People assume a lot about Gen Z and young Millennials: we're overly sensitive, we're not willing to work hard, or we're just downright entitled. Having grown up in a post-smartphone society, we're consumed by social media. We aren't engaged enough in the political system or take politics too personally. People harbor these assumptions without actually talking — or, better yet, listening — to young adults. Though this isn't a new phenomenon by any means, it is an especially critical mistake as we approach the presidential election.
Young and first-time voters will make up a sizable voting bloc come Nov. 3. Millennials and Gen Z now make up 37 percent of the eligible voting population, according to census data analyzed by the Brookings Institution. According to CIRCLE, youth voter-registration numbers are higher in a number of states than in 2016. What's more, Rock the Vote recently had its most successful National Voter Registration Day ever on Sept. 22, with an estimated 200,000 people submitting applications or checking their registration status.
To dive deeper into this political moment, POPSUGAR teamed up with YR Media to host a virtual roundtable discussion with five young adults who are all part of a project by YR Media and WNYC's Radio Rookies called 18-to-29 Now: Young America Speaks Up, where they've been documenting what's at stake for them this year — and beyond. Myself and Merk Nguyen, who cohosts the podcast Adult ISH, moderated the discussion on Oct. 2, which focused less on the two competing presidential candidates and more on the interests, needs, and demands of everyone present. It was enlightening, often impassioned, and unexpectedly hopeful.
Awakening to Activism
Juan (they/them): Growing up as undocumented, our lives were kind of in the balance every single election cycle. I remember from a young age hearing my parents discuss, what if John McCain wins? What are his views on immigration? This was when I was in elementary school. I've always grown up aware of politics in the US with regards to immigration, and that was sort of my leeway into the broader political field.
Erianna (she/her): It actually wasn't until a year ago that I realized I really care about college affordability. I was just coming back home from going to a four year university in North Dakota, and I decided I wasn't going to go back. That had to do with the environment itself, and also I didn't want to take out $12,000 loans every year to cover the rest of my tuition. For me, that aha moment was when I came home and I got a place with four other people, and I had to start working at this gas station. I started paying rent and utilities until I really realized I have no money.
Sher (she/her): I really started to gain an interest in politics around the Obama era, in 2008. That's when I really recognized the power of activism. People that were a couple years older than me on the streets holding signs. It was all the "Yes We Can" stuff. I was really invigorated by that. Slowly and surely I kind of took the rose-colored glasses off and I realized that politics is so much more than what we see in the media. Bernie Sanders is really what energized me to want to get physically involved as far as getting involved with different groups and organizations, because one of the issues I'm super passionate about is healthcare. My family members, sometimes they couldn't pay medical bills, or we avoided going to the doctor unless it was an emergency. When I heard Bernie Sanders really tell us that healthcare should not be something that is a privilege, it should be a right, that's when I kind of leewayed into a more progressive form of getting involved in politics.
Kaleigh (she/her): I first began campaigning I guess in 2004. I was 10 years old . . . I knew that our vice president's daughter was part of the LGBTQ community and he didn't support her right to get married. That was kind of my first inclination that something's not right here and we could do something about it. Fourth grade was when I got involved telling my peers to go home and tell their parents who to vote for. Then after that I was all about Obama in 2008, and then 2011 is when I actually started really being involved and not just kind of spreading the word. That was when I found out about Gary Johnson and the Libertarian Party, and began campaigning for him when I was in 11th grade.
Sage (he/him): My interest in politics has always been kind of prevalent growing up in a conservative small town in North Carolina. I've always been politically aware, but I don't think I ever really started caring about politics and how they affected my community and me personally until gay marriage was legalized in 2015. I remember it was middle school, and I was watching the news and it came on. That was my aha moment. I realized that there are politicians who are willing to care about us, and it's important that we have those politicians in place. Specifically with housing issues in the LGBT community, I became very aware and active when I became homeless myself back in, I believe, December of 2018 or October of 2018. I was going to a shelter and I realized looking for a shelter it was near impossible to find any that were catered specifically to LGBT youth, which is really important because there are so many dangers presented.
What's at Stake in the 2020 Election
Sage: We have people in office and people in power over us who aren't people who share the same experiences with us . . . If people in power aren't representative of the people they're holding the power over, I just don't feel like we're going to get full representation. As much as we can, I believe we need people who are willing to fight for LGBTQ rights, even if they don't necessarily understand it.
Juan: Almost literally, what's at stake here is my life here in the US. Again, going back to being undocumented: Trump has obviously been trying to get rid of the DACA program, and it's gone all the way to the Supreme Court. He keeps on challenging that, and that's my only sort of lifeline here in the US as an undocumented young person. That program is only a small sliver of help.
Kaleigh: I think a lot of stuff's going to happen after the election no matter who wins. Chaotic is probably an appropriate word. At the same time, I think this question kind of brings about what I think the real problem here is, and that is that our leaders have too much power over our lives . . . I'd much rather see less power belong to one person, no matter who they are, because there are going to be times when someone gets elected that you don't like, and you don't want them to be able to make these decisions.
Sher: We have a president that pretty much refused to put down white supremacists, and so the culture here, especially in Florida, it does give me anxiety sometimes when I'm out and about. It's definitely shifted, I've noticed. People are a little bit more comfortable being vocal with their racism . . . I'll open up my Facebook page and somebody will post something extremely racist and put down an entire group of people. For me, it's extremely important that we change administrations, because I feel like that message that's being seen daily in the media is creating so much tension.
Erianna: I can't even go to the store and assume that I am going to have a great day. Not even to be funny. I may get shot today. That's where I am and where my mind is as a young person — that I can't even exist as I am as this Black woman in the world. For whatever reason my existence bothers people. Of course, I care about college affordability, but also to take it a step deeper, there's a racial war going on all the time, it seems like, in this country, and that's one of my top concerns as well. Are my future kids going to be able to go to the same school I did in North Dakota and make it? Is their skin going to really set them back or make them feel uncomfortable? Those are the things that I'm kind of thinking about as it relates to colleges and college affordability. Is my skin really going to be a barrier and hold me back every time?
The Utility (and Futility) of Social Media
Sage: As embarrassing as it is, I really tend to utilize my social media, but specifically TikTok, as a platform to reach out to a bunch of people in a very quick manner. I have a small following on there, and I love to talk about politics and involve myself and my audience in politics . . . Social media is my biggest tool in influencing people on what I believe should be voted for and what we should hold our political leaders accountable for. Really just urging people my age and older to go out and vote.
Kaleigh: I work for the American Conservation Coalition, and we're an environmental nonprofit. A lot of what we do is lobby for things through the grassroots. We've had a lot of success, even during coronavirus, trying to accomplish our mission of changing the narrative about how we solve environmental problems . . . We actually did a virtual campaign with the [hashtag] #WhatAboutClimate, because we saw that the debate was not going to mention climate. Through our online activism, we not only got them to include climate as a topic on the debate, it was the only topic that they didn't shout over each other the entire time during, so we were really proud of that.
Erianna: I know social media is of the times — that is young people's love language — but then sometimes I feel like social media is problematic to real change, because we can sit up there and tweet things all day long, but which one of us is going to actually go down there and talk to some people?
That's when we have to think about what the public square is. Is it on our phones or is it actually in public? Are we having town halls, or are we just kind of talking in an echo chamber?
Juan: I'm young. I'm hip. I'm with the times, or whatever, but I think that we kind of get caught in our little bubble sometimes . . . It's important to not just be politically active on our phones and on social media, because it's going to reach our audiences, but it's not going to reach the audience that we need it to reach. That's when we have to think about what the public square is. Is it on our phones or is it actually in public? Are we having town halls, or are we just kind of talking in an echo chamber? That's the thing that we have to kind of reckon with. It is useful, social media, to get people active, but how do we get people who aren't active on social media to become politically active? I don't know. That's a hard question.
Sher: I've definitely slowed down my use of social media because I realized what Juan was saying. It's very much catered to people that think and believe like you. It's like you're seeing the same opinions all throughout your feed and you're like, "Great everybody is on the same page. This is great." Or you're seeing people just kind of go back and forth in these arguments, and people are blocking people. It doesn't feel as productive as people think it is. I have friends that all they do is post their political opinions and their political views, but some of them aren't really involved in any other way other than social media.
Navigating Political Conversations With Family
Sher: When joining an organization like Democratic Socialists of America, it took a long time for me to be comfortable with the word socialism, because I feel like there's so much stigma around that word . . . That's been hard to navigate, because people tend to roll their eyes or consider a lot of things to be very radical. Like my mom, she's very moderate and she's like, "Well, I'm finally getting access to Medicare. Why should everybody have access to it? Healthcare is something that you have to earn and something that you have to work hard for." My parents are both Haitian, they've worked really hard to get things, and sometimes it's hard to explain to them my belief system in those terms.
Erianna: My dad is a boomer from Mississippi, and was birthed by a midwife somewhere in some place that was rural. He doesn't even know his real birthday. A couple years ago when we voted, my dad actually did not vote . . . I feel like a lot of people can relate to my dad because he's just one of those Americans that, one, may not have a lot of knowledge about politics. Two, he just feels like he just gives up. There's no good option. So, why even give somebody the vote and they're not even up to his standards?
Now we're having conversations about systematic racism and police brutality like it's a trend. This has been the reality of my life since I've been here — hello!
Kaleigh: Me and my dad can hardly have conversations about politics just because he's literally just spewing me his newsfeed. I'll try to probe and be like, "Why do you feel that way? Why do you think [that]? Have you thought about the consequence?" No. He's just spewing headlines he saw that day. That's sad because we — the people here on this Zoom call and the people paying attention to politics and actually caring — are 1 percent of the population. Most people don't care, are not informed, are not paying attention, are just taking whatever they're told as fact. It really is up to us to try to keep things moving and keep things civil I think.
Sage: I recently had a conversation like this with my dad about the Black Lives Matter movement. He was very much against it, and I've been attending protests in Louisville, [KY]. He was saying specifically how he was against the rioting and the looting, and I was trying to explain it to him in a way that he would understand. Saying, “How would you feel if it was me? What if it was police [targeting] trans people's lives, and what if a police officer shot me?” He took a second and he was like, "Oh, well I would hurt the police officer." Being very upset about it. I stopped and explained to him, "Yeah, but legally you can't hurt the police officer, so what are you going to do next? You're going to hit them where it hurts." Having these difficult conversations has to come down to, unfortunately, finding ways to make it relatable to the people who can't relate to the central situation.
Erianna: For those of us that are in the Black community, I feel like a lot of these things are very understood to us. It's almost like we're like waiting for the rest of society to catch up. Because to me, it's so strange. George [Floyd] died within my area, and it was like, now we're having conversations about systematic racism and police brutality like it's a trend. This has been the reality of my life since I've been here, hello. It's kind of like, come on society, can y'all catch up?
Looking Ahead and Maintaining Hope
Sher: I actually really struggled with this [election cycle], especially with Bernie not being announced the presidential candidate, and not really agreeing with a lot of Biden’s policies. I had to think deeper. I had to think about things as far [back] as decades. I had to think about how change is really incremental. Change is possible. It's not going to happen in a straight line. It's not going to happen in the direction that you want. Think about the people that came before you. Think about the Civil Rights activists. Think about all the things that they were able to do. Think about how much hopelessness they had about things that are actually happening today. The reality that we have today, some people could have never imagined. Sometimes we get lost in wanting things to be a little bit quicker because we live in such a fast-paced world. Just seeing change as something that is a little bit slower helps me when I start to get really burnt out, apathetic, and feeling the weight of everything.
Juan: It's hard to find hope when the world looks bleak, and dark, and like it's going to end. What gives me hope is looking back in the past and through history. What first comes to mind is John Lewis. He had dogs tearing him to shreds because he crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Then fast forward through that — his life and all the struggles that he went through — to be able to finally be a congressperson and be in the seat of power, and to see someone like himself, as a direct result of his struggles in the past, rise to power in the presidency. That makes me think all the struggles that we're going through now, and all the turmoil and all the crap that's being thrown at us, in the future, things will get better. That's what drives me: knowing that the future generations will pick up the torch and continue.
Just seeing change as something that is a little bit slower helps me when I start to get really burnt out, apathetic, and feeling the weight of everything.
Sage: I totally agree that it's really hard to find hope in moments like this, where you have so much at stake. And it's not these minuscule minor inconveniences, it is our day-to-day life that's at stake. Something I find hope in is, I like to think back to the Stonewall Riots. When there's a sense of community and something worth fighting for, there's continuity. There's a pattern that we see. There will always be people willing to fight if it's a fight worth fighting for.
Kaleigh: There's a lot of stuff that can put you down sometimes, but it's my opinion that if you're not fighting, then you can't complain. If you want to see a better world or have a better life, you have to do something about it. I grew up in Section 8 housing and I didn't eat unless the food stamps came through. Today, I'm 25 and I'm sitting in my own apartment. I know what can happen with hard work and a community that wants to help one another. Fighting absolutely 100 percent has to happen, and I believe that it's worth it. I believe that individuals do have power and that's why I dedicated my life and my career to doing it, too, not just my free time.
Erianna: For me, what gives me hope is this degree. A year from now I will be an [air quotes] educated Black woman, and I hope that people will take my word just a little bit more seriously as an educated Black woman about all the discrepancies I see in my reality, to be honest. As it relates to politics, it's definitely personal to me, and for me it's all about the legacy I live, as Sher says. I cannot help but to think about the people that have come before me . . . As a journalist, I really hope it sets me up to tell the stories that I need to tell to give perspective to the world. As corny as that may sound, that is really where my mind is as it relates to politics and what gives me hope, in that I can hopefully one day write something or say something that really opens someone's eyes or shocks them enough to think differently for once in their life. That's what gives me hope.