How Young Gen Z Voters Are Fighting Outdated Laws And Old Politicians

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WE’VE LIVED THROUGH a pandemic. We’re living in a climate crisis. We’re living through a mental health crisis. We’re living in a day and age when school shootings are the norm,” Keely Magee, a 21-year-old activist from New Jersey says with frustration. It’s a feeling familiar to many of her peers.

I am sitting in the dark cool of the Watergate Hotel, listening to Gen Z describe a childhood filled with lockdown drills and existential dread over a heated world. It is the third and final day of a summit hosted by Voters of Tomorrow, a Gen Z-led organization dedicated to turning out the youth vote and advancing its “Gen Z agenda,” policies like abolishing tipped wages and the filibuster in Congress. When I walked into the conference room a few hours earlier, the scene was indistinguishable from a Model U.N. conference: clusters of young people huddled over something called “legislative strategy,” Crayola markers sprawled nearby. Born in 2019, out of the sense that older politicians have left their generation high and dry, Voters of Tomorrow has one message: If you want us to vote for you, you’re going to first listen.

There’s an urgency for the people in this room — they believe the failure of older generations to leave behind a livable future means it is up to them to turn things around before it’s too late. Wars raging in Ukraine and the Middle East, a boiling planet, artificial intelligence that may or may not kill us. Ten years younger than me, Gen Z is both alien and familiar. My generation grew up with the Olsen twins and Obama; theirs grew up with Greta Thunberg and Trump. We came of age believing the arc of the moral universe was bending toward justice; they came of age as it was doing a barrel roll.

It’s not just Gen Z voters ringing the alarm. Since the war in Gaza broke out in October, hundreds of federal employees, from the State Department to USAID. have signed letters protesting what they see as an antiquated worldview on the Palestinian question, and some have even quit. The loudest voices of dissent have come from young staffers, who have only ever known a right-wing Israel, but as one current Department of the Interior employee put it, that’s because young people are more willing to speak out. Behind closed doors, there is a rolling mutiny happening among employees of all ages who do not feel their bosses, or representatives, share their same sense of reality.  

In at least one crucial way, this is probably true: About half of the country is under 40, but only five percent of Congress is. Americans of all ages don’t seem to like this arrangement very much. According to one recent poll, more than 70 percent said there should be age limits for the presidency and Congress. Respondents said they should kick in around age 66, making nearly half of today’s senators ineligible.

“You don’t need 50 years of wisdom to be able to figure out tax law,” Magee quips from the carpet as her companions, in Chucks and Vans, cross-legged in a circle, solemnly nod.

Videos of older politicians stumbling and bumbling have fueled this sense that our democracy has become a gerontocracy, or a government controlled by old people. One week it’s Joe Biden tripping at an Air Force graduation, the next it’s Mitch McConnell freezing for nearly 20 one-Mississippis. Older politicians have always swatted concerns about competence with an imperious shoo. Now, the limits of that dismissive approach are being tested in what could be the most pivotal presidential election in U.S. history

Before 2020, it’s unlikely anyone would have paid these youthful grumblings much mind; as the orthodox thinking used to go, the young don’t vote. But Gen Z and millennial voters together are expected to equal the boomer-plus electorate for the first time in 2024. In other words, young voters have more leverage than ever, a fact that has not eluded the Democrats: At the Voters of Tomorrow summit, everyone from Rep. Nancy Pelosi to White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre show up.

“It shows a lot of respect,” says John Della Volpe, a pollster for Biden’s 2020 campaign who now runs the Harvard Youth Poll. “It’s the future of the Democratic Party. It’s the future of the country. Having studied this for decades and advocating on young people’s behalf, I’m just excited that they’re being taken seriously.”

BUT IF PELOSI’S PRESENCE shows respect, it also shows fear, which, in politics, may be the same thing.

For the past few years, the polls haven’t been looking good for Biden. There was one in 2022 that said 22 percent of Gen Z’ers said they wouldn’t vote at all if the choices were Biden and Trump. And now some show Biden locked in a dead heat among 18- to 29-year-old voters in several battleground states — a critical demographic that backed him by a 10-point margin in 2020, helping cinch him the election.

Multiple younger Biden campaign alumni told Rolling Stone they will neither work nor vote for the president again.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/.

“It feels dire,” says 21-year-old Elise Joshi. Joshi helps run the TikTok account Gen-Z for Change, founded by 19-year-old Aidan Kohn-Murphy in 2020 as TikTok for Biden. The name change reflects a commitment to progressive policy over personal loyalty. After Biden won, Kohn-Murphy and his team decided to hold the administration accountable.

“I’m guessing that some politicos are going to try to spin the narrative that young people have always been against Joe Biden because he’s old,” Kohn-Murphy says. But a closer read, he says, shows young people’s support plummeting well into his administration. According to Joshi, Biden’s most recent low polls are a direct repudiation of his administration’s response to the Israel-Hamas war. “At this point,” she says, regarding Gen Z’s sympathy for Palestinians, “it’s pretty clear it’s not a trend. It’s a real shift in our mindset across generations.”

So far, the White House and the vast majority of Congress have rejected calls for a permanent cease-fire — putting them at odds with the American public, and particularly with young people who are watching content creators their age describe firsthand the horrors of war. Suddenly, astonishingly, the West Bank is an issue that could hurt Biden in the election.

“I’m particularly concerned about Arizona and Pennsylvania,” says Supreet Kaur of Seattle. “In 2020, Biden won both states by narrow margins thanks to young voters.” Now, she says, “I don’t think you can convince them.”

Kaur works for Justice Democrats, a PAC that helped get the likes of New York Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman elected. But before that, she worked for Biden’s campaign in Nevada, and she’s one of the multiple Biden alumni who told Rolling Stone they will neither work nor vote for Biden again. Instead, she plans to either vote for People’s Party candidate Cornel West or not vote at all, a choice some of her peers say amounts to political suicide.

“I wish I could be as morally consistent and strict as I want to be,” says Ben Braver, a 21-year-old Gen Z activist. “But there’s a candidate who will be better for this country and a candidate who will be worse.”

“It’ll hurt enthusiasm, which will hurt his chances,” he says, referring to Biden’s position on Gaza. “But he never won on enthusiasm.”

BUT WHAT HAPPENS IF we continue to play it safe? Last summer, a paper was published about what happens when AI models lack plentiful supplies of fresh imagery to train on: The model gets stuck in an “autophagous loop,” much like an ouroboros. The new images will either spiral into a “boring point,” or “bedlam.”

Boredom or bedlam is a particularly apt description of our presidential choices in the year 2024. It’s as if the entire country, unsure of where it is headed, or confined by certain forces, is doubling back on the past, unable to imagine or create. New IP is too risky; better to run, as they say in the race-car pits, what you brung.

The problem with running what you brung is that the conditions of the track have dramatically changed. This summer, the ocean off the coast of Florida hit an unheard of 101 degrees. In Southern California, the Joshua trees burned, while in Arizona, the saguaros flopped over like fallen soldiers. The first day wildfire smoke from Canada enveloped Manhattan, I watched New Yorkers venture into the hellish sepia cloud and order aperol spritzes, old Covid masks dangling by an ear, accustomed to the “new normal,” or dissociated, still, from the last one.

Piercing through it all are the voices of young people. Shae Reinberg, from Wilmington, North Carolina, says her political awakening came when she was 14 and watched a documentary about Thunberg. “The bells have been ringing in my head ever since I took an environmental-science class,” she tells me, describing anxiety and depression that accompany her on an “everyday basis.” “It made the mundane things, like going to school, seem pointless. Like, what’s the point of going to soccer? I should be working on climate.”

That sense of dread has defined this generation: A 2021 study surveying 10,000 young people in 10 different countries found that more than half of them believe “humanity is doomed” due to climate change. In the United States, the pessimism is less pronounced at 46 percent, while in the Global South, it is significantly worse: 74 percent of young Indians, 73 percent of young Filipinos, and 67 percent of young Brazilians say they believe we are going off a cliff from which there is no return.

“Asking nicely hasn’t worked out,” said Elise Joshi, the Executive Director of Gen-Z for Change.

Marissa Leshnov/”The New York Times”/Redux

At the Watergate Hotel summit, White House Press Secretary Jean-Pierre takes the stage when, tremulously, Joshi stands up.

“Excuse me for interrupting,” Joshi begins as Jean-Pierre waves off a Voters of Tomorrow staff member, trying to do damage control, “but asking nicely hasn’t worked out.”

Will the administration stop approving new oil and gas projects? Joshi demands to know.

There is a hush over the crowd. Then applause as Jean-Pierre pivots gracefully. “First of all, I appreciate your courage,” Jean-Pierre replies. “[Biden] has taken more action on climate change than any other president.”

But for Joshi and many Americans it’s not nearly enough.

Perhaps the greatest paradox of the Biden administration has been its position on climate. Yes, Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which promises to cut U.S. emissions in half from 2005 levels by 2030; but the administration is also simultaneously pumping more crude oil than any other time in U.S. history, playing what energy analyst Jeremy Symons calls “the greatest shell game in the history of the world.”

The new oil and gas won’t technically count against Biden’s promise because the fuel will be burned elsewhere. But because global warming knows no borders, it is a meaningless distinction. Unless Biden blocks new drilling projects like the Calcasieu Pass 2 off the coast of Louisiana — expected to produce 20 times more greenhouse-gas emissions than the Willow project in Alaska — the United States’ emissions in 2030 will be the same as 2005, says Symons.

Slowly but surely, the picture is coming into focus: We must leave the oil and gas in the ground. Young people seem to grasp this reality more readily than older people do — most Gen Z’ers and millennials oppose new offshore oil and gas drilling, polls show, and many think we should phase out fossil fuels altogether.

Boomers, meanwhile, have been much slower to come around, with just a quarter of them saying we should leave behind fossil fuels. Their reluctance could be explained by a lot of things: financial portfolios invested in oil, a nostalgic attachment to cars, worry over higher fuel prices and inflation. But it’s also consistent with what we know about age and cognitive flexibility.

“In a rapidly evolving world, older adults can have difficulty switching to something different or thinking outside the box without that past experience to guide behavior,” says Mark Mapstone, a neuropsychologist at the University of California, Irvine. “These declines in cognitive flexibility start to show up in the sixties, and are more prevalent in the seventies and beyond, so this is a really big problem for aging politicians who are making important decisions that affect a lot of people.”

BUT THE BIOLOGICAL ASPECT of aging is just one piece of the graying picture. For Daniel Stockemer, the Konrad Adenauer research chair in empirical democracy studies at the University of Ontario, the lack of young people in office is a major problem if you accept the radical notion that democracies should look like their populations. “I mean, there is something wrong!” he practically shouts in a French accent, sounding pained. “I see some value in senior politicians, but look — they’re losing it! Sorry to say it!”

Stockemer’s critique stems from the intuitive idea that we tend to prioritize issues that affect our own group; female legislators are more attentive to issues that affect women, minority legislators are more attuned to issues that affect minorities, etc. James Curry was teaching a class on Congress at the University of Utah around 2014 when a graduate student asked him if the same concept applied to age. “I don’t know!” he told him. “Let’s find out.” Sure enough, together they found that older politicians tend to introduce more bills on geriatric issues, such as continuing education, elder abuse, and nursing-home regulation. Curry emphasizes that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it’s good for older Americans to have advocates in Congress, like the late Sen. Orrin Hatch was for elder constituents in Utah. “But it probably isn’t ideal to have so few younger faces on Capitol Hill, in part because we know people are happier with their system of representation when they can see themselves projected back.”

At the Voters of Tomorrow summit, I catch up with Chi Ossé, a 25-year-old New York City Council member who would seemingly bear out Curry’s hypothesis. In 2022, Ossé rode the energy of the George Floyd protests into office, and was one of 12 council members to vote no on New York City’s budget for 2024, arguing that Mayor Eric Adams’ true constituents are “corporate interests and the carceral state.”

Dressed in a navy-blue suit, or what Ossé calls his “council-member drag,” he tells me about how delicate intergenerational relationships can be. “We always say respect your elders, right? I’ve seen in many cases a lack of respect that elders have for young people.” When Ossé was campaigning in Brooklyn in 2021 to represent Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, he says, he routinely had doors slammed on him on account of his baby face.

After he won, Ossé prioritized issues like affordable housing — top of mind for Gen Z, one-third of whom are still living at home because they can’t afford rent. He disrupted a Rent Guidelines Board meeting, helping get a proposed nearly 16 percent hike on rent-stabilized properties with a two-year lease down to 2.75 percent for the first year and 3.2 percent for the second.

It’s his peers — Gen Z — who Ossé says motivate him. For Stockemer, this is why having a truly representational polity matters, especially as democracies around the world appear to wobble. “If not the young people who are going to defend democracy — who else?” he asks.

IN AN IDEAL POLITY, we’d have a mixture of young, middle age, and elder decision makers. “It’s too simple to say we have a big problem because we have all these old people who aren’t doing as well who are in charge,” says Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of Berkeley. The problem, rather, is the lack of diversity.

The thing is, there is enormous age diversity in our nation’s bureaucracy — just very little of it is formalized. The fact that much of Washington runs on youth is neither a secret, nor is it particularly common knowledge.

One current staffer recounts arriving on the Hill at the age of 25 and being shocked to learn several members of Congress rely on “fiefdoms” of twentysomethings to tell them whether to vote yea or nay. (Staffers and former staffers asked to remain anonymous out of fear for their employment.)

The staffers also end up doing a lot of babysitting. One day, walking through the basement of Rayburn House, a massive congressional office building, a Hill staffer I’ll call “P” spotted an old man. Noting his cane and “some mobility issues,” P says he approached the gentleman to offer assistance when he realized it was Georgia Democratic Rep. David Scott, the 78-year-old chair of the House Committee on Agriculture.

“I tried to communicate with him — didn’t register anything,” P recalls. “I couldn’t find his staff anywhere nearby. So that led me to believe he had wandered away from the office or wherever he was coming from.” Alarmed but also in a hurry, P says, he eventually left a visibly confused Scott lost in the tunnels, an account that Scott’s office says is “categorically false.”

“Like many other members, it is the practice in our office for the congressman to drive between House buildings and the Capitol,” a spokesperson replied. “He does not use the tunnels. Furthermore, he is always accompanied by staff to maximize the value of his time, and so would not have been in the position this staffer described.”

Many Americans associate this kind of coddling with the late Sen. Diane Feinstein, who allegedly suffered from memory loss in the latter years of her life, and reportedly relied on staff to shield her from the public. “We were taking meetings so people could come into the office and feel like their concerns were being heard, but we weren’t actually relaying it to the senator,” one former Feinstein staffer tells me.

This widening gulf between the people of California and their elected official bothered this staffer. He had come to Washington full of idealism, and now it was evaporating as he realized who really wielded power in many geriatric offices: the chief of staff. From what he saw on the Hill, these chiefs were always highly deferential to their bosses. Still, the unofficial transfer of power puts a strain on democracy. “These are not the people that you voted for running these offices,” he says. “We don’t know their names, where they’re from, what they stand for.”

Worst of all, behind closed doors his colleagues would either groan about their fading superiors or laugh to keep from crying. For him, the most dangerous part of the gerontocracy is not that it exists, but that the people with real knowledge about how serious it is — “worse than what people think” as another staffer characterized it — are too scared or too self-serving to come forward.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suffered a very public glitch this year.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Images

It can be hard to talk about age, though. For one, how people age varies greatly. For every McConnell, 81, there is an indefatigable Charles Grassley, 90; for every Biden, a bantam Bernie Sanders, 82. And nobody wants to practice ageism or be accused of it, especially when baby boomers make up a formidable share of the electorate. Consequently, much of the muttered discourse devolves into a “not all old people” cul-de-sac that distracts from a basic fact: Executive function, on average, begins to decline around age 65, according to Mark Fisher.

Fisher is a neurologist with a scholarly interest in political science, and is the director of the new UC Irvine Center for Neuropolitics, which he established, in part, to address the void in the literature about how age affects politics. As a first step, he believes that cognitive testing should be implemented for all political candidates. Testing eliminates the problem of speculation, which most medical professionals and journalists are loath to do ever since the Goldwater Rule established it is wrong to armchair-diagnose politicians. But Fisher admits testing doesn’t always solve everything, partially because the results can be presented selectively.

Biden, for example, had two major medical evaluations, in 2021 and 2023, both of which were made available to the public. “These reports are interesting because of what they disclosed,” Fisher says. “But they are also interesting for what they don’t disclose.”

Like the results of Biden’s mental-status examination. This portion describes functions like language and memory, and serves “as an overview of the cognitive function,” Fisher explains.

“I expect Biden would do fine on the basic mental-status exam described,” he speculates, doing the very thing that comprehensive testing is meant to do to avoid. “I don’t understand why this was not addressed in the reports.”

Also omitted in the 2021 and 2023 reports were Biden’s two previous brain surgeries, and his sleep apnea. Biden did disclose the surgeries and apnea in the past, but Fisher thinks they should have also been included in the most recent reports. “I hate to be bashing on Biden, but this is not politics,” he says. “This is facts.”

The issue of today’s gerontocracy is made more complicated still by the fact that the majority aren’t just any old people, but the baby boomers. To many readers of this magazine, the boomers are the Woodstock and civil rights generation, the original environmentalists. For Tom Wolfe, they were the original “Me” generation, an impression that Bruce Cannon Gibney shares. Gibney is a venture capitalist and writer known for his 2011 essay “What Happened to the Future,” about how we got 140 characters instead of flying cars. In his book Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America, he argues that instead of paying down the national debt and investing in future-oriented programs such as the GI Bill, as the Greatest Generation and the early Silents did, boomers have squandered America’s vast wealth by transferring it backward to themselves, tripling the national debt as a fraction of GDP since the mid-1970s in the process.

Gibney takes particular aim at Social Security and Medicare, which were never intended to be such massive parts of the government’s budget, or a universal cushion throughout seniors’ golden years. When Social Security was first introduced in the 1930s, life expectancy was around 65; today it is about 78. Back then, elder poverty was a serious issue; today, 10 percent of Americans over the age of 65 live in poverty compared with 17 percent of Americans under the age of 18. Despite this shifting demographic picture, our spending priorities remain calcified in the past, Gibney argues, decided upon by the same people who stand to benefit from them the most.

The fact that it’s taken more than 20 years to address student debt, regardless of the administration or its ideology, suggests long-running generational negligence, says Gibney. “Biden’s relief programs are small compared to $1.74 trillion in student debt, and tiny against the Social Security and Medicare shortfalls boomers will demand young people pay for in the 2030s,” he tells me. “Younger Americans might feel they’re finally on the boomers’ radar, but if they are, it’s as a target.”

One congressional staffer, in fact, recounted working for a representative now in her seventies who didn’t seem to understand how expensive college is today. This lack of empathy can be infectious, he says, creating a culture of jadedness. “It’s like, well, they don’t care. Why would I care? And then the work suffers.”

For Gibney, this is the most corrosive part of the gerontocracy, and one he says he’s heard far too much in Silicon Valley: “Why try?”

BUT WHAT ABOUT those of us who do still care to try?

“I believe we’re sleepwalking through the same thing that happened in 2016,” says Rep. Dean Phillips, the only Democrat aside from Marianne Williamson openly playing Cassandra, and challenging Biden for president. His campaign is based on the obvious: “To see a 77- and 80-year-old man at the top of the ticket seems to me quite incongruent with the needs of the future.

“I come from the business world,” he says, having introduced American consumers to Belvedere vodka and Talenti gelato before turning his prowess as a salesman on Minnesota voters, flipping its 3rd Congressional District from red to blue in 2018. “And in the business world, you don’t create a product and then hope that the market responds to it. Smart people listen to the market.” In politics, he points out, it’s the opposite: “A small group chooses the product, then tries to convince Americans of its integrity.”

So far, Phillips, 54, is not having much luck convincing voters he’s the “generic” Democrat that they would prefer to Biden. He knows one thing though: The solution to the gerontocracy starts with campaign-finance reform. “If you don’t start with campaign finance, how can you expect a 25-year-old to raise 5, 10 million at $5 or $5,000 increments?” asks Phillips, whose own personal net worth is reportedly around $100 million. He points out that these barriers don’t just keep out the young, but candidates of color, too. “We are supposed to be the most accessible democracy in the world. I’m afraid we’re not practicing what we preach.”

In uttering the quiet part out loud, Phillips is exposing a truth rarely admitted by politicians about power: Once you get it, you don’t let go. The fact that Democrats are as susceptible to its spells as Republicans is a problem in so far as their brand revolves around distinguishing themselves as the moral alternative to MAGA. Ironically, the tighter Biden clings to the White House, the vast, profound differences between him and Trump begin to flicker.

“Is it really a democracy if my vote has to be coerced under the threat of something even worse than over 6,000 dead children in a month?” Kaur asks. “If the only option in every election is increasingly right-wing Democrats because the Republicans are more right wing, then we have to draw the line somewhere. My vote needs to be earned.”

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