In 'Fight,' John Della Volpe looks at what shapes Gen Z politics In a new book, Fight: How Gen Z is channeling their fear and passion to save America, pollster John Della Volpe explores how America's youngest voters and activists are coming of age.

A new look at how turmoil is defining the lives and politics of Generation Z

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Young people often get a bad rap, right? They're sometimes called lazy, entitled. Often their concerns can be met with an eye roll or a sigh, like, of course, they will understand one day when they're older. But one pollster has spent more than two decades working to understand young people in America, how they view the world and how they vote. NPR's Juana Summers talked to him about his new book on Generation Z.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: John Della Volpe is the director of polling at Harvard University's Institute of Politics, and he advised the Biden campaign on youth outreach. His new book is "Fight: How Gen Z Is Channeling Their Fear And Passion To Save America."

JOHN DELLA VOLPE: Every generation has its share of angst and turmoil. I'm Gen X. But I don't think there's any generation in 75 years, since the Greatest Generation, that's been confronted with more chaos more quickly in their young lives than Gen Z or Zoomers.

SUMMERS: Members of Generation Z were born in the years surrounding 9/11. The Great Recession of 2009 left many families financially strapped. At school, kids participated in lockdown drills - not to mention the ongoing threat of climate change, the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic.

DELLA VOLPE: That's where they came of age. But rather than melting, it made them harder. It made them tougher. And it made them more focused to do great things for themselves and for the country.

SUMMERS: The book draws heavily from polling, as well as focus groups that Della Volpe conducted. I asked him about a moment from a focus group that he keeps coming back to.

You asked them what older generations do not understand about Generation Z. And you write about this student named Grace. And I'm going to quote Grace here. (Reading) "An older generation would not understand waking up in a classroom and thinking about how easy it would be for someone to shoot it up. The same daily weight on an adult's shoulders over bills or taxes is what children feel about living or dying."

What stuck out about that to you? What did that tell you?

DELLA VOLPE: I used to hear just, you know, young people talk about kind of connection and opportunity if there were - in America if you were to work for it. And now what I heard was that it's - don't have the luxury of even thinking about that. It's - young people were challenged with just the daily weight of living and dying. Grace wasn't the only one. Every single hand in that group went up and was nodding kind of their heads.

SUMMERS: The fear that Grace was talking about resonated with David Hogg, too. Hogg is an activist and a survivor of the 2018 high school shooting in Parkland, Fla. He wrote the foreword to this book.

DAVID HOGG: I think that the anxiety that comes over that from gun violence, from climate change to all these other things is something that, you know, a lot of generations right now just can't understand it - the scale that - of the existential threat, in many ways, that young people today feel. What I will say, though, is that, as you've seen in times before when generations faced challenges, they come to meet them oftentimes. You know, movements find their leaders. I think we saw that in 2020.

SUMMERS: Gen Zers have grown up with the hold that former President Donald Trump had on politics and culture.

DELLA VOLPE: We found that the biggest predictor of whether or not a young person participates in politics and votes is whether they can see a tangible difference in their vote. And that first hundred days, those first six months, those first eight or nine months leading up to Charlottesville were everything that young people need to see about the tangible difference that Donald Trump was making.

SUMMERS: David, you hinted at this a little bit, but you were a part of that generation and that political movement that really came of age during the Trump presidency. So I wonder if you can reflect on that at all.

HOGG: Young people were looking for a leader, even with a president that was a Republican, which - most members of Gen Z tend to lean more progressive. Even despite that, we hope that we'd be obviously united somewhat in those early days. And by the time Charlottesville rolled around and all these other things started to happen - and it was so abundantly clear that that wasn't going to happen that our generation stepped up and decided to unite ourselves.

SUMMERS: But Hogg worries now that with the intense anxiety and burnout that young people are feeling that they may not feel like their vote has made a tangible difference.

HOGG: What I fear is that for - some younger people are going to look at the events of January 6 and see that as the alternative, that it's OK if you don't get what you want in politics to go out and attempt to overthrow the government.

SUMMERS: Della Volpe said he's also concerned about this. A recent Harvard youth poll found that more than half of young Americans are feeling down, depressed or hopeless, and roughly a quarter reported thoughts of self-harm.

DELLA VOLPE: We have a significant mental health crisis. I think the state of our politics adds not detracts from that.

SUMMERS: Looking ahead to the next presidential election, some demographers estimate that Gen Z and their immediate elders, millennials, will outnumber baby boomers as a share of the electorate. And by 2028, they'll make up half of the electorate. Della Volpe said that it's clear that Gen Zers are already stepping up for themselves.

DELLA VOLPE: Once, you know, Gen Z gets to be - you know, 10, 20, 30 years from now, when they're really active members of government and the private sector and raising families - I'm far more optimistic about the future of our country than I ever have been.

SUMMERS: John Della Volpe's book is "Fight: How Gen Z Is Channelling Their Fear And Passion To Save America." Juana Summers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLIE EILISH SONG, "MY FUTURE")

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