Generation Z is on the front lines of protests — but will they vote?

"When we talk about the ballot box versus going on the street, it's really a conversation of how they go together," one 19-year-old told NBC News.
Will the activist generation actually show up to the polls?
Many members of Generation Z are activists — but will this passion translate to voter turnout in the 2020 election?TODAY illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

Young people in the 1960s are known for bringing about many social changes that define U.S. culture today, from the civil rights movement to anti-war protests and women's and LGBTQ liberation. In 2020, it's Generation Z, born between the late '90s and 2010s who are, in large part, advocating for change. And many of them are voting for the first time this year.

People 18 to 24 have historically turned out in smaller numbers for elections than older people. But already, some 50% of people in this age group have tried to convince others their age to vote and 25% say they've helped other people register to vote, according to Circle, an organization at Tufts University that tracks youth civic engagement.

"I think think that our generation is the new counter-revolution," JP Mejia, 19, told NBC News' Stay Tuned. "All massive social changes throughout American history have been led by movements of young people, and that's what we're witnessing right now because the ballot box is frankly the last thing to move when we talk about social movements."

"When we talk about the ballot box versus going on the street, it's really a conversation of how they go together," added Mejia, who took a gap year after high school to work with climate change awareness group the Sunrise Movement. "The folks on the ground are creating the conversations that end at up at the ballot, but yeah, I do think Gen Z is going to show up to the polls."

Autumn Lindsey, 20, who has worked with anti-abortion group Students for Life since she was 16, said she thinks conservative young people are just as involved as those on the other side. Around 36% of people 18 to 24 identify as Democrat and 21% identify as Republican, according to Circle.

"I don't think I would use the word passive for any Gen Zer," Lindsey said. "This generation, there's something about us that makes us fighters.

"I think a common misconception about the pro-life movement is that it's all old white men, but that's actually false," she continued. "We call ourselves the pro-life generation because there are thousands (like) me across the nation using their voices to speak up for the pre-born people a part of my generation. I think voting is a way that we can really make a huge change."

In the last four years, the number of young people who say they've attended a march or demonstration is up 20%, per Circle. But that doesn't mean Gen Zers want to be responsible for social change all by themselves.

"A lot of us are literally out of work, we're out of school right now, we're at home with our parents, living in uncertainty because we feel we're being let down by this country, this administration," said Bria Smith, 19, who works with anti-gun violence group March for Our Lives. "I think young people definitely have a clue of what they want next.

"I would always feel uncomfortable when older people — after conversations or panels or just talkbacks — that would come up to us and be like, 'I can sleep easier. Your generation is going to save us,'" Smith recalled to NBC News' Stay Tuned. "I call it a little, subtle microaggression because I don't think that's a compliment. I think it's more of like you're giving up. You're still alive. You can still continuously contribute to our liberation. You can still go out and vote."

Lindsey said she believes in the importance of young people using every avenue at their disposal to advocate for their values.

"Voting absolutely makes a difference, but having those heart-to-heart conversations with people in our communities, in our friend groups, our social media platforms — we need to utilize all the outlets to really actually see a change," she said.

For Mejia, finally being able to vote feels like a turning point for the work he's already done.

"I have been out on the streets and lobbying elected officials since I was 16," he said. "Now that I know that I can step into the ballot box makes me feel like I've just gained a lot more power.

Produced by KC Wassman and Brock Stoneham.