Gen Z is the newest block of potential voters. Between now and the 2020 election, millions more of them will turn 18 and become eligible to vote. While this last election saw some promising growth among millennial voters, it’s never too early to talk about how to appeal to the next generation. We studied Gen Z for the last year and can tell you that today’s politics are fundamentally at odds with several core traits of this new generation. After leading a research study examining 1,090 members of Gen Z, we’ve identified three key takeaways for political marketers—each credited to a fundamental shift in how this next generation sees themselves relative to others.
1. They Resist All Labels. The nature of politics and voting comes with the consequence of labels, which Gen Z resists. Where labels can help them better identify with affinity groups, Gen Z—extremely diverse and intersectional—feels labels don’t fully represent them. They have been raised to see themselves and others as unique and special and see labels often misapplied and fundamentally wrong. Our research respondents overwhelmingly chose to say they are "leaning" or "tend to agree" with a party, if they spoke of any affiliation. It seems likely Gen Z will be most comfortable labeled as "independent" voters, if anything at all.
2. They’re Confrontation Avoiders. Our research shows Gen Z is group-minded and highly empathetic, carrying a deep-seated discomfort with confrontation. Student researchers we worked with from Oklahoma branded themselves as the "re-post generation"; by re-posting images and statements they believed in—rather than sharing their own—they created much-desired distance from criticism. Staunchly identifying with one party or movement automatically puts them at odds with the opposition. Having been raised on anti-bullying rhetoric and popularizing the phrase "you do you," Gen Z doesn’t want to diminish other’s choices or views. They will be more comfortable being for something, than against others.
3. They Practice Situational Correctness, Reserving the Right to Shift Identities and Positions. While political correctness is about avoiding offensive language and behaviors, Gen Z practices a kind of situational correctness, by being the right you for the right audience. We found this generation is unique in their practice of contextual identities—widely held as empathetic, the group dynamic is central to who they are. They’ve grown up in a world where the right "you" means influencer status or obscurity and, seemingly daily, an unpopular opinion will cost you friends or even your career. In response, they have learned to match their behaviors to their audience, which includes being much more open to change, nuance and, perhaps, compromise. They are likely to be uncomfortable committing to broad platforms, preferring to vote on individual issues.
Gen Z is coming of age in a divided nation, and they don’t like it. Politicians today will have to rethink how they reach these voters of the future. As one 20-year-old voter from L.A. said, "It's dangerous to be labeled into such a big piece [as a Democrat or Republican]. I either have to follow all these rules. This is what I have to identify with. I have to be against the other side. It causes way too many problems."