If one looks up the words “Gen Z will” on Google, the first two results that appear are “Gen Z will save the world” and “Gen Z will change the world.” Regardless of the veracity of these claims, the notion that Gen Z has a unique ability to shape global culture and politics runs rampant in mainstream media ecosystems. The idea has taken on unique prescience with activist Greta Thunberg and the global school climate strikes. Even as Thunberg, in speech after speech, claims that she does not want to be praised for giving older generations “hope” and instead wants meaningful policy change, the cultural discourse at large is still addicted to pedalling the idea that Gen Z and youth climate activists will change society for the better. While this may seem like a compliment to Gen Z, this notion is actually deeply destabilizing. The claim that Gen Z activists are inspiring and will save the world works to obscure and avoid the substance of youth climate activists’ claims who want policy change now, not in the future once members of Gen Z are leaders. I will track the various ways that media outlets and public figures celebrate Gen Z climate protests and analyze the ways that celebrating the use of Gen Z voices is a means of avoiding the substance of youth activist demands. I will then put these observations in conversation with the words of New York Times writer Charlie Warzel who wrote the following in a June 2020 article titled “Gen Z Will Not Save Us:”
"Generation Z is disillusioned by a country and its myriad institutions whose moral arc seems to bend toward corruption and stagnation. It is also, like any generation, not monolithic. And the way that its justified disillusion will play politically, culturally and socially is unknown."
Bringing in this incisive analysis from Warzel will center the fact that much of Gen Z activism is an earnest response to a destabilizing culture and political landscape. Warzel also helps us see that any grand narrative surrounding Gen Z political heroism is reductive, unhelpful and ultimately shifts the onus of enacting change onto Gen Z.
Key Take Away Points
Honoring the importance of Gen Z climate activists is often a covert form of dismissing the substance of activist demands.
- All should be skeptical of simplistic, deifying narratives around Gen Z’s political efficacy and power.
- Those that seek to engage Gen Z climate activists should engage with the substance of their critique and demands, not their identity as young people or the conceptual significance of their activism.
Tobias Hess (he/him) is a climate organizer, writer and musician from Los Angeles, CA. He studies music composition and experimental humanities at Bard College in New York. His past climate work includes founding the Sunrise Movement's Hub at Bard College, being an online trainer for the Sunrise's Movement's online school for activists and working as the youth engagement intern at the Climate Reality Project during the summer of 2020. In the spring of 2021, he took a leave from school to focus on his music and write for his Substack Newsletter, Gen Zero, which explores the ideas and technologies that are shaping Gen Z.
I would like thank Harriet Shugarman for connecting me with JARC and encouraging me to use my voice as a Gen Z climate activist in this venue. Thank you to the Sunrise Movement for providing a space of hope and action. You transformed my anxiety into action.
"“Gen Z Will Save Us:” Applauded and Dismissed as a Gen Z Climate Activist (Perspective from the Field),"
Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk: Vol. 12:
1, Article 5.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.library.tmc.edu/childrenatrisk/vol12/iss1/5