Z prefer face-to-face communication.
Gen Zers’ patterns of caring about politics and government — or not — are being shaped right now. This generation needs to be on the radar of whoever wins the White House, as well as leaders in our workplaces, in education and in nonprofits.
Gen Z is on the cusp of forming the next chapter in America’s history. This is what politicians, civic leaders, captains of industry talk about — it’s what we all talk about. Let’s start by recognizing Gen Z. Then hear them out and earn their trust.
David Stillman is co-author with his 17-year-old son Jonah Stillman of “Gen Z @ Work” (Harper Business, March 2017). He lives in Tonka Bay.