Generation Z
Credit: Polina Tankilevitch / Pexels
Jonathan L. Wharton

I have always had a healthy interest in understanding generation gaps, especially in relation to politics. There’s something intriguing about why and how we process public policy across generations and a recent report highlights our unique political differences. This week the Walton Family Foundation and Murmuration issued a revealing study about Generation Z (ages 15 to 25), and how they voted in last year’s elections as well as which information sources they rely on for news. 

Before I read the report, I was reminded how differently Generation Z compares to other generations. I am teaching United States Government this semester, which I haven’t taught in years. I am a specialist in state and local government, but I also worked for our U.S. House of Representatives for a half dozen years and I have been scarred by the tone of our national politics. Still, I stepped up to teach a section of the introductory course and for the first day of class, we discussed media sources and which ones they pay attention to for news, especially since I quiz students weekly about current events. 

Shockingly, only a couple of students raised their hands that they read traditional print media sources including when they’re online. Virtually no one said they listen to broadcast media like local, national evening news or news radio stations. Instead, they rely on social media like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram posts. Few ventured onto Twitter and Reddit. There’s no use mentioning cable news because they avoid it like the plague. In other words, our younger generation would rather not partake in frequently divisive media but prefer their friends’ and families’ social media posts as their method of news gathering.

So, have we practically turned off our youngest generation to traditional media and politics? Anecdotally, it appears this way from my class discussion and straw poll. But then I read the Walton Family Foundation study and found that media literacy and the political generation gap is more pronounced than I expected. 

A third of Generation Z wished they knew about the candidates in November’s elections (compared to 21% of Millennials, 11% of Generation X and 6% of Baby Boomers). Over half of Generation Z ventures to Facebook and YouTube for news. And TikTok is especially appealing for the younger generation. 

Many members of Generation Z are registered Democrats or lean to the national party at 30% compared to 24% for Republicans. But 28% are unaffiliated. So, a vast number of Generation Z voters remain undecided. 

Significant policy issues for Generation Z center around mental health, school safety, teacher pay and emotional learning. “Gen Z also expressed concern that parents, mentors, teachers, employers and older generations more broadly are unable to understand or, worse, are dismissive of the depth of their struggles,” offers the report

If education is such an important issue then, the report and survey should remind educators and public officials that we need to still do our homework for Generation Z. As my CT News Junkie colleague and high school teacher Barth Keck offered last month, students must understand media sources as well as civics to gain more knowledge about political candidates and causes. The Walton Family Foundation, Murmuration, and SocialSphere’s analyses provide ample evidence of the need for this in our schools and beyond.

I also indicated in an op-ed following November’s election that a higher number of Generations Y and Z did show up but at 27%. Clearly, we need to find pathways to have younger voters participate in elections and join political parties as so many are unaffiliated with a party. Since Generation Z is fast becoming the largest generation, they must engage but also be fully educated about parties, candidates, and media.

Jonathan L. Wharton

Jonathan L. Wharton

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

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