Gen Z and the Politics of the Future

Gen Z and the Politics of the Future

Spring 2024

A conversation with Kimberly McCall, Karah Sprouse, and Madison Schomer

The CCCU and its institutions have served numerous generations in the classroom. While each generation is unique, the one currently shrouded in the most mystique is Gen Z. The first generation of digital natives, they’ve grown up in a world of complete connectivity, which has shaped how they see the world and the values they bring as they seek the common good.  

But how do members of this generation see the world? What are their values? How are Gen Zers beginning to reshape civic discourse as they graduate college and enter the workforce?  

The following conversation tackles these questions and more. Moderated by Associate Dean of Lipscomb University (Nashville, TN) Kimberly McCall, the conversation explores what makes Gen Z unique from other generations, the strengths Gen Zers bring to civic participation, and what barriers they face as they enter the office, the classroom, and the political sphere.  

Karah Sprouse is a generational engagement consultant and assistant professor of business at Cumberland University (Lebanon, TN) who has conducted award-winning research on Gen Z. She earned her D.B.A from Liberty University (Lynchburg, VA) where her dissertation focused on Gen Z in the workplace. 

Madison Schomer is a senior at Lipscomb University studying law, justice and society, and public relations. She conducted her senior capstone project on the influence of social media campaigning on Gen Z college students. 

Kimberly McCall: Why are you interested in Generation Z?  

Karah Sprouse: My interest and curiosity surrounding Gen Z began when they first stepped foot on college campuses everywhere about eight years ago when I was only a couple years into teaching in higher education.  

Prior to that, I had worked in the corporate world managing large-scale projects and project teams. However, I began to notice that the business students in my classroom seemed to communicate and be motivated differently than the employees or students I had encountered thus far. I decided to see what research existed about this generation and found out as much as I could about them so that I could better connect with the students in my classroom.  

As my students continued to grow up, I discovered there was a lack of workplace-focused studies, which led me to study Gen Z in the workplace for my dissertation in 2021. I wanted to gain a holistic perspective of how Gen Z was assimilating and how older generations were receiving them.  

I interviewed generationally diverse teams to gather Gen Z’s perspective on their older colleagues and the older generations’ observations about their youngest teammates. Fast forward to today, I now share and present this research with organizations across the United States to help them better understand, engage, and empower Gen Z, creating environments where all generations cultivate one another.  

This work is close to my heart because I have seen this generation grow from my classroom to their careers, and I whole-heartedly believe that they have so much to offer! 

Madison Schomer: My interest in Generation Z and their interaction with social media campaigning emerged from a combination of personal curiosity and academic pursuit. As a member of Gen Z myself, I’ve always been intrigued by the way my peers and I engage with politics and current events through digital platforms that have been so widely accessible to us for most of our lives. 

During an election year, I noticed a surge in social media campaigning efforts targeted specifically at Gen Z voters. This phenomenon piqued my interest and led me to question the impact of these campaigns on voter turnout among my generation. Eager to explore this further, I sought out opportunities to conduct research under the guidance of professors at Lipscomb University. 

Through my research project, I delved into the intricacies of social media campaigning, its ethics, and its influence on Gen Z voter behavior. This experience not only deepened my understanding of my generation’s unique characteristics but also reinforced my belief in our potential to effect change through civic engagement. 

McCall: How can our academic communities foster better political discussion with our Gen Z members? Have you observed any specific examples? 

Sprouse: Academic communities can foster better political discussion with Gen Z students by creating classroom and other organizational environments that foster connection and trust. While older generations tend to observe certain formalities in their workplace and classroom communication, Gen Z commonly communicates in a more relaxed, casual manner.  

Gen Z interview participants explained that they do not understand why older generations act in a “suit and tie” manner which, from their perspective, hinders authentic and honest connection. Gen Z deeply desires to understand and connect with others, pushing past surface-level interactions with both leaders and peers. Without this personal connection, they tend to distrust organizations and figures. For Gen Z, frequent, informal, and genuine interaction with their professors, other leaders, and fellow students helps create an environment where they feel safe to engage in challenging conversations. 

Gen Z is also more comfortable with conflict than older generations. In my research, Gen Z participants commonly discussed the importance of getting to the root of conflict by deeply understanding the other person or group’s perspective. This may mean that conversations get emotional and difficult, but Gen Z feels it is necessary for both parties to be genuinely heard and understood. 

Academic communities can also foster better political discussion with Gen Z students by helping them understand the impact of such discussions. Gen Z wants to know that their input matters! They do their best when they believe that those around them truly value their perspective and will implement it, and when they have the opportunity to offer a fresh and different perspective. They become quickly disengaged when they feel like they are being asked to share their input and it is not valued, or that it is an exercise to check a box. 

Lastly, Gen Z embodies a more diverse and inclusive mindset than ever before! Inclusivity and diversity have become increasingly valuable among this age group. Therefore, professors and other leaders need to be especially mindful of their students’ respect and empathy for those who are different from them when facilitating challenging conversations. 

Schomer: Academic communities can foster better political discussion with Gen Z by prioritizing a posture of care and empathy.  

While opening the floor to discuss current events is a positive step, it’s essential to go beyond surface-level discussions. Community leaders and educators should encourage students to explore deeper questions about their beliefs and engage critically with opposing viewpoints. By asking hard questions and examining the best arguments from all sides of the political spectrum, academic settings can cultivate an environment that promotes understanding, empathy, and respectful dialogue.  

For instance, I’ve observed professors who incorporate structured debates into their classes, encouraging students to research and defend diverse perspectives on contentious issues. These experiences not only deepen students’ understanding of complex topics but also foster the development of critical thinking skills and the ability to engage constructively in political discourse. 

McCall: What particular strengths does Gen Z bring to the conversation? 

Sprouse: Gen Z has grown up as global citizens. They have never known a world without smartphones and easily accessible Wi-Fi, which has allowed them to be connected 24/7 all over the world. Gen Z is likely to know peers in other countries. Older generations might have had a pen pal or two from abroad, but Gen Z has always been able to personally interact with anyone, anywhere.  

This has led them to be the most globally connected generation to date, with a genuine concern for others and an appreciation for diversity that outpaces any other generation. Because of their connectedness, Gen Z is extremely empathetic and cause-oriented. They passionately seek solutions to help others. This is one of Gen Z’s greatest attributes!  

My research also fully supports Madison’s points about Gen Z’s creative problem-solving skills, which I agree is a major strength of this generation. Gen Z is very pragmatic and self-sufficient. They have been accustomed to finding clever solutions and processes on their own. When they have the space to be creative, they can provide fresh perspectives and effective solutions. 

Schomer: Gen Zers bring notable strengths to this conversation, particularly our eagerness to learn and our creative problem-solving abilities. Growing up with unprecedented access to media from a young age broadened our perspectives and tolerance for diverse viewpoints, which goes beyond any other generation.  

We’re adept at connecting with information from around the world, which has instilled in us a sense of empathy and a willingness to advocate for those leading lives much different from our own. This global awareness uniquely positions us to engage in meaningful dialogue and address complex issues with innovative solutions. This willingness to break down social barriers will be critical for the future of our world.  

McCall: What obstacles to civic participation and political discourse will Gen Z need help overcoming? What solutions might be feasible to alleviate these barriers in our academic communities? 

Sprouse: Gen Z is the first generation with access to information in a real-time manner. Gen Z has never known a world where they couldn’t just “Google” or, better yet, “YouTube” the answer to anything. They can even just ask Alexa!  

However, while they can find an answer to almost any question imaginable, they sometimes need guidance in disseminating, interpreting, and applying information. As with any generation, Gen Z can richly benefit from the experience and wisdom of older colleagues and leaders as they continue to navigate civic participation and political discourse as well as their academic, professional, and other life pursuits.  

Another obstacle Gen Z faces is their tendency to become apathetic when they feel like their voice is not being heard or respected or when they do not perceive that their actions will be impactful. Some recent research suggests that Gen Z feels some apathy toward voting in this year’s presidential election because they feel like they do not have a candidate to actually believe in and instead have to choose who they disagree with the least.  

While Gen Z’s desire to be impactful is one of their best qualities, it can also be an obstacle when they have unrealistic expectations or do not understand how their actions are being valued, particularly when they cannot see immediate results. Gen Z has grown up in a world where so much happens almost instantaneously, so they may disengage before there has been ample time for them to learn enough or act enough to see positive change come to fruition. 

Schomer: Gen Z faces many obstacles to civic participation and political discourse, such as online algorithms, political echo chambers, and a lack of knowledge about the civic process, such as voting procedures. My peers desire to be involved in political discourse and the civic process but are unsure where to start or if they “know enough” to be hypothetically invited to the table. 

At Lipscomb University, initiatives like our Election Hub provide essential resources to educate students and facilitate their participation in the democratic process. By promoting media literacy, fostering civil dialogue, and offering practical guidance, academic communities can empower Gen Z to overcome these barriers and engage meaningfully in political discourse and civic participation. 

McCall: How do you predict that the Generation Z voter group might change politics and political discourse in the future?  

Sprouse: While my research did not specifically address Gen Z’s political influence, I cannot help but root for them with their sense of empathy and willingness to advocate for those leading much different lives than their own.  

Gen Z holds themselves as well as organizations of all shapes and sizes accountable for helping others and making the world a better place. This generation’s passion for helping others combined with their global connectedness cannot help but be a powerful influence on politics in the future.