Gen Z voted for the first time in this presidential election. Here’s how Chicago college students say the cultural landscape influenced their vote—from a childhood marked by 9/11 to elementary school years amidst a financial crisis to a youth defined by social media.
2020 has upended all expectations. For many young people, it will be remembered as the year of canceled graduation ceremonies, the isolation of venturing "off" to college from their parents’ living rooms, and the societal pressure of being a first-time voter during an election cycle deemed one of the most important in decades.
Gen Z, our newest generation of voters, cast ballots for the first time in a federal election on November 3. So how did the significant events of the 2000s—the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a financial crisis in their elementary school years, looming fears of climate change, active shooter drills during class time, racial injustice, and countless lives lost to police brutality, all before the age of 21—shape the way that Gen Z voters participated in this election? I spoke to local college students to better understand how the cultural landscape of their youth influenced their voting decisions.
A responsibility not taken lightly
As of October 20, over three million young people aged 18-29 had already voted in the 2020 elections. The political prominence of youth in this election is clear. These 18-to-21-year-olds can now exercise their democratic right—and they aren’t taking it lightly.
The data shows the upward trend that #VOTE is not just a popular hashtag or photo caption. In a poll released by the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School, 63 percent of 18-to-29-year-old’s indicated they will definitely be voting, compared to 47 percent before the 2016 election.
A choice influenced by social media
It’s no surprise social media has been used as a part of integral campaign strategies for the past several elections. Gen Z Americans were born amidst the advent of social media, amplifying thoughts and actions in the virtual realm has only been exacerbated this year amidst COVID-19 and a high-stakes election.
As such, we’re seeing legislators with closely honed social media personalities more than ever before, such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who invites viewers into her home for DIY manicures or cooking with AOC, all the while educating followers on her policy initiatives. Candidates had access to their constituents in real-time through Instagram and Facebook Live features. It may not be enough to rely on traditional methods of Facebook posts or Tweeting—we all lived through four years of replaying Tweets from the outgoing President. The ability to effectively capture the attention of the Gen Z generation is difficult because they are bombarded with a surplus of content.
This generation faces disapproval from older counterparts on how their time is utilized. Baby Boomers accuse Gen Z of wasting time learning TikTok dances or posting pictures of their food on the internet, but that’s not the entire narrative. In fact, social media is mobilizing our next generation of leaders to think critically, use their platforms to ignite change, and catalyze movements that can influence our next wave of policy priorities.
Local perspective from Gen Z voters
To learn more from the perspective of first-time voters, I asked students to articulate how their experiences are shaping their decision-making and voice. Here’s what I learned:
Gen Z voters are prepared voters; youth have taken additional steps to be well informed on the ballot.
“I check several different news sources across the political spectrum, I check voting records, and candidates’ websites. I consider myself a very informed voter.” –Kierstin, Sophomore, DePaul University
“I access information from news sources, social media, candidate’s platforms, google searches in general. I would consider myself well informed.” –Andrea, Freshman, Loyola University
Gen Z voters say that being politically active is #trending.
“In past years no. However, now I do consider myself politically active. Over the years I have grown up and learned that you have to use whatever little voice you're granted and then fight for a bigger voice until you are heard. As a female low-income minority, I don't have the luxury of tuning out politics as one day I can wake up and find my rights have been revoked because no one bothered to fight for them.”—Stephanie Gonzalez Freshman, Harold Washington College
Leaving politics out of the conversation to be polite is #cancelled; while it was once frowned upon to discuss current issues and candidates among family members at the dinner table, Gen Z felt comfortable speaking candidly with their parents leading up to Election Day.
“I talked about this election a lot with my family, I helped several members of my family request mail-in ballots, we discussed candidates and the fair tax amendment”—Kierstin, Sophomore, DePaul University
Social media and the internet have influenced the Gen Z vote.
“In a way, social media did influence my voting. I think it's been interesting being able to see past interviews, documented cases, and overall presence behind closed doors from both Biden and Trump. It has definitely opened mine and many other people's eyes to what both candidates stand for and are prepared to offer the country which I believe results in more informed voters.”—Stephanie Gonzalez Freshman, Harold Washington College
We should expect Gen Z’s informed political voice to question our current systems. As Millennials nearly surpass Baby Boomers as the largest eligible voter population, the voice of young people in our democratic process is a force to be reckoned with—or at least made viral.