Some of the defining life experiences that help develop political consciousness take place when we are adolescents. Senator Bernie Sanders engaged in solidarity organizing with Koreans as a high school student during the war. Angela Davis grew up surrounded by civil rights organizers in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, and was introduced to socialism in a high school history class. One of my local Boston DSA City Council candidates, Kendra Hicks, received a copy of Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed at age 16.
I’m a 17-year-old socialist. For my generation, a fascist presidential administration, pandemic, economic collapse, and a historic uprising for Black lives have shaped our worldview. These defining events and movements have caused Gen Z to become more disillusioned with capitalism and the white-supremacist, bourgeois state than older generations. As the youngest delegate at this week's Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) National Convention, I urge members of my generation to mobilize toward building a socialist future.
Disenchantment with capitalism and positive attitudes toward socialism are strongest among younger Americans, but Gen Z faces a unique set of conditions that make us especially open to ideological radicalization. Polling shows that Gen Z adults, ages 18 to 24, already have a more positive view of socialism than of capitalism — presumably because our age group has also experienced the worst of late-stage American capitalism.
The expansion of the academic industrial complex and the resulting student debt crisis have crushed our socioeconomic mobility. Forty-eight percent of workers earning the federal minimum wage or below are 16 to 24 years old — and that wage hasn’t increased since I was five years old. Some may argue that young people don’t deserve a living wage because we don’t need to support ourselves, but countless teens work to provide for their families or pay for college, not just to earn spending money. We have watched capitalism fail time and again, having experienced two of the country’s worst recessions, in 2008 and again in 2020.
In 2020, youth unemployment remained elevated far above the rate for the general population because young workers are concentrated in impacted industries such as retail, hospitality, and the precarious gig economy. Analysis by the Brookings Institution found that 16- to 29-year-olds make up under a quarter of the whole labor force, yet “they accounted for about a third of the rise in the unemployment rate between February and April” 2020. If you were like me, you didn’t even qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance from the federal government.
When I regained employment after Massachusetts reopened, I witnessed capitalism’s lack of regard for human life firsthand. Going to work meant risking my life to perform labor because the ruling class had decided that dead frontline workers were just the collateral damage of their profit-motivated reopening. I worked in a restaurant from July to November 2020, when it closed again because of COVID-19, and I joined DSA that October.
My belief in socialism was strengthened during my time as a frontline worker, but it originated earlier, when I first became engaged in politics through climate organizing. I recognized capitalism as the root cause of the climate crisis and realized that the environmental justice for which I was fighting posed a threat to capitalism’s very existence as a system of profit and exploitation.
Looking at the world through the lens of class conflict and historical materialism has made everything I had never been able to explain make sense. So many of my questions can be answered. What continues to mystify me is how anyone my age can still have complete faith in capitalism, a system that is driving our planet to literal inhabitability.
The climate crisis is another unique condition that necessitates Gen Z’s commitment to socialism. As DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group explains, “The liberation of people and the planet are necessarily intertwined and dependent on the dismantling of our exploitative capitalist production process and the remaking of society to serve the needs of people and planet, not profit.” No other crisis in our history has posed such an existential threat and moral obligation for radical change in our economic and political systems. Human survival will depend on revolution.
Jonathan Jackson Jr., the nephew of Black revolutionary George Jackson, posits that “when it finally becomes more attractive for one to fight, and perhaps die, than to live in a survival mode, revolution starts to become a possibility.” Facing the climate crisis, we must understand “survival mode” under late-stage capitalism is more than just enduring a system of labor exploitation — it means enduring the results of this system; one that requires not only labor exploitation, but the endless exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources.
We will have to survive floods, heat waves, forest fires, and air pollution; watch our homes sink under water; the collapse of food supply chains; and power grids that give out. The working class will suffer while the rich will be able to move to higher elevations and build safeguarded homes. Organizing won’t be driven just by a desire to improve our quality of life, but by an impulse to save the human race.
Gen Z has already demonstrated our ability to organize and mobilize: It was young Black activists who led Black Lives Matter protests, and young allies who participated and made it likely the biggest movement in U.S. history. Youth voters are turning out in record numbers and, in 2020, propelled Joe Biden to victory in key swing states. Our digital fluency provides us with a unique platform to organize, disseminate information, and share our beliefs. Social media exposes us to new ideas that antagonize our current belief systems, induce change, and push us toward ideological clarity.
Thanks to the work of young BIPOC organizers, we also understand that the struggles to end white supremacy and capitalism are intertwined. The Black Lives Matter movement’s focus on dismantling racial capitalism demonstrates the political relevance of this framework. A 2020 Morning Consult poll found that 68% of Gen Z said the Black Lives Matter movement “has had a major impact on their worldview” (a percentage that jumped by 21 points from April to June 2020), and the vast majority of Gen Z took at least one action for racial justice during the height of the protests. Centering Black liberation in our movement for socialism is a moral imperative that will also allow us to engage young people who were politically radicalized by Black Lives Matter and counter the neoliberal co-optation of racial justice organizing.
The tools to build interracial, intergenerational working-class power are here. If we, the generation whose souls have not yet been crushed by capitalism, choose to use these tools, we can shift the tide in favor of socialism — the only system that will guarantee us a livable planet and life unburdened from economic exploitation, crushing debt, and racial castes.
As a DSA member, I have engaged in electoral work, direct action, housing justice advocacy, and solidarity organizing with the labor movement, Palestine, and abolitionist groups. My comrades of all ages have mentored and empowered me to run to be a Boston delegate to the National Convention this year. I am excited to be a voting delegate, but I wish there were more teenagers beside me, not because we will magically transform the DSA as an organization, but because our voices matter in the socialist movement and there are unlimited possibilities to engage us.
From the moment we started school, members of Gen Z have been told that we would be the ones to save humanity from our current overwhelming conditions. This concept of “Gen Z saviorism” serves to shift the responsibility to fix our world’s problems from the shoulders of older generations and systems that caused these problems to younger generations who will be forced to bear the brunt of the impacts. We are not saviors, and we need to be activated in a socialist way. As passionate as I am about youth organizing, above all, I believe in the power of intergenerational organizing. We are counting on millennials, Gen Z, even Boomers to guide us into the socialist movement so we can work together to empower the working class.
I urge the socialist movement to meaningfully invest in youth activation and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have to mobilize Gen Z. And I urge my peers to join their local DSA or YDSA chapter and start organizing. The future belongs to young people, but there is no future for us under capitalism.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue