While it was clear early on that something was different about this presidential election than those in years past, it was a conversation about family TV night earlier this year that started me thinking about the impact the 2016 race to the White House is having on Gen Z and their political engagement. The conversation between my two Gen Z stepdaughters, ages 11 and 14, went something like this:
Me: What do you guys want to watch on TV tonight?
Older Gen Z Stepdaughter: Can we watch the Democratic debate?
Me: The debate? Are you playing or are you being serious?
Younger Gen Z Stepdaughter: No really. We watched the Republican one the other day and it was really interesting.
My husband and I then started to ask them questions about what they had learned and what they had found interesting about the debate and sure enough they had clearly watched it and were starting to form opinions. My thoughts went back to my own preteen and early teenage years, and I’m confident the presidential debate would not have been my first choice for television viewing.
According to a recent study by Fuse Marketing, 66% of teens say they would be very likely to vote in this years election if they were old enough. When you consider that 60% of eligible Americans voted in the last three presidential elections, it becomes clear that teens are engaged and interested in who will be next in the White House. If nothing else, the Presidential Race has captured the attention of Gen Z. Just look at Jack Aiello, the 8th grader whose presidential imitation graduation speech went viral, garnering over 2 million views. Whether you are cringing at the lack of gravitas or cheering at the nonconformity, this election provides a unique opportunity for us to use the momentum to educate Generation Z-ers on our political system, showcase the pros and cons, and develop a more politically savvy and engaged youth.
So what is it about this presidential race that has broken the generation barrier? I believe there are four main components:
1. The Players: With a known reality TV personality as a serious contender, this election has an unusual amount of intrigue and drama. Every week there seems to be a new, shockingly controversial statement that generates lots of conversation and social media chatter. So clear is the comparison between the election and less serious television viewing that the Clinton campaign responded in May with an ad declaring “This Election Isn’t a Reality Show”. Many of the provocative comments that have generated broad scale buzz – things such as discussing the size of one’s hands or bathroom habits – require no knowledge of the deeper political landscape in order to jump in on the conversation, making it very easy for Gen Z-ers as young as elementary school to share their opinion. And in the process, there is the opportunity for more serious family discussions to take place.
2. The Language: Driven by Trump, this election has, by its nature, taken on a style of language and speech that is easy to follow and understand for Gen Z youth. Regardless of which candidate you support, you can’t deny that Trump has gotten people to pay attention. Even The Economist wrote an article recently outlining why his rhetoric is so effective. They referenced three key points, specifically that the language is simple, it is repetitive and it is often unscripted. Other candidates, while still remaining true to their own style, have also adapted their speech resulting in an unintended benefit as far as Gen Z is concerned. The presidential debates have become clearer to follow even without any background on the issues being discussed, increasing engagement across all ages and spectrums of the population.
3. The Social Media Savvy: The importance of social media in this year’s presidential election is unprecedented. Frank Speiser, the Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer of SocialFlow, was quoted in a recent article published on govtech.com, as saying “This is the first true social media election….. [whereas] before it was an auxiliary method of communication.” Candidates have taken to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat in ways never before seen, are getting their message out more broadly, being more open and provocative, and consequently are engaging a much wider audience that includes Gen Z. From Donald Trumps controversial tweets to what has been called the first ever Snapchat attack ad by the Clinton campaign, social media is being used in
the battle to the White House in ways never seen before and Gen Z can follow along and relate more than previous generations have been able to during election years.
4. The Issues: Gen Z lists the top most important problems facing our country as the economy/jobs, education, gun violence and immigration. All of these are topics that have been widely discussed during this presidential race. The combination of issues they care about being discussed in language they can relate to and on social platforms they frequent has created a perfect storm to draw Gen Z into the election discussion. While they may not be aware of all the nuances and facts, most Gen Z-ers have enough information to feel they can follow along and form opinions. As one teenage Gen Z-er told me “my friends do talk a lot about this election and depending on the friend it gets heated [and we have] serious debates”.
Regardless of which side of the belief spectrum you are on – whether you are among those who contributed to the surge of google searches on ‘How to Move to Canada’ or whether you support building a wall on the Mexican border – remember that this election presents a unique opportunity to educate Gen Z as to the less drama filled aspects of the democratic process and system that we in the United States are so fortunate and blessed to be part of.