March for our Lives gun control rally only hints at the political power of Generation Z

  • Attendance at Saturday's "March for Our Lives" rally in Washington, DC is expected to draw up to 500,000 people to protest gun violence in America.
  • It's also the coming out party for "Generation Z," a cohort that threatens to be more politically active and potent than Millennials.
  • Gun control is the current focus, but it will not be the last issue on their list. Politicians from both parties must take note now or risk losing the favor of a powerful group for years to come.
Thousands of students protest in front of the U.S. Capitol for greater gun control after walking out of classes in the aftermath of the shooting after a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Washington, United States on March 14, 2018.
Samuel Corum | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Thousands of students protest in front of the U.S. Capitol for greater gun control after walking out of classes in the aftermath of the shooting after a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Washington, United States on March 14, 2018.

Attendance at Saturday's "March for Our Lives" rally in Washington, DC is expected to draw up to 500,000 people – which could make it one of the largest protests in US history. The demonstration will mark the second big splash in as many weeks made by a group of teenage activists who are clamoring for a more sensible approach to gun violence.

Last week, an estimated one million students across the US took seventeen minutes out of their day - one minute for each the lives lost in the Parkland, Florida massacre - as part of the National School Walkout.

The massive support the movement is generating has made some elected officials take notice, even prompting Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott to break with the NRA (National Rifle Association) and sign into law a bill that approved a three-day waiting period for the purchase of all firearms while raising the legal age required to buy a gun from 18 to 21 – both changes vehemently opposed by the NRA.

How does a movement get so big so quickly? After all, the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School happened just over a month ago. How does a group of teenagers – most of them not even old enough to vote – galvanize an offensive that actually forces a change in the law dealing with one of America's most intractable and divisive political issues?

Misreading the tea leaves

Analysts who say that all this is a sign that the gun debate has reached a "tipping point" are misreading the tea leaves. The underpinnings of the "March for Our Lives" movement isn't about really about guns, nor is it about school safety; it's all about Generation Z and its ability and willingness to leverage the power of its voice to effectuate sweeping changes across society at an accelerated pace.

Although the exact birth years may vary slightly, most demographers define Generation Z as the cohort born between 1995 and 2012. Worldwide, they are over two billion strong and here in the US, they are the largest generation, comprising over 26% of the population.

Generation Z (named so because they came after 'Generation Y', which was later rebranded as 'the Millennials') grew up in the aftermath of 9/11, lived through the global financial recession of 2008, and has never known a world without the internet. In terms of politics, unlike older generations who have witnessed politicians working across the aisle and collaborating on the biggest social issues of the day, this generation has never known anything but gridlock in Washington and increasingly polarized partisan politics.

Generation Z finds its voice

To understand Saturday's march in the nation's capital in the context of this generation, I reached out to father-son duo and generational experts David and Jonah Stillman, arguably the nation's foremost authorities on Generation Z, and authors of GenZ@Work.

"We are a generation perfectly positioned to make change happen on any number of social and economic issues," says Jonah Stillman, himself a recent high school graduate who now consults on Generation Z related topics for the National Football League as well as for global brands such as 3M and the business networking site LinkedIn.

"Yes, I think our generation will make a big footprint on the gun issue this Saturday where perhaps other generations have struggled; but, it could have just as well been gay rights, racism, or any number of other pressing issues. Don't think of us as the generation obsessed with gun control – we are the generation obsessed with making tangible change. We aren't content to sit on the sidelines, engaging in endless debate; we are a generation of action, and this is just the beginning."

Politicians should take note

It would behoove politicians from both major parties to take note.

David Schultz, a professor of political science at Minnesota's Hamline University and the author of, American Politics in the Age of Ignorance, echoed Stillman's assessment of Generation Z.

"This is the 'Do-It-Yourself Generation,'" says Schultz who has studied and written about the impacts of generational politics in America. "All of our research indicates that Generation Z will be much more active in exacting change with or without the help of the political establishment. This Saturday's march has the gun control debate in its crosshairs, representing a coming of political age for Generation Z. But a year from now, it could be healthcare, the environment, or any number of other issues."

According to a recent survey commissioned by Northeastern University, only 3% of GenZers view political leaders as role models. And although less than a third of these estimated 78 million Americans will be old enough to vote in this year's midterms, a politically engaged generation that has little to no tolerance for the semantically empty "thoughts and prayers" refrain has the potential to upend the traditional political establishment.

As Americans tune into live coverage of Saturday's expansive march on Washington, they should be mindful of what they are really watching: the awakening of an entirely new generation of voices - a generation that is just beginning to flex its political muscle. Generation Zers will expect their leaders to bring about change at a pace more in line with those who grew up in an all-digital environment, and one that will certainly challenge the pace of change as rendered by the Washington establishment.

The clash between Generation Z and Washington politicians is a drama that will unfold over the next several election cycles, with the narrative arc focusing on how long it takes the nation's major parties to respond to the demands of an emerging political class which will be supplying a fresh batch of several million new voters to the electorate every year between now and 2030. The first chapter in this epic saga begins this Saturday.

Commentary by Arick Wierson, a six-time Emmy Award-winning television executive and former deputy commissioner under New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Currently, Wierson works as a political and branding consultant to clients in the United States, Africa and Latin America. He is currently advising candidates in U.S. House races in Southern California, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as several state gubernatorial candidates in Brazil. You can follow him on twitter @ArickWierson.

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