What Today’s Youth Activism Could Mean for Tomorrow’s Leadership

March 27, 2018

by John Rees, Research Director

On March 14th, thousands of students nationwide walked out of class in a mass protest against continued gun violence in the US and legislative inaction on the issue. This past week, additional “March for Our Lives” protests were held in major cities throughout the US, including the nation’s capital. While the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, served as the immediate catalyst for student protests, the movement also reflects two generations slowly awakening to their potential political power.

For Millennials, heightened activism represents the beginning of a political tsunami that will span decades into the future. Already, the Millennial and Baby Boomer generations are similarly sized.[1] Despite the bulk of the Millennial generation, anemic voter participation levels have severely limited their political clout in the past, especially at the national level. Voter participation levels among Millennials, however, are likely to spike in the years ahead. During the past two decades, for example, voter participation rates for Gen Xers rose from less than 40% to more than 60%. Today’s Millennials are more likely to vote compared to their older Gen X counterparts when they were of similar age.

Forecasting the political trajectory of Generation Z is a fool’s errand given their relative infancy. But, two characteristics underscore their future importance to the body politic—Generation Z will be as large as the Millennial generation and they have only recently become old enough to vote. In 2016, size of the Generation Z population age 18 and older was less than 8.5 million. By 2020, the figure will approach 26 million.

Already, younger individuals are making political waves at the local level. In Salt Lake City, the oldest city council member is 44. Four of the five most recently elected city council members in Charlotte, NC, are under 40. In January, Charleston, SC elected a 22-year old to city council—its youngest member in modern history. In many ways, such outcomes are only natural given the emphasis on youth talent attraction many cities have pursued in recent years. Earlier this year, for example, 85% of US mayors surveyed by Politico identified attracting Millennials as a top-10 priority of their administration.

While cities throughout the US have aggressively courted Millennials in recent years, the transition among younger individuals from passive residents to politically engaged stakeholders hasn’t been without difficulty. In Charlotte, for example, a push by younger city council members to stream meetings via Facebook Live initially met with resistance from older members wary of the technology. In Baltimore, where several Millennial-age residents won city council seats last year, new members have lamented the skepticism they often encounter due to their relative youth. As freshman Councilman Ryan Dorsey explained, “I get the sense the mayor doesn’t think the new City Council is capable of knowing what it’s doing because we’re too young.”

With the political ascendency of Millennials and Gen Z all but assured, forward-thinking cities should be engaging them and actively listening to their voices. Create programs that equip them for public service. Our home town of Austin is doing just that, with last year’s launch of The Center for Austin’s Future and its ATX Accelerator, an immersive curriculum enabling new leaders to run for office. Models like this are positive attempts to harness the Millennial and Gen Z energy in a meaningful, productive way.

 

 

[1] For the purposes of this article, we use generation boundaries as defined by the Pew Research Centers. The Millennial generation includes individuals born between 1981 and 1998. Baby Boomers include individuals born between 1946 and 1964. Although there is no broad consensus regarding the years that define Generation Z, we have used the period between 1997 and 2012. While the Baby Boomer generation spans 18 years, Generation X and Millennials are commonly defined as 15-year cohorts. High school students are typically the oldest representatives of Generation Z, while many of the college students helping organize the “March for Our Lives” protests are among the youngest members of the Millennial generation.