Z is for Gen Z: The kids putting the world to shame

The twenty-sixth letter in the New Statesman's A-Z of the decade. 

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In August 2018, a 15-year-old girl, her long hair in pigtails, sat on the cobbled street outside Sweden’s parliament. Fellow pupils at her school had declined to join her, so she sat alone with a hand-painted sign reading “Skolstrejk för Klimatet”: school strike for the climate.

Greta Thunberg, not then a household name, returned to that same spot every day for three weeks, as Sweden’s hottest summer on record drew to a close. “Facts don’t matter anymore,” she told local reporters at the time, explaining her decision to boycott school until after that country’s general election. “Politicians aren’t listening to the scientists, so why should I learn?"

After the election, Thunberg went back to school as promised – but only for four days a week. Every Friday she returned to the centre of Stockholm to sit outside the parliament, where she started to catch the attention of the world’s media.  Similar weekly protests sprung up across Europe, each attended by only a handful of people. Until suddenly, seemingly overnight, they snowballed. 

Just three months after Thunberg’s first solo protest, the movement reached Australia. There, on 30 November, 15,000 children cut school to march, placards in hand, through towns and cities across the country. The following month, kids began doing the same in the UK, Germany, the US, and Switzerland. 

Fast-forward another four months to 15 March 2019, when more than one million children and young people took part in 2,200 strikes organised in 125 countries – every single one of them inspired by one teenager in Sweden who refused to ignore the failures of adults. 

The majority of those taking part on that day, and in the many more protests since, will have been part of “Gen Z”, the coming-of-age successors to the controversial millennials. While the parameters of the generation are still argued over, most experts agree that it includes those born between 1997 and 2012. In 2020, then, the oldest Gen Z-ers will turn 23 and the youngest will celebrate their eighth birthdays. 

Thunberg, who is now within days of her seventeenth birthday, showed the world the power of Gen Z. But she is far from the only member of her generation to have done so.  

On 14 February 2018, a gunman opened fire in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people, 14 of whom were students, and injuring 17 more. 

Despite being just 45 days into the year, it was America’s ninth school shooting of 2018. By the end of the year the US Center for Homeland Defense & Security would report there having been a total of 94, making it the worst ever year for school shootings in the country.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, 17-year-old Cameron Kasky, himself one of the survivors, mobilised a small group of his fellow students. Together, in WhatsApp groups and in Kasky’s living room, they formed “Never Again MSD”, an activist group campaigning for tighter gun control laws. Within four days, the group of teenagers had announced plans for a rally to demand legislative reform: “March for Our Lives”. 

The student-led demonstration was held in Washington the following month – allowing time for mourning – on 24 March. Around 880 sibling demonstrations took place simultaneously across the US, drawing in total crowds of between 1.2 and 2 million people. 

Many celebrities and companies showed their support through financial donations, with George and Amal Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, and Steven Spielberg each giving $500,000 to the cause. Many famous faces were also in attendance, including Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, who took their daughter North to the Washington rally.

Perhaps the most moving moment of the day was a tearful speech from 17-year-old Emma Gonzalez, another survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre. Taking to the stage for six minutes and 20 seconds, the time it took the gunman to kill 17 people, she said:  

“Six minutes and 20 seconds with an AR-15, and my friend Carmen would never complain to me about piano practice. Aaron Feis would never call Kyra "miss sunshine," Alex Schachter would never walk into school with his brother Ryan, Scott Beigel would never joke around with Cameron at camp, Helena Ramsay would never hang around after school with Max, Gina Montalto would never wave to her friend Liam at lunch, Joaquin Oliver would never play basketball with Sam or Dylan. Alaina Petty would never, Cara Loughren would never, Chris Hixon would never, Luke Hoyer would never, Martin Duque Anguiano would never, Peter Wang would never, Alyssa Alhadeff would never, Jamie Guttenberg would never, Jamie Pollack would never.”

Thunberg, Kasky and Gonzalez are inspirational figures within their generation, but there are plenty more like them. Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenager shot by the Taliban for campaigning for education for girls, was just 18 when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 – the youngest person ever to do so. In the same year, TIME magazine branded Joshua Wong, now 22, one of the year's most influential teens for his work – and prison sentence – fighting for democracy in Hong Kong. Londoner Amika George was still in school when she started the #FreePeriods campaign for free sanitary products for students. Two years on, the former chancellor Phillip Hammond announced secondary schools would receive extra funding to provide such products. 

When in 2012 USA Today asked what moniker we would use to collectively refer to the generation of children rising up beneath the millennials, suggestions were mainly tech-based: the iGeneration, Generation Wii, Gen Tech, Net Gen. In the end Gen Z won out. 

It seems this was the right choice. This generation of digital natives may not remember a time before the internet, but they are proving they are not defined by it. They are a socially conscious, politically engaged generation of young people, who will in coming years be forced to deal with an environmental crisis they inherited. Millennials are often – usually unfairly – branded entitled, distracted, and apathetic. Gen Z are not giving anybody the chance to say the same about them.

Indra is the New Statesman’s senior sub-editor.