People born after 1995, known as Generation Z, have become the protagonists of large-scale anti-racist demonstrations in the United States. This phenomenon has received widespread attention from international audiences. Why have these post-’95 young people become the leaders of American protests? The answer to this question may be traced back to the “millennials,” born between 1982 and 2000, who are slightly older than Generation Z. American millennials are dissatisfied with the current system and yearn for socialism. Bernie Sanders, a two-time Democratic presidential candidate, captured the hearts of the Millennials.
It is evident that American youth, composed of Generation Z and millennials, are dissatisfied with the current situation in the United States and are seeking change. Generation Z played a leading role in this current protest movement, organizing its own demonstrations and groups, publicizing on social media, etc. This movement is related to COVID-19 and the resulting large-scale unemployment and economic recession, but is also an explosion of frustration over multiple social issues that worsen daily.
First, the coronavirus has forced a large number of young Americans to leave school or become unemployed. Since the virus reached the United States, more than 40 million people (a quarter of the U.S. labor force) have applied for first-time unemployment benefits. Many of these claims are those of young people. Shortly after the start of the spring semester, all American schools suffered emergency closures. U.S. public schools (K-12) have all already ended classes for the summer break, while colleges and universities have rapidly adopted a program to stop classes without stopping learning, moving offline classes to the cloud. Young people who are out of school and unemployed are not only facing the pressures of economic insecurity and general uncertainty in life, but because of their love for social interaction and outdoor activities they have also been criticized for being a major factor in the spread of coronavirus throughout the U.S. They have been described as hedonistic, unable to maintain social distancing, among other things. The protests, which have spread all over the U.S., have become an emotional outlet for these young people.
Second, increasing social inequality has led young Americans to suffer from unequal opportunities. In the process of forming and developing global capitalism and labor markets, the transformation of the American economic structure to one that values finance over all else, the hollowing out of the domestic industrial sector and the impacts on the labor market of cheap labor in other countries have all led to the deterioration of the U.S. domestic labor market, worsening year by year. This situation is not conducive to the employment of young people. In contemporary American society, not only are there racial divisions, but the wealth gap within all races continues to widen.
As revealed in the book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” by well-known American political scientist Robert Putnam, the illusion has already been destroyed that all Americans have equal life chances, regarding income, wealth and social capital; and that it is a given fact that “our children” are in a state of “birth inequality,” referring to Generation Z as “our children.” These young Americans are using protests to express their dissatisfaction over the loss of equality and opportunity, hoping to use their own power to change social inequality.
Third, a decline in social mobility has led to young Americans struggling but never moving upward. Upward mobility through individual effort is the essence of the “American Dream.” However, today’s socioeconomic barriers are at the highest point in over a century. As a result, children in the upper classes of the U.S. enjoy greater privileges while poorer children live in anxiety, loneliness and even a loss of hope. For want of family and community protection, these young people become increasingly weak, and it is increasingly difficult for them to change their futures through personal struggle.
Some young people on social media have even called the coronavirus pandemic the “Boomer Remover,” expressing their dissatisfaction with “baby boomers” who have already accumulated wealth and maintain conservative ideologies. Thus, many American Generation Z youth consider themselves to be victims of the times and hope that by participating in protests or even organizing them, they can increase social mobility in the U.S.
Finally, the popularization and extreme marketing of higher education have led middle- and lower-class young Americans to face an existential crisis. Market forces, led by the rise of financial influence, have driven the popularization and industrialization of higher education for several years. The cost of living continues to increase, and it goes without saying that both public and private universities have become essentially profit-seeking institutions. The rate of increase in university tuition fees far exceeds the inflation rate and has risen 213% since 1980. As a result, the surge in U.S. student loans, reaching $1.51 trillion in 2019, makes it one of the largest sources of debt in the U.S. after housing and credit card debt.
Some students from low-income households can afford to attend only relatively low-quality, often profit-oriented universities. Many of these students not only do not get a degree when they graduate, but they also carry heavy student loan debt. Currently, nearly 70% of U.S. college students are under various levels of pressure to pay off the debt, making it difficult to achieve financial independence after graduation. Some students will be repaying student loans when they are age 60 or older. Only 24% of federal aid recipients repay the principal loan and interest at the same time; nearly 20% of loan recipients are behind on payments or have defaulted on their loans. The higher education system and student loan system have been criticized as aggravating the socioeconomic inequality in America, providing another rationale for Generation Z taking to the streets in protest.
The attacks on both equal opportunity and social mobility have compelled young Americans to call into question the validity of the current U.S. social structure. Those of Generation Z have become the leaders of these current protests, making the chasm between generations in American society more apparent to the rest of the world.