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How Generation Z, as the Multicultural Vanguard, Can Safeguard the Future of America

If older Americans can learn from the more enlightened racial attitudes among Generation Z, then the country can look forward to a bright future.

The extent to which Generation Z can serve as a multicultural vanguard will help determine the future of America. Two vastly different scenarios are possible. Young Americans can move us toward a less conflict-ridden future because they are less likely than older generations to define "us" and "them" in racial, national, and geographic categories—or we can become an even more polarized, less trusting, fragmented society.

As I show in my book, Boundaries of Obligation in American Politics, Americans are willing to help people they consider to be members of their community. Such "help" can include paying taxes for local services, ensuring equal rights and opportunities for community members, and supporting government policies that benefit everyone in their community. This conclusion may sound intuitive, but, as I explain, if you want to know whether a person will support services or rights for others, what is crucial is how that person draws and understands the boundaries of her community. I show that perceptions are what people use to determine to whom we feel a sense of obligation, and that these perceptions carry as much weight as the kind of "objective" labels used by bureaucrats and pollsters to measure and divide the population.

Here are two possible visions of the year 2050, built on what we know from the census, public opinion surveys, and my work.

Vision 1: The United States is a majority-minority country. Its senior citizen population is predominantly white, while its workforce is mainly racial and ethnic minorities. Non-Hispanic whites still make up a majority of the voting-age population, both because racial minorities are much younger on average (and younger people are less likely to vote), and because restrictive voting requirements have disproportionately disenfranchised them. New voting rules in legislatures and redistricting ensure the continuing political power and primacy of non-Hispanic whites, and the Republican Party continues as an ethnic party. Political struggles about redistribution and who should be paying for whom are viewed and distorted through a racial lens: Should the government tax income of (minority) workers to pay for services for the (white) elderly, or should the government tax the (white) wealthy to lessen the extreme inequality that has led to population growth in both multi-billionaires and the (minority) hungry homeless? Violence is on the rise, as distrust of all parts of the government has been fueled by racial prejudice, fears, and perceived loss of social status by all groups: Everyone has a grudge and a reason for it.

Vision 2: The U.S. is a majority-minority country. Its senior citizen population is predominantly white, its workforce is largely non-white, and non-Hispanic whites and older Americans make up a majority of the voting-age population. Still, the growth in multiracial families, the growing diversification of the workforce, and continuing immigration from across the globe ensure that the young are rapidly outgrowing the habit of seeing the world as only white, black, Latino, Asian, or Native American. The Republican Party is still largely non-Hispanic white, but the parties are primarily divided along ideological lines. In a two-party system with pervasive media coverage and a tangle of campaign-finance laws, political polarization continues with fights over who will pay for what types of social services, and what regulations will harm versus help the society. There are political battles, but because opponents on each side believe they have a chance to be the winners at least some of the time, these fights have not become violent.

The choice between Visions 1 and 2 rests on the extent to which people see racial and ethnic groups as fixed and clearly demarcated. If one's race and ethnicity are believed to be determinative of one's identities and interests, then we are likely facing serious ethnic conflict in the next few decades, as age, need, and wealth align ever more closely with a stark division between white and non-white. If, on the other hand, Americans can learn from the more enlightened racial attitudes among Generation Z, there is hope that Vision 2 is what awaits us. What are the racial attitudes of these young Americans?

Generation Z does not see the same racial boundaries in our neighborhoods and homes dividing us from them that many older Americans had established (or else fought against) in laws and customs. For young Americans, the very meaning of race will differ from their parents' and grandparents' understandings of it. Census categories and popular conceptions of race transformed radically between 1850 and 1950, and our social constructions of race and ethnicity are certain to continue to evolve. More Americans, particularly the young, are identifying as multiracial, both because there are more children from interracial relationships and because people are becoming more comfortable with the term. (The public opinion results summarized here come from multiple surveys conducted by Pew Research Center, the American National Election Study, the General Social Survey, and the GenForward Survey.)

Not everything is changing, however. Racial residential segregation is still prevalent in many areas, which is inextricably tied to continuing racial segregation in schools. Nevertheless, members of Generation Z are much more likely than the Boomers, for example, to have and approve of friends and partners of different races. Increasing diversity accounts for a large part of this change, but people's beliefs are also shifting, particularly among the young. More than three-quarters of white Gen Z'ers would approve of a family member marrying someone of a different race or ethnicity; only about a third of white senior citizens are equally supportive. This reliance on psychology more than "biology" affects who Generation Z sees as belonging, and for whom they feel a duty to care.

These generational differences in attitudes persist in the political realm. A majority of young people believe that increasing racial and ethnic diversity is good for our society and that racial discrimination is the main reason African Americans cannot get ahead; only a minority of older Americans agree. The vast majority of young people think that immigrants today benefit the country, and they oppose building a wall along the Mexican border; these are positions taken by only about half of those born before 1965. Young Americans today also are much more likely to attend college than older cohorts, and education consistently has been related to greater tolerance and support for racial equality. As a result, Generation Z is part of the multicultural vanguard: young people, compared with older Americans, are more supportive of descriptive representation and the teaching of ethnic history, and they are less likely to have ethno-cultural or assimilationist notions of what it means to be a "true American." Gen Z'ers are not colorblind, but they shrink social distances between racial and ethnic groups in their physical, digital, and imagined communities.

Because members of Generation Z are living with their parents in growing numbers, these multigenerational households could reshape the political trajectory of older Americans. The shift toward support for gay marriage, for example, came from both generational replacement (with younger Americans much more supportive than older) and changing attitudes across all generations. Vision 2 of the U.S. in 2050 depends on Generation Z spurring their parents and grandparents to recognize that one's picture of who belongs in the national community does not have to be defined by color or ethnicity. People's communities need not be monochromatic, and demography alone is not destiny in politics.

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Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

See more in this series:

Instead of Generational Conflict, Let's Have Intergenerational Partnership

A coalition between generations could just be the missing piece of infrastructure that our social movements need. Read more

Why Generation Z Is Embracing Feminism

Younger feminists demonstrate a fresh confidence in the power of activism, particularly via social media. Read more

'Stagnancy is Scarier Than Change': What I Learned From My Road Trip in Search of Gen Z

There's a stubborn optimism among my generation. We care deeply, and we're ready to be listened to. Read more

The Future Is Non-Binary, and Teens Are Leading the Way

Teenage girls are challenging the meaning and the traditional constraints of gender in ways I couldn't have imagined—but many boys are still trying to fit into a gender structure that has historically benefited them. Read more