How Gen Z Stepped Up in a Year of Global Crises

Strikes to social media: the Gen Z reaction to a tumultuous year.

8 mins read

From the Israel-Hamas War to the Supreme Court’s overturning of affirmative action, 2023 has been a year full of unprecedented turbulence, and as the Gen Z constituency nears a quarter of the population, youth voices have become more powerful than ever in influencing these events. Let’s take a look at the ways Gen Z has responded to the critical developments of 2023.

Art credit: Dominique Greene

Russo-Ukrainian War

While American coverage has haltered, the Russo-Ukrainian War rages on. From the end of 2022 to Spring 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a “disappointing” winter offensive with limited gains for Russia, and Ukraine has begun a powerful counteroffensive, reporting its fastest advance in seven months. Fearful of Russian youth’s historic disapproval of the war, Putin has particularly highlighted Gen Z in propaganda, developing social media videos that display Russian teenagers waving Russian flags, and even implementing ‘patriotism curriculum’ in schools that describe Ukraine’s ‘genocide’ against Russia. 

However, Gen Z has stayed strong to their beliefs. Thousands of young professionals have left Russia, and many of those remaining have continued to protest at their own risk—one investigative journalist was personally targeted with hateful graffiti. Nevertheless, this war has affected Gen Z Russians profoundly. In a March interview with Al Jazeera, one Russian teenager testified to their experience: “Since we lived in Russia, the war affected us quite a lot. My mother and I were very afraid for our lives, so the decision was made to leave. We were nervous so we left in a hurry.”

Israel-Hamas War

One of the most prominent wars Gen Z has experienced, the October 7 attacks on Israel and following Israel-Hamas war has sent shock waves through young communities. In response, teenagers across the world have taken to social media to share their views, with the hashtag #freepalestine garnering 31 billion posts on Tiktok, along with 590 million posts for #standwithisrael. These videos have immense influence—Pro-Palestinian videos calling for boycotts of Starbucks, due to its perceived association with Israel, caused it to lose over $11 billion in revenue.

However, Gen Z has been criticized for their propagation of misinformation and overreliance on visual media, as an Octover Axios study found that 1 in 5 Gen Z rely on Tiktok for news and information. This overreliance has had an impact, skewing youth’s view of the conflict. For pro-Palestinian teenagers, few are able to identify the river and sea that “from the river to the sea” refers to, and most alarmingly, 1 in 5 young Americans think the Holocaust was a myth. No matter one’s stance on the war, it’s important for everyone to educate themselves on the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict and inform themselves with various sources.

Nevertheless, most students supporting Israel or Palestine are acting out of genuine concern: supporting their loved ones, and advocating for peace and justice. In a November NPR article, one Jewish student explained why they attended the March for Israel: “We want to continue to have generations of Jewish people stay alive and the Jewish faith stay alive.” Their Muslim counterparts feel the same way. “The past month especially has been very, very isolating and gut-wrenching,” one teenager said.

Overturning of Affirmative Action

On June 9th, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that affirmative action was unconsitutional, officially ending all forms of race-based admission for college applicants. The affirmative action debate has been defined by Gen Z, many of whom are already in college or will be applying in the coming years. In fact, the cases for and against affirmative action have been spearheaded by youth, with the plaintiffs of the case being led by students: Students for Fair Admissions.

This decision came in response to accusations that affirmative action discriminated against Asian-American applicants, with top schools consistently rating Asian-Americans lower on “personality” scales. However, many other minority groups were devastated by the decision, and youth activists have attempted to use it to spur newfound change. In particular, many student groups have begun to protest legacy-based admission for universities, claiming that it unfairly discriminates against applicants of color. 

Likewise, Gen Z progressives have started pushing for record turnout in the 2024 election, based on issues like affirmative action that uniquely impact young voters. In the words of 17-year-old Claire Simon, voting is “something [she] feel[s] like [she] need[s] to do.”

Climate Change Protests

As 2023 is set to be the warmest year on record, Gen Z activists have become particularly fearful of global warming, and have stepped up their fight for a future they can live in. For 13-year-old Kaliko, the August Hawaiian wildfires made climate change a personal reality, as she was forced to watch the homes of her family and friends go down in flames. “The fire was made so much worse due to climate change,” she said in an August New York Times interview. “How many more natural disasters have to happen before grown-ups realize the urgency?” Aiming to make change, Kaliko joined 13 other teenagers to sue Hawaii over its use of fossil fuels. 

In June, across the Northeast, cities were met with thick smog, leading to air pollution levels that had never been seen before. In New York City, schools were closed down, with students wearing KN95 masks simply to venture outside. Yet, just three months later, thousands of people gathered outside the United Nations, demanding that President Joseph Biden move away from fossil fuels. “If you want our vote, if you don’t want the blood of our generations to be on your hands, end fossil fuels,” said 17-year-old Emma Buretta, an organizer of the march, in a September New York Times interview. Personally experiencing the effects of climate change, these young activists worked together to make their voices heard, and managed to attract attention from the most powerful world leaders. 

For better or for worse, youth voices matter, and they have made a crucial impact on the events of 2023. As we move into a critical election year, Kidizenship encourages our readers to continue standing up for the issues they care about, and to realize the impact their voices can make. 

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