On November 7, we saw the myth of politically disengaged young people further disproved in the face of resounding results for progressive issues. Gen Z voters influenced the outcome of the Ohio referendum on a Constitutional right to abortion and helped flip the Virginia House of Delegates blue and hold the State Senate.
This kind of turnout is all the more impressive considering it was in an “off-year,” putting parties and candidates on notice that young voters will be a force to reckon with in the 2024 elections. In fact, with the Gen Z voter cohort slated to advance by 52 million compared to older voters between Trump’s 2016 win and next year’s election, young voters could very much determine the results.
At the same time, the political class’ difficulty in engaging this younger cohort of voters has been well-documented — presenting a key communications challenge for progressives going into next year.
So how do we tap into the political power of Gen Zers to advance progressive priorities in 2024, especially as their support for President Biden wanes? That’s the question we at Fenton sought to answer when we kicked off our event series, The Unlit Match: Igniting the Power of the Gen Z Vote, last week — one year out from Election Day 2024.
Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, moderated the panel discussion featuring Gen Z leaders Victoria Hammett of Gen Z for Change; Assistant Minority Leader Rep. Kalan Haywood of the Wisconsin State Assembly; Jessica Siles of Voters of Tomorrow; and Emilyn Grace Lagger of Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity.
Panelists agreed that Gen Z voters are motivated more by issue than loyalty to party or candidates, and that the political establishment should not take their support for granted. “Gen Z is really changing what it means to be political…and Gen Z voters are a lot more educated than they’re getting credit for, especially when it comes to issue-based voting,” Lagger said.
However, Hammett cautioned politicians against making blanket assumptions about Gen Z’s priorities: “Understand that we’re adults, we’ve got bills to pay. We pay taxes, we definitely care about a lot of issues that for some reason, older generations assume that we don’t.”
These Gen Z leaders emphasized that they prize and expect accountability from their government officials, and that politicians should remember to engage them while they’re in office and not just during campaigns. “Now is the time to listen, and make sure you have a campaign strategy that reflects what you’ve been hearing. Don’t assume you know what Gen Z wants – take the time to ask questions,” said Rep. Haywood.
Examples of that accountability and engagement came from social media. Panelists appreciated Instagram and Facebook Live sessions by office-holders that translate seemingly arcane legislative proceedings into understandable and relevant language, while taking questions from participants.
As older generations take to social media to communicate with Gen Zers, however, our panelists cautioned against forcing the latest meme, viral trend, or lingo into their content. Rather than coming across as awkward, inauthentic, and pandering, politicians and advocates should stick to what feels natural to them. They also warned politicians against thinking of social media as the sole avenue to engage them — and encouraged in-person events and meetings to hear about issues important to this cohort.
On the question of engaging young people in Joe Biden’s presidential run among a decidedly unenthusiastic Gen Z, Siles said, “Authenticity is going to make it or break it. Keep it authentic, keep it simple, and uplift what he’s already done to deliver on Gen Z priorities.”
As we enter the 2024 races, continue to follow Fenton’s series, The Unlit Match, for more programming focusing on how Gen Z is changing not just election results but how politicians and parties engage with young people. And of course, we’ll be sharing insights and developments from our work with numerous partners that are advancing progressive priorities at the ballot box and around the country.
Check out the full event to learn more.