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Gen Z activism: an exercise in cognitive dissonance

November 15, 2019

This piece represents the opinion of the author .
Lily Anna Fullam

My sister is a relatively ‘woke’ 17-year-old, attending a progressive private high school in the Hudson Valley. She does extracurriculars like a capella, is the captain of her field hockey team and heads a club called “mixed,” which is a space for interracial kids to vent. In January 2018, she attended the Women’s March in New York City. On March 15, 2019, she boarded the Metro-North to Grand Central and took part in one of 2,000 protests occurring in 125 countries for climate action. She and her friends spent the day before in the school’s art studio brainstorming aspirational poster headings. They managed to settle on “we stand for what we stand on,” and “Gen Z wants reform.”

At the time of the Women’s Marches that occurred in 2017 and 2018, many young women and members of Gen Z attended alongside their mothers and grandmothers. The atmosphere around this protest was fuming and electric: liberal women bridged generational gaps and bonded over their shared feelings of rage towards Trump’s misogyny. It felt like a passing of the baton of sorts, a handing down of American revelatory spirit from one generation of women to another.

The climate march was somewhat different. The specular eye was placed on the younger generation to be the bastions of change and the last generation to be able to stop irreversible environmental damage. The poster child was Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish girl who became viral by squatting on street corners and notoriously yelling “how dare you” at world leaders. Greta is a typification of Gen Z activism. She is the voice of a generation of whose ultimatum is: fix it, or we all die.

It is no surprise that every successive generation bears its own rebellious gut. It seems an age-old trend for the discontented youth to oppose the establishment, just as older people will critique the young as predictably as gravity will make an apple fall from a tree. The choir of anger heard at the Women’s March was felt in the reopening of old wounds as generations of civil rights movements felt deeply threatened. Some of the older women and others in attendance could remember attending the Central Park gay pride rally of July 1975 or Vietnam protests in NYC in 1969. Many Millennials and Gen Xers might have been marching during Occupy Wall Street in 2011.

Barack Obama illustrates the kind of activism the young typically engage in these days. In a conversation with Yara Shahidi at the Obama Foundation Summit this October, he claimed that young people mainly go about their activism through virtue signaling on social media and that call-out culture is not true activism. He goes on to say, “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.” Obama is not wrong. But I’m suspicious of the idea that Gen Z really thinks calling out hypocrites and slimy politicians on social media is real activism.

I think a pretty good explanation of why Gen Z’s vehicle for activism is usually blowing off steam online is that we are still super young, and the oldest of us have yet to graduate college. Gen Z is also not as complacent as our nation would like to think. As mentioned in the first Fox Box, a study by cultural forecasting firm Sparks And Honey found that 26 percent of 16-to-19-year-olds volunteer on a regular basis, and 76 percent are concerned about humanity’s impact on the earth.

The language of the protests in the second half of the 20th century was different. They came in the wake of the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and 70s. Boomers were a generation of youth that had seen the assassinations of MLK and Kennedy, they used stalwart phrases like “Power to the People” and stood up to “the Man.” They were concerned with ending imperialism and tearing down the establishment to make way for civil rights and forcing the government to levy change. Gen Z still cares about equal rights, but the pang of social inequality for us is slightly distant. We are the most diverse, multicultural and tolerant generation by every metric. We were children in the era of America’s first black president.

Over recent decades, America has succumbed to a resurgence of neoliberal governance in the form of market-trusting deregulation. As corporations have become all the more wealthy and powerful in the face of a politically inert Congress, young people have come to see “reform” as more feasible from within the existing business-driven structure than “revolution”. We now have more trust in social entrepreneurship or nonprofits to deliver social benefit, rather than the traditionally government-driven forces that did things like end child labor or legalize gay marriage. Many of us believe that to make any change at all, you must be well versed in the language of finance as opposed to things like community organizing or education.

But aren’t businesses the ones exploiting the planet and extracting wealth from the bottom half of America?

At the same time, in the Trump era, we’ve grown to distrust Congress’ ability to do virtually anything. In the face of disastrous, time-sensitive threats to human existence—of which climate change is just one—we find that there is no greater time for governments to act quickly and decisively.

Gen Z activism can be characterized by a kind of cognitive dissonance; our generation sees a fundamental dilemma in reform over revolution and feels trapped with few options. Do we seek change through a political revolution? Or within the corporate status quo? Neither option seems to make any sense, yet the threats seem greater than ever. This is why our “activism” comes across as either eco-fascism or social media whining.

In summary, Gen Z will need to be extra creative, extra innovative in our methods for changing the world and restructuring broken systems as we age. An effective society is one that disseminates the gains of innovation to every member of that society. This age requires innovations in activism for progress to occur.

Gen Z already sort-of understands that a large amount of macro/micro personal sacrifice is required in this next iteration of activism, especially from elites—I believe it’s even more than public demonstrations.  My sister, along with many of our friends, tries to eat less meat and reduce her carbon footprint. Change will largely rely on our macro-decisions, as conscientious consumers and social agents and should prioritize individual accountability over outwardly expressed anger.


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