The Arbitrary 18 and the Power of Gen Z

Featured Illustration: Politico

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This can’t be happening.

My entire body shuddered as I began retching into the small wastebasket next to my desk. My eyes were transfixed on the live election map on my phone screen, and I started to hyperventilate as Georgia switched between light red and light blue. This night was the culmination of years of political unrest and weeks of phone banking (and being called every name in the book in the process) on my part. I felt helpless, and I wasn’t alone. Election anxiety is a well-documented phenomenon (one that 68% of adults experienced before last November), but the stakes have never been as high as they were this past election cycle, at least not in Gen Z’s lifetime. 

Was I overinvested? Maybe. Was it unhealthy, encroaching on both my physical and mental health like some psychosomatic malady? Most definitely. I was invested because I had to be, because this country doesn’t recognize human rights as legislative common sense, because every four years it’s a toss in the air whether I’ll be able to get married in the future and have a family. I knew Joe Biden wouldn’t be a panacea for the country’s problems (his platform reeked of white liberalism and he’s done nothing to address systemic issues, which I guess is to be expected from a candidate who embraces capitalism in all its forms), but I knew if we wanted a shot at addressing those systemic issues, another four years of Trump and his cultism would be worse. 

I distinctly remember wanting to be a poll worker for the election. If I couldn’t physically cast my ballot, maybe I could do my ‘civic duty’ by ensuring others could cast theirs. But this job was reserved for people over sixteen. Sixteen (the year most get their learner’s permits and, apparently, become ‘mature’ enough to work the polls) and eighteen (the year we’re finally considered ‘adults’ and granted the fundamental right to vote) have always seemed so arbitrary to me. It’s not as if as soon as the clock strikes midnight on your eighteenth birthday you miraculously develop the so-called ‘maturity’ (what even is maturity in this context) to make important decisions (some never develop this ability, as evidenced by the former president, and some develop it much earlier than eighteen).  

Restricting the right of young people to vote is restricting their voice in their own future. It seems to be a recurring theme with my generation that we’re left to clean up other people’s messes. I take this burden in stride because I know that fixing the persistent problems of the past means ensuring a better future going forward… but it can be extremely frustrating. I’m caught in this awkward gray area where I’m constantly told my voice matters, but I get the impression from everything around me that it doesn’t, or at least not enough for it to be counted. This duplicity does not come without harm, especially for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ youth, who are often directly impacted by the legislation that they have no direct say over. We can lobby, phone bank, call our elected officials (all of which I have done at some point), but when it comes to it, we’re not the decision-makers, and we’re not the people who elect those decision-makers to represent us. So how can we be surprised when they literally don’t represent us? Google a picture of the “117th congress”, and you see a sea of white people staring back at you. Most are men, all are cisgender, very few are BIPOC, and almost all are part of the establishment.

UNITED STATES: House members are sworn in the Capitol’s House chamber on the first day of the 117th Congress in Washington on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The establishment is the problem, not any one political party; the establishment functions to uphold exploitative class relations and the continued marginalization of BIPOC, queer, disabled, and neurodiverse people. Democrats just happen to veil their oppressive efforts under a guise of performative progressivism. Enfranchising young people, who haven’t yet been fully consumed by predatory capitalism and a culture that monetizes human life, may be the only way to knock down the establishment and actually start addressing systemic issues on a federal level. 

There is absolutely no justification for the arbitrary 18. I’d wager the reason the establishment is so hesitant to pass any voting age legislation is because it knows it would be cementing its own demise. The reality is, though, that Gen Z is already a powerful political bloc, even if most of us technically can’t vote. We have strength in numbers and a bold vision for an equitable future. We will not be silenced.