by Bella Ishanyan and Matan Josephy
photos by Bella Ishanyan
As an eighth grader in 2008, current long-term history substitute Elise Brown watched in awe as millions of young voters carried Barack Obama to victory to become the fifth youngest president elected in U.S. history.
At that moment, they realized that it was possible for young people to hold prominence within government, so after middle school, they got involved: volunteering for campaigns and nonprofits, spreading information on key issues throughout their community and expanding their interest and investment in national and community politics.
Brown became a teacher after college, and hopes to further incorporate their passion for civic engagement and politics into the classroom and mold the new generation into active and conscientious citizens.
“I grew up in a suburb of Portland, Oregon,” they said. “I saw among community organizers, even among state legislators, this drive of ‘change is real, hope is real.’ You need the practical idealism of young people to make that possible.”
Although older generations have historically dominated politics, young people ― fueled by frustration at slow political processes and confidence in their own political power ―have begun finding their voices, both nationally and within their own communities.
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A Dying Gerontocracy
The American electorate has only gotten younger over time: in 2020, the Pew Research Center found that the millennial generation born in the 1980s and 1990s now outnumbers the Baby Boomers born in the mid-1940s to 1960s, and as more members of Generation Z enter adulthood, the electorate is increasingly filled with younger and younger voters.
Still, history and comparative government teacher Jamie Rinaldi said, the bulk of political power remains concentrated in the hands of senior citizens.
“One odd thing that I’ve noticed about our political leadership in this country is that it’s getting older and older and older; in political science, we call it a gerontocracy [a government of senior citizens]” he said. “We’ve gone in a direction where very old people have a monopoly of political power in this country.”
Within the last 10 years, Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden set records as the oldest elected presidents; Trump entered office at age 70, followed by Biden at 78. The landscape of Congressional leadership is similar: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is 82, while Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is 72.
For the sitting 117th Congress, according to additional research by the Pew Research Center, the median age of senators is 64.8, while the median member of the House is slightly younger, at 58.9 years old.
However, the 2022 midterm elections proved to be a turning point for young people in national politics. In Florida’s 10th Congressional District, Maxwell Alejandro Frost became the first member of Generation Z to be elected to Congress, at age 25.
Estimates from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University found that approximately 27% of voters between the ages of 18-29 voted in the midterm election this year, the second highest voter turnout among voters under 30 in the past three decades.
While midterm election results typically hurt the political party of the sitting president, Republican gains were dampened this cycle. Republicans took a weaker control of the House of Representatives than expected, and Democrats expanded their majority in the Senate.
Brown said that young voters helped to reverse this norm.
“They saved our democracy,” they said. “It’s common wisdom that during a midterm election, the President’s party gets a backslide in popularity, [but] the fact that there were so many states with these fringe MAGA [Make America Great Again] candidates that got beat, and the fact that [the backslide] didn’t happen to the extent it usually does, speaks to the power that Gen Z voters know that they have.”
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Obstacles to Involvement
Recent events, history teacher Zakarias Gomes said, have led more members of Gen Z to take an interest in civics. The Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021 offered young voters a place to start.
“This is a nation whose democracy has been threatened, and it’s something that people want to voice their opinions on,” he said. “The Jan. 6 insurrection is one of the things that many people and younger people saw as a visible threat to the democracy of our nation.”
Research from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Spring 2021 Youth Poll indicates that since the election of Barack Obama, young Americans have become significantly more likely to be politically engaged.
This trend, Rinaldi said, stems mainly from Gen Z’s greater exposure to national and global crises and insecurities, which in turn fuel a greater sense of urgency toward participation in government.
“Too many people in my age group inherited this idea that government just works,” he said. “[Gen Z] has inherited the idea that the government only works if people are active and participate. [Gen Z has] been witness to incidents of mass violence, police killings, a sense of economic uncertainty and the prospect of global war. These were things that were largely either absent or invisible in the 1990s, so your consciousness as a generation is very different from mine. That positions you better to be more active in politics.”
However, the sheer amount of exposure to bad news has also pushed students away from maintaining a sense of political awareness. Senior Jessica Li said that she used to be more up-to-date with current events, but removed herself because of the negative repercussions she felt from constant exposure to negative coverage.
“I used to be far more in touch with politics at some point during the pandemic, [but] I found it very overwhelming and stressful to continue to keep up with,” she said. “There was a point a couple of years ago … where it became a lot to tune into the news.”
Li also said that a lack of outcome produced by local civic groups pushed her away from participating more within the community.
“I used to volunteer at a couple of different local organizations … But a lot of times the most passionate people about a certain topic or mission are not the most educated or prepared to be leaders in this type of arena,” she said. “If the leaders don’t know what they’re doing, then the organization can’t function and nothing ends up getting done. I put in a lot of hours to a couple of different organizations and basically nothing got done, [which] was just very frustrating.”
Members of Gen Z see similarly discouraging signs within the broader structure of government as well. In the Harvard Kennedy School’s poll, over 40% of young people agreed that “their vote doesn’t make a difference,” more than 1 in 3 believed that “political involvement rarely has tangible results,” and 56% agreed that “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing.”
Newton’s city government is not free from such a trend. Junior Nathaniel Scharf said that as part of the School Council, he has tried to work with staff members and local leaders on improving particular aspects of South, but has found his work slowed down by bureaucratic processes and a perceived disinterest from adults.
“I know a lot about the city, but I don’t feel very engaged with it because they’re very unreceptive to changing anything, even if it’s clearly a positive change,” he said. “Anytime you really want to change something at school, we have to pass it by the School Committee, and they just never want to do it. They always have a reason not to do it.”
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A Healthy Democracy
To senior Dan Bahar, voting felt like a minute contribution to a far-off democratic process, and an activity meant more for weary adults than teenagers. Until he became eligible to vote, Bahar never had much interest in politics, voting or current events. However, just this year, his perspective shifted ― even if voting may have a negligible effect on his day-to-day life, he said, its greater impact made going to the polls worth it.
“From 9th to 11th grade, I ignored all of the elections and voting because I wasn’t allowed to vote,” Bahar said. “Voting doesn’t affect me nearly as much as it affects other people because I’m a white male. However, [the voices of] other people who cannot vote matters, and I’m voting for them.”
In order for a democracy to function properly and all voices to be heard, young people must participate in government, history department head Jennifer Morrill said.
“We live in a democracy and our democracy relies on people understanding what’s happening and participating,” she said. “If people don’t participate in our government, our government won’t function properly, and so you want young people to see themselves as having a role in government. It’s encouraged for all people.”
History teacher Michael Kozuch said the power lies in local politics.
“Being engaged in your community, your state and your nation is not just about voting, it’s about the everyday ways in which we think about … issues that make a difference in your life,” he said.
“The mistake that many people make is that [they believe that] presidential elections are the things that matter. Yes, they matter, but if we think about what actually impacts people on a daily basis, it’s often city government and the kinds of things that are being done at that level.”
Even before reaching voting age, many students at South have found ways to get involved in their community. Senior Sasha Fine said that her family’s connection to political involvement inspired her to get involved as well.
“I have been volunteering for grassroots [organizations] and have been just really involved in politics since I was nine with my mom,” she said. “My mom is involved in politics; I definitely got [my] interest from her … she taught me a lot about politics and how to make an impact when I couldn’t vote.”
On the other hand, freshman Alyssa Xia said her family’s lack of connection within the community motivated her to become interested in politics. By staying informed, she can improve their connection.
“My parents are immigrants, [and] in China, everybody minds their own business, but in the U.S. because there’s local stuff, they never learned how to stay connected,” she said. “Even though my family might not feel like a part of the community, I definitely want to make sure that I feel like a part of one, and maybe someday I can help them feel like a part of one.”
When young people are more engaged, they can see themselves as politicians, which only motivates them to become more involved, Li said. A positive feedback loop ensues.
“Having more young people in politics in general would encourage a lot of people our age to engage more because then it’s actually impacting our futures instead of people who just got voted in and are going to die within like five years,” she said.
Ultimately, Xia said, getting, and staying, involved lets young people make the world one they wish to see.
“Everybody is fighting for what they believe is the best for them or for their family or whoever they need to protect,” she said. “As we’re heading into adulthood … we do have to think about what kind of future we want, what we want our country to look like and what it is we want our home to feel like.”