I get it. They are intimidating. A scathing look from a Gen Z-er can send a chill down my Millennial spine any day. Did I do something uncool? Did I fumble on my lingo? They have their unique language, technology, style (although I do recognize the bucket hats and bad white sneakers from my 7-year-old wardrobe.)
Each new generation has always brought a culture of rebellious newness with it, and it seems that Gen Z is no different. They are pushing back – we can see it in their low enrolment. And though they might dismiss the system – we cannot dismiss them.
Generation Z has a place in our society and politics. Born between the late 90s and 2015, they make up New Zealand’s youngest group of voters, aged 18-24. They are our second-largest voting group with 450,500 potential voters. The only larger voting group in New Zealand are 70+, almost all of whom are enrolled to vote.
But to date, only 68% of the crucial Gen Z voters are enrolled to vote, leaving 144,005 voters missing in action. They are perhaps the most passionate in our community about social issues and the environment — but something isn’t adding up. Why aren’t Gen Z enrolled to vote?
There are several theories behind why people don’t vote:
- Apathy – they just don’t care;
- Ignorance – they don’t know there is an election or they don’t understand how it works;
- Inaccessibility – lack of information on the election, how to enrol, or how to vote;
- Laziness – the process of enrolling, finding a location, and voting is too hard;
- Burnout – they are overwhelmed by information, or feelings of insignificance in a large system, and opting out becomes easier
If you ask Mike Hosking, the particularly outspoken breakfast host on Newstalk ZB, he would most likely point to apathy and laziness as the reasons our youngest voters aren’t participating. “You can’t rely on young people to vote,” he says in an interview with the NZ Herald, “If youth could change the world talking about it or tweeting about it, something might actually happen, but given it requires organising yourself to the extent you get a pen and fill out a form, it hasn’t and won’t.”
He has one point: there is an eerie silence coming from our young people while the election and referendums creep ever nearer. The apathy and laziness Mike hints at even have a name – Slacktivism. Wearing the t-shirt to show you care or liking posts on social media, for example, but never moving beyond ‘awareness’ into action.
But I think Mike has it wrong. Gen Z aren’t slacktivists. They don’t just sit behind their screens. We’ve seen them show up over and over again to parades, marches, and protests. They aren’t apathetic either. They’re one of our most diverse and engaged generations. As Reaching Generation Z confirms, over one quarter of them volunteer, “60 percent want their jobs to make a difference in the world, and 76 percent are concerned about ‘humanity’s impact on the planet.’”
Instead of dismissing this generation, we have to consider their position in society. According to the Southern Cross Healthy Futures Report that looked at the mental health of young kiwis, our Gen Z-ers are most concerned with Suicide (85%), Cost of living (83%), Mental health (82%), Access to mental health services (80%), and Violence in society (78%). That’s a heavy load for our youngest generation.
Gen Z are a dizzying juxtaposition of being digitally hyper-connected, as well as heavily individualized and isolated young people.
The real disconnect here is that Generation Z isn’t represented in our politics. The recent Southern Cross Healthy Futures Report 2020 which looked at the mental health of young Kiwis found that, “Less than a third of people in this age group felt connected to their community.” And if you don’t see yourself in the system, how can you trust it? Why would you engage with it? Many are just coming out from under the wings of their parents, getting up on their own feet and discovering who they are. How do the older generations greet them? Dismissals like those in the words of Mike Hosking. Chloe Swarbrick, Green Party MP, offers a welcome political life raft to this generation, filling over some gaps in policy and representation, but one person in one party isn’t enough. One party is not the choice politics is supposed to offer voters.
In true Gen Z style, they are protesting. Their refusal to engage in the election is a boycott.
But instead of boycotting, if Gen Z pulled a U-turn in a mass voter turnout, this could be an election to turn the tides in New Zealand. In this year’s election, we are also voting in the Cannabis Referendum – whether or not we support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill. As young people concerned about mental health issues and access to support, Gen Z can use their votes for a Bill that treats cannabis as a health issue, promises education and health campaigns, supports those who are stigmatized, implements an age limit, reduces the illicit market selling who-knows-what to underage users, and a huge boost of funding to support systems. As the age group with futures affected by a conviction – losing access to travel, education, employment, home renting and buying – it makes sense for Gen Z to enrol to vote for a health intervention or a small fine instead of a conviction for underage people found with cannabis. As the age group concerned with racial discrimination and violence who attended the Black Lives Matter march in swarms earlier this year, it makes sense to vote to abolish our War on Drugs cannabis laws that continue to disproportionately target Māori rangatahi.
So what do we do? How do we earn back the trust of our youngest generation?
It’s up to all of us – to every older generation who has already entered the voting world. We have had a bit more time to work our way into society, now established in workspaces and a bit more practised at voting. It is up to us to bring our younger voter siblings into the voting sphere with us – invite them, explain the system, give them space to air their concerns, give them room to participate in their own way. Their votes are what can push policies we too stand for across the line.
But most importantly, Gen Z, it’s up to you. The greatest way you can fight the system is from within. To take your place as the second-largest voting group in New Zealand. To take advantage of your size and power, and enrol to vote. It is no exaggeration that Gen Z could flip the vote from No to Yes in the Cannabis Referendum. There are about as many 18-34-year-old voters in New Zealand as there are aged 55-70+. Imagine what we could change.
To: Generation Z
What: You are cordially invited to participate in politics, enrolling, and voting.
When: October 17th
Where: A voting booth near you
Attire: If you wear your bucket hat I’ll dust off mine too?
Love, New Zealand