This article was written by Jack Flynn, who interned at Civocracy in the Summer of 2022
“Gen. Z does not care about politics, they are glued to their social media and are oblivious to the outside world”, and statements like it represent the understanding of young adult participation in civil society by older generations. Early Generation Z (those born in the mid to late ‘90s and early 2000s) are now between 17 and 27 years old and are either working or in secondary education. Gen Z is the next generation of voting and tax-paying adults and it is time to include them in civil society and encourage them to do so.
To say that Gen. Z does not care about the world around them is an understatement. With the average Gen Zer spending nearly 3 hours a day on social media, they may not get their news from contemporary means such as newspapers or cable television but they are informed through platforms such as Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat with YPulse reporting 63% of 13 - 39-year-olds getting their news from YouTube.
Surprisingly from another report, YouTube content creator Phillip DeFranco Tops the list as one of the most trustworthy news commentators for Gen Z.
Encouraging Gen Z to participate in civil society can help their voice be heard and their wishes be acted upon. Young adults have many commitments and new commitments need to be worth the time. 46% of young French voters abstained from the 2022 elections because they felt politicians don’t care about them. Though 71% of young Germans voted in the latest election, they feel as if their interests are being ignored. In the 2020 US Presidential Election, half of young Americans voted; however, new voter laws may threaten future participation.
Gen Z needs to understand the value of democracy and citizen engagement before the torch is passed on to them. Four potential approaches to improving young adult mobilisation now and for the future will be covered in this article:
Democracy needs celebrity or mainstream support
Democracy and citizen participation needs to become accessible online
Education about democracy and civil society should be expanded upon
Young adults need to be taken seriously.
Democracy as the next Trend for Influencers
Being “trendy” is a big aspect of social media. Users on platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat construct false narratives about their lives. Young adults work to curate a positive image of themselves online in an attempt to strengthen their appeal to others. A Pew Research Study found that 43% of teens felt at least a little pressure to post content that made them look good.
Among the photos of trips to exotic places or that one sold-out concert, participating in highly-publicised movements is another way to gain clout online. Democracy and citizen participation need to become “trendy” behaviours on social media. Katy Perry and Orlando Bloom last year released a short film titled, “Save Democracy while You Can” urging reform to the American voting apparatus. Some celebrities and influencers make comments about voting and politics however, we must find influencers and celebrities who will actively champion citizen participation and engagement. Through hashtags, challenges and general content creation, it is possible for influencers to jumpstart young adult interest in citizen participation. Trends ebb and flow on the internet and it is unlikely that such a trend would last longer than a few weeks. This means that organisations, governments and companies backing such an effort must be prepared with the time, resources and commitment to keep young adults engaged.
Thus, social media may not be the solution, however, it can be the starting point for genuine changes in behaviour. Ultimately, government participation in social media must be an organised and well-thought-out endeavour. Much like marketing a product on Tik Tok or Instagram, governments need to market themselves to social media users. Gen Z are not mindless consumers and easily see through insincere marketing. Forbes suggests that authenticity should be a priority of any business advertising or engaging online. Authenticity means standing by your values whether that be getting people to vote or encouraging dialogue on a construction project. One way of being authentic is to have social media campaigns run by socially-active young adults within your government, company, or organisation. Companies that tend to do well on platforms such as Tik Tok have young adults representing them. Ultimately the internet is an ever-evolving place, meaning there are many opportunities to experiment with marketing on social media.
Making Democracy and Citizen Participation Inclusive and Accessible for all
Bringing democracy and civil society itself into the Information Age benefits numerous demographics but young adults are among those that can most benefit from it because they are the first generation of “Digital Natives” i.e. the generation that grew up online.
Accessibility of democracy and civil society is crucial for facilitating young adult citizen participation and long-term engagement. Young adults sometimes lack the courage, access, or experience to participate in civil society in-person like those much older than them. Making civic participation accessible online places participation within reach for the Digital-Native Generation. E-Democracy, Civic-Tech and similar fields are working to bridge the gap between government and online citizens through engagement platforms and the gamification of participation. These fields represent a potential “net” to catch young adults mobilised through social media campaigns. Transition from social media campaigns could be achieved through quizzes aimed at skill development, gamification of participation and engagement and constructive dialogue with their peers all encompassed on an accessible platform.
Increasing citizen participation regardless of age is the Gordian Knot of this industry and current offerings never guarantee solutions rather offer opportunities for participation, engagement and a sense of community.
Let’s Prioritise Civic Education and the Concept of the Community
For many young adults, they received little or no education about the importance of democracy, civic participation, or good governance.
According to the European Policy Centre, based on the limited available data on citizen education, European nations greatly vary in their approach. How can young adults function within civil society when high-quality civic education is not guaranteed in schools? A UN Chronicle article by Martyn Barrett said the following,
“The education that young people receive at school is also critical. If schools enable students to raise ethical, social, civic and political issues in the classroom, allow them to discuss controversial topics, encourage them to express their own opinions and to listen to one another in order to explore a variety of different perspectives, students will tend to acquire higher levels of political interest, trust and knowledge, which in turn will boost the likelihood of them voting in the future.”
Providing young people a healthy and constructive environment to learn about and discuss controversial social, ethical, civic and political topics helps to avoid alienating young people from political discourse. Simulations such as Model European Parliament, Model United Nations or Boys State place young people in the shoes of politicians and encourage them to cooperate with others and think critically to solve contemporary issues.
Secondary and post-secondary schools should encourage the establishment of or participation in such simulations. Potential cooperation with gov-tech, civic-tech or similar industries could provide support in expanding education and outreach efforts by offering environments for engagement and low-stakes citizen participation.
Leaders of Tomorrow, Taken Seriously Today
Teaching civic education to Gen Z and subsequent generations provides the foundation for their participation in civil society; however, to be included in the conversation, they must first be taken seriously.
A frequent complaint from Gen Z is that when they receive the opportunity to express their demands for change and visions of the future, they are minimised and ignored. A Common Futures Conversations Survey from 2019 found that less than 5% of young adults in Africa and Europe believe their politicians listen to them.
Gen Z, (and Millennials for that matter) are frequently called idealistic by older generations because of their alternate visions for the future and their more progressive approach to civil society. Minimising Gen Z’s ideas and aspirations is an excellent way of forcing conformity; however, they will no longer participate in further dialogue.
Millennials and Gen Z will be the greatest impacted by global crises caused directly or indirectly by climate change. With this in mind, it is understandable that their vision of the future strays from the conventional interpretation of society, as drastic action needs to be taken to protect the planet and society. Gen Z must be empowered to speak their mind on these challenges. They are adults now and they need their voices heard as, at the present, they are not. they have the right to have their opinions heard.
Ultimately, young adults do have some desire to participate in civil society however, they lack the tools or support geared towards their generation. Like all citizen participation, mobilisation efforts can be for nought even if guides are followed to a ‘T’. Thus, long-term, dedicated efforts to educate and facilitate engagement will likely yield better results and short-term “shock and awe” campaigns. We should continue to work to better understand Gen Z wants from civil society and how we can mobilise this generation into a generation of politically-active citizens.