Parkland and the political coming of Generation Z

Parkland and the political coming of Generation Z
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Does Generation Z, Americans born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, look at politics differently from previous generations, like Baby Boomers or even Millennials, such that they will change America and remake the world in its image? Right now it is too soon to tell but their reaction to the recent school shootings, in particular at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., might portend a coming of political age or consciousness moment that could change America over the next 20 years.

Political scientists often overlook generations as an important variable in politics shaping attitudes and behavior. More often the focus is on race, gender, and socioeconomic status. When age is considered the claim is often made that as people get older they become more conservative. Yet ignoring generation influences misses a critical factor in politics.

It was sociologist Karl Mannheim in 1928 who first talked about generations. Since then others have looked at generations as a social variable. Mannheim argued that a cohort of people born around the same time often develops a consciousness or awareness about themselves that define their political outlook for the rest of their life. A generational consciousness is triggered by some major event in adolescence that defines a set of political values that shape the views both initially in youth, and approximately 20 years later when that group matures and assumes leadership positions when they can act on their beliefs.

Some evidence suggests that political views or values once defined as adolescents are permanent and rarely change even as we age. Yes, factors such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status may mediate or affect attitudes, but in general a generational consciousness has two stages: the initial formation and then eventually its re-emergence when a generation takes power.

The Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, were shaped by the JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations as well as the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. That generation is split in terms of Democratic and Republican party support and is beginning to exit the political arena along with the Silent Generation (1924-1945), which forms a major base of the Republican party. The exit of these two generations creates an existential crisis for the two major parties, especially when one considers that the Millennials (1982-1994) hold views at odds with the two major parties on a range of issues. Contrary to the mantra of some, demographics are not destiny, generational attitudes are.

Yet while many have focused on the rise of Millennials as they begin to take leadership positions (Millennials are now the largest voting bloc, and the oldest are now 36 and eligible to run for president of the United States), few have thought about Generation Z, those born between 1995 and 2010. The oldest Gen Zs are 23. How do they difference from Millennials?

Marketing and business books suggest major differences between Millennials and Gen Z. The latter are more tech savvy and grew up in a world of 9-11 and the Great Recession of 2008-9, but so far political scientists have not examined who Gen Z are and whether they politically differ from Millennials. The reason for this is simple: Right now the oldest Gen Z is 23 — they are only now coming of voting age. What do we know about them?

There is not a lot of data. Two studies examining their political attitudes are the General Social Science Survey (GSS) done by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago in 2016, and the American National Election Study (ANES) by the University of Michigan, also in 2016. These studies are perhaps dated, but they offer some important information about whom then Gen Z was and how they contrast with previous generations.

Generally, both the Millennials and Gen Z are far more liberal on a range of issues including immigration and economic equality compared to the Silents and Boomers. But there are subtle contrasts between Millennials and Gen Zs. Start with the issue of ideology.

When asked in ANES on seven-point scale to rate themselves extremely liberal/liberal versus extremely conservative/conservative, 19.6 percent versus 14 percent of Millennials rate themselves that way respectively compared to 15 percent versus 12.4 percent for Gen Z. In the GSS, employing the same seven point scale, 19.6 percent of Millennials say extremely liberal/liberal versus 13 percent extremely conservative/conservative, while with Gen Z respectively lists 21.9 percent versus 14.4 percent.  Yet in the ANES study if simply asked if liberal versus conservative, 22.3 percent of Millennials say liberal and 27.1 percent say conservative, while it is 24.7 percent and 30 percent respectively for Gen Z. Depending on how the question is asked, one gets either Millennials or Gen Z coming out more liberal or conservative, but the differences in percentages are so slight as not to be statistically significant.

Turning to issues, in the GSS 60.3 percent of Millennials think it is the government’s responsibility to promote equality while 64.9 percent of Gen Z say the same. In ANES, when asked what should immigration levels be, 22.1 percent of Millennials say it should be increased a lot or a little compared to 28.4 percent of Gen Z. Conversely, 35.2 percent of Millennials say immigration levels should be decreased a little or a lot compared to 28.9 percent of Gen Z. Gen Z comes out more liberal on two of the more salient issues in American politics.

Finally, look at guns, an issue supposedly of importance to Gen Z. When asked in the GSS whether they favor gun permits, 73 percent of Millennials say yes and 73.8 percent of Gen Z also say yes. When asked in the ANES how important the gun access issue is, 59.2 percent of Millennials say it is extremely or very important compared to 56.8 percent for Gen Z. Guns back in 2016 might have been a more important issue to Millennials than Gen Z because of their history with school shootings, and this was of course before the Parkland shooting.

On just these issues it is difficult to discern significant differences in political ideology between Millennials and Gen Z. But recall the 2016 GSS and ANES are two years old, back when the oldest Gen Z was 21. This is significant for two reasons. If Mannheim is correct, generational attitudes are formed in adolescence by a major triggering event. Back in 2016 many members of Gen Z may have still not yet formed or developed a set of political attitudes. But it is entirely possible that this is changing as they are getting older, and the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the demonstrations coming afterwards may have been the triggering event for Gen Z.

If Parkland was in fact a focusing event for Gen Z the 2018 may give us some evidence for that. But more likely if Mannheim is correct, one needs to look at the longer term impact in the next 20 years to see if and how Parkland affected Gen Z and what it means not just for guns but other issues too.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He teaches a class on generational politics and is editor of “Presidential Swing States.”