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Commentary: What will Gen Z voters say in 2024 at polls?

Jerald McNair, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

Two years ago, America saw its youngest voters turn out for the midterm elections at rates not seen since 2018, when there was a historic high.

Nearly 25% of Gen Z voters went to the polls in 2022, according to data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. That is a sizable increase from 2014, when only 13% voted. These young voters may in fact determine who wins the presidency this time around.

Plenty of political issues resonate with this generation, including student debt, violence in America and immigration, which are at the forefront. Whichever party can connect these issues to the everyday lives of this generation will get its support.

Student debt, for example, is an obvious concern. While Gen X, my generation, has the highest average amount of student debt, largely because of how interest rates accrue, those who are 18 to 24 years old are likely to be in college and are concerned about the effect this financial burden will have on their long-term prospects.

Gen Z grew up during a time when school violence reached unprecedented levels. Consider the devastating shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Parkland High School and Sante Fe High School in 2018, Oxford High School in 2021 and Robb Elementary School in 2022.

School lockdown drills, in which students, faculty and staff rehearse what to do if there is an active shooter, are an unavoidable part of life now. Nearly 40 states require active shooter drills in schools, according to the investigative news outlet ProPublica. The political party that can empathize with this bracing reality and propose action to address violence in schools will get the support of Gen Z.

Then there is immigration. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which is close to 12 years old, was created as a stopgap measure to prevent the deportation of people without legal residency or citizenship who were brought to the United States as children. Gen Z kids grew up with DACA recipients, attending the same schools with them. Gen Z voters therefore may have a broader perspective on immigration, one that is not as simple as some of us would like it to be. Again, whichever party can understand the complexity of this issue will get the support of Gen Z.

I, along with many other educators, have bemoaned the impact that phones and social media platforms continue to have on our youths. By age 12, around 70% of our youth own a smartphone, according to Common Sense Media, giving them access to all the information available on the internet. Regarding social media, the number of teenagers who are active on those platforms hovers between 80% and 90%, studies have shown.

 

Social media use has been linked to increasing anxiety, depression, cyberbullying and even suicide among youths. At the same time, however, these platforms provide a great deal of information and content that our youths are reading, which makes them more aware of certain issues and topics that are part of our political discussion. In essence, we could argue that social media get youths more involved in politics.

As a school administrator, I work with youths every day. I am no longer surprised to hear them discuss certain news topics. While it often comes in the form of short conversations, sometimes even jokes or light commentary, they are aware of the issues and are thinking about them. It’s clear that we must take our youths seriously.

Our young voters are resilient and passionate about having a better democracy. They will speak at the voting booth in 2024. I just hope that we listen to what they have to say, regardless of whom they vote for.

After all, they are the future.

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Jerald McNair, who has a doctorate in education and a graduate degree in public policy, is a school administrator for South Holland School District 151.

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©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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