Published June 24, 2020
Generation Z will not let pandemic and quarantine hold them back from driving change. As the nation has been gripped by protests, resilient and vocal new Gen Z activists are using social media as one of their “tools for justice” to connect, mobilize and call out societal inequities. Gen Z’s powerful demands for change will fiercely confront any institution, company or government whose moral or societal values they find lacking. Generation Z faced exposure to tragedy and conflict through much of their childhood, in a world changed forever by 9/11 and the conflicts at home and abroad which followed. That experience provides the springboard for taking (and demanding) actions they believe are long overdue. Once derided as the Snowflake Generation, this relentless cohort of 10-23 year olds has turned to activism as they release their anxiety and express their frustrations with society. And it seems to be working. Generation Z has been at the forefront of protests against racial injustice, police abuse and pushing for civil rights reform. Ninety percent of Gen Z Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement. In what seemed like minutes, outraged members of Gen Z rose from struggling “Zoomers” stuck on quarantine couches to become commanding street-bound warriors, protesting peacefully against racial injustice.

Generation Z has grown up with the digital technology it now masters, optimizing social media to confront their opposition. In the days leading the Trump campaign rally on June 20th in Tulsa, thousands of TikTok teens and K-pop music fans are believed to have reserved slews of tickets with no intention of attending. This simple yet effective prank may have contributed to thousands of empty seats, which dominated the post-event coverage of the event as a disappointment for the campaign. Confronting opposition may be Generation Z’s newest coping skill and fuel for marching in the face of all-time high rates of anxiety and depression. They feel pummeled by external factors like COVID-19, social and political instability and racial injustice, while their own educational and economic futures feel deeply uncertain. A Harris Poll conducted on behalf of the National 4-H Council revealed that 70% of teenagers said they struggle with mental health. According to psychologist Rick Hanson, “Action binds anxiety; that’s a research finding…If you take appropriate action and you know what you’re doing, it’ll calm you down.” By channeling their anxiety into activism, Generation Z is using social media expertise and leadership skills to ignite change and correct the injustices tolerated for too long by older generations.

Every time I watch the news, I get triggered by all the instability. But then I go to Snapchat or TikTok to express my opinions and I see that I’m not alone. That makes me feel better.” – Rachel, 17

When they’re not in the streets demanding change, many teens, including mine, are voicing political opinions on TikTok. Not all are progressive, as might be expected. Conservative teens collaborate on TikTok’s @conservativehypehouse where they post videos to promote President Trump. TikTok teens “duet” opposing videos, posting counter arguments to others’ political opinions such as @sofiahateslife.

Generation Z’s demands for reform will carry far beyond politics and societal injustices. We can expect activism against universities, employers and brands they perceive to violate their principles, collectively or individually. With colleges rolling out Fall plans to manage coronavirus on campus, we can expect numerous protests over issues like tuition, faculty politics, a university’s position on Black Lives Matter, and LGBTQIA+ policies. Last week an Oklahoma State University running back refused to participate in any university activity because his head coach wore a T-shirt with a conservative cable network logo.  The athlete tweeted, “I will not stand for this.. This is completely insensitive to everything going on in society, and it’s unacceptable.” Two days later the coach apologized, but the issue remains highly charged in the state. University of Texas football players have objected to the team’s traditional fight song, “The Eyes of Texas,” as racist. This type of public, social media-driven protest from Division I NCAA football players would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago.

In these challenging and uncertain times, underestimating Generation Z based on their age and limited life experience would be a mistake.  Institutions, companies, governments and other entities need to be prepared to discuss controversial issues with this generation as it leads a movement for change in our streets and on the screens of our digital lives. They are saying “enough is enough” – will we listen?