Generation Z (or simply Gen Z) is the generation that follows the Millennials and includes everyone born from the mid to late ‘90s till early 2010.
Our aim is to question the generalised and derogatory terms often used to describe Gen Z members, to understand their characteristic traits and opinions and to empower their voices.
The project started in January 2022. Email: email@example.com
This article is an intervention by PhD candidate Antonis Galanopoulos on the occasion of an event organised by Eteron at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTH) in the context of the Gen Z | Voice On project.
Studies and articles focusing on youth and specifically on the so-called Generation Z often start with the metaphor of the “black box” – Generation Z as a “black box” that needs to be unlocked. Why do we need to unlock it, though? Are we just curious or does this generation have some special political significance today?
In recent years, major dictionaries have offered us a roadmap of political developments through their pronouncements of the Word of the Year. Especially if we combine the Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries’ statements. In 2017, for example, the former chose “youthquake” as its word of the year and the latter chose “populism”. In 2020, their choices were “unprecedented” and “quarantine”. Now, let’s go back to the concept of “youthquake”. The neologism “youthquake” was not coined in 2017 but back in the 1960s and the youth (counter)culture movements of the time. In 2017, however, it became associated with the support of young people for the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn, who led the party to a better-than-expected result in that year’s election. The dictionary noted at the time that the use of the term in public discourse increased fivefold during 2017. Therefore, something began to happen, or at least to be noticed, from 2017 onwards.
In 2020, professor John Curtice attempted to explain the outcome of Brexit and the 2019 UK elections. His article in Political Insight magazine had the title “A Brave New World” from, like the well-known book by Aldous Huxley. In the article he talks about a remarkable change in the voting demographics in the UK. His conclusion was that age is now the principal demographic division in British electoral politics. 1
This division has also recently become apparent in France. In the first round of the presidential election, Melenchon won the young people’s vote, while 44-year-old Macron only won in the 60-69 and over-70 age groups. The same pattern emerged in the first round of the parliamentary elections. 42% of 18-24 year olds voted for the coalition of the united Left (NUPES) as opposed to only 18% who voted for the presidential bloc (Ensemble). The percentages are reversed in the 65+ age group (19% voted for NUPES and 36% for Ensemble). In Greece, apart from some exit poll data, we do not know much about the age group called Gen Z. The exit polls suggest that the trend we saw in the UK and France is also occurring in our country. Relevant surveys suggest that young people, and in particular members of Gen Z, are making more left-wing or generally progressive choices in the elections in which they participate.
There is, however, another aspect of the political profile of this generation, which is structured around abstention and political alienation. In the French parliamentary elections mentioned above, in which the majority of the French people abstained, the abstention rate in Gen Z reached 76%.
A recent YouGov survey showed that young people 18-24 are less likely to claim that democracy in their country serves their interests. Positive responses were less than 20%. 2 The percentage of positive responses was below 20%. The number of positive responses gradually increased along with the participants’ age, to reach a peak of 45% amongst those belonging to the age group of 65+.
What are the beliefs and political engagement practices that could shed more light on these two aspects of Gen Z’s political profile? Eteron’s research, the first to focus exclusively on this generation, offers some initial data we can use in order to reflect on the issue, with a focus, of course, on the Greek context.
In any such discussion we are bound to make certain simplifications and/or abstractions. No generation is homogeneous. I would argue that so far we have maintained some stereotypical ideas and notions regarding this age group: (a) digital generation, platforms, apps, social media; (b) generation of progressive attitudes particularly on issues of sexual orientation, the environment and liberties in general; (c) relative detachment from politics, abstention from elections; (d) cosmopolitan generation, with trips and friends abroad; and (e) annoyed and annoying generation, nothing expresses it better than the well-known catch phrase “Okay, boomer”.
Eteron’s research confirms some of those stereotypes and disproves others. Gen Z is indeed a digital generation, as more than half of the people that belong to it claim to spend 5-10 hours a day online. The view that they are indifferent does not seem to bear out. In fact, over half say that they follow the news somewhat or a lot. Around half stay informed on current affairs through news websites and social media, although at the same time they do not particularly trust them. The most predominant social media platform is Instagram, a fact that also shows the current predominance of image over text.
The institutions that Gen Zers trust the least are the Church with 4% and political parties and trade unions with 7%. They trust either people who are close to them [such as friends (40%) and family (50%)] or those who are seen as “superior” [scientific experts (62%)]. We are dealing with a generation that is very much questioning the “truth”, but, at the same time, they’re the most educated generation, and so they trust people with knowledge. The fact that the research was carried out during the pandemic, when the role of experts was highlighted and reinforced, has obviously played an important role. Although they declare an interest in current affairs and are mainly informed via social media (79%), they do not follow politicians, since they don’t trust them, as stated earlier.
At the heart of their concerns and interests are – mainly – questions that have to do with values. From the #MeToo movement, with which the vast majority (87%) agree, to this generation’s great interest in climate change and the environment. They express an anti-fascist stance, as indicated by the participants’ agreement (72%) with #They_are_not_innocent, but also a pro-mobilisation attitude, as 64% support #cancelefood. Evidence of the political engagement practices mentioned above is emerging quickly. The interest in politics, which is real, seems to be expressed in other, non-traditional ways. Political action seems to have a strong digital dimension as it’s passing through the screen of their devices, thus participating in a digital “us” that perhaps lacks the typical features of collective movements of the past.
Is it a form of performative activism or something more? In this case, the answer is unclear and rather difficult to extract from the research, as it is not clear what Gen Z members perceive as “political” action, at least not to those of us who do not belong to this generation. For example, Gen Zers state that they stay informed on current affairs through social media, agree with the content of the hashtags mentioned above, but 75% of them state that they do not post political content. Before passing value judgments, we should ask ourselves: what do Gen Z members perceive as “political content”? In order to do so, this useful quantitative research should be accompanied by qualitative research methods, such as in-depth interviews with members of this generation. The first indication we have, with a tentative degree of certainty, is that in their minds “political” is synonymous with “partisan” and evokes denial or at least a reflexive urge to distance themselves.
We can get a more accurate impression from the replies Gen Zers gave when asked about their ideological self-positioning. One in five do not accept the left-right distinction, and, in a way, this is understandable. Gen Z includes young people born after 1996, the emblematic year of the modernisation effort, the year when the convergence of centre-left and centre-right in Greece began to deepen. Later on, they saw the transformation of the traditional two-party system into a single “memorandum governing party” and then witnessed a series of political parties with different ideological identities implement austerity measures.
Furthermore, there is a concentration at the axis’ centre, which accounts for about a quarter of the responses, with a tilt towards the (centre)left rather than towards the (centre)right. The question remains as to whether this concentration at the centre actually constitutes a political identity with a specific meaning. It is worth noting that the same concentration has also been observed in other surveys and could be an alternative and indirect way of stating one’s opposition to the right-left distinction.
In his article on Gen Z’s multiple identities, Yiannis Balabanidis claims that it’s a Left-inclined generation, rather than a Left one.3 Several theorists suggest that this youth radicalism could essentially be a radical progressivism at a social values level leading to the prevalence of a post-materialist version of the Left. What Piketty called “the Brahmin Left”,4
referring to the Western left-wing parties turning into parties of the young and educated. The more we analyse the data from various surveys on youth, and Gen Z in particular, and despite the contradictions that one may observe, it seems that issues of social values are closely linked to issues of youth housing, living conditions and the minimum wage. It seems that Greek Gen Zers are living in a prolonged crisis condition, and as a result their political identity combines materialist and post-materialist projections in a more inherent way than classical post-materialist theory could have predicted.
As a millennial, I’d like my thoughts on this text to be seen as an indirect conversation, mediated by Eteron’s research data. Gen Z and millennials still have significant similarities or at least points of contact: we have common concerns, similar values, we are very much alike, we vote more or less the same way. In order to better understand Gen Z’s social and political beliefs and action repertoires, it’d be best not to talk about them, but to talk to them. And if there was one question I would like us to answer together that would be: what is the future of a political system, a state, that satisfies neither the millennials or Gen Z?