CNN | 7/14/2020 | Listen

Dear Gen Z, don't give up on America just yet

Updated 6:54 AM ET, Tue June 30, 2020

Editor's Note: This is the next installment in the "Generation Resilient" series. Katie Heintz is a first-year at Harvard College, studying government with a secondary concentration in economics. Will Matheson is a junior at Harvard College, also studying government with a secondary concentration in economics. Both are student leaders at the Institute of Politics and have served as research team leads for the Harvard Youth Poll. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) - In the age of coronavirus, young Americans are increasingly fed up with their country. But it seems there is another layer to our newfound dynamic of social distancing: this generation of "Zoomers" is also feeling increasingly separated from their American identity. Where national tragedy has historically inspired heightened patriotism, it is now highlighting just how far apart many young Americans feel from the United States.

Back in 2001, in the months following 9/11, a group of students at Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics saw a problem: many young Americans wanted to engage in public service, but they were not nearly as engaged in public policy or politics. Namely, they didn't vote in large numbers. Seeking an explanation for this dissonance and hoping to understand how young Americans felt about their place in our country, they created the Harvard Public Opinion Project, the longest-running poll of young American attitudes toward politics and public service. Today, we're still investigating how young people feel about America.

Earlier this year, we asked ourselves: if we could change one thing about the country, what would it be? For us, the answer was "patriotism." We felt that our generation was losing its enthusiasm about America. We wondered if this might impact youth political engagement, so we decided to ask about it in our poll, which surveyed 18-29-year-olds across the country.

When we first wrote these questions in early February, coronavirus felt more like a nuisance that threatened to disrupt our spring break plans -- not our entire lives. But by the time we fielded the poll, everything had changed; the poll's first day in the field was one day after Harvard decided to send its students home indefinitely. We realized that pure chance had given us an opportunity to gauge real-time sentiment among young Americans at a critical moment in global history, just as our predecessors did on the heels of 9/11.

What we found shocked us. While young Americans still care deeply about the people in their country, they identify as far less patriotic than their counterparts did two decades ago -- a 30 points difference to be precise. During our last moment of collective national tragedy, the country seemed united in its belief in itself, with 92% of young Americans identifying as patriotic. Today, only 62% feel the same.

Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic has unmasked young Americans' waning faith in their national identity.

But it's hard to blame them. The government used to serve as a symbol of safety and order in times of chaos; it was the dependable light that could guide our country through its greatest challenges, from the World Wars to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now, as we were sent away from our campuses in a flurry of missed experiences and irretrievable goodbyes, turning on the television to watch the daily federal and state press briefings has largely failed to quell our uncertainty about the future.

And as we prepare to graduate off an economic cliff, young Americans are not confident that American institutions will be there to break the fall. Actually, a majority of them feel that American politics are no longer able to meet their needs at all.

To be sure, national tragedy is not experienced uniquely by our generation, but this deep-rooted lack of trust in American institutions is particularly high among young Americans today, and it has likely been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. In short, young Americans are turning away from -- not toward -- their country and their government in a time of universally experienced struggle.

So, do young Americans just hate America? Not at all. They want to feel pride in their country, and they want to make things better. We found that they have a vision for the future, and it includes an acute sense of altruism and optimism. In poll after poll and focus group after focus group, we've found a prevailing narrative of change toward hope and hope for change.

Just look at the ongoing protests in reaction to police brutality toward an unarmed black man -- young Americans have taken to the streets, to the phones and, in November, may even take to the ballot box seeking systemic change. These actions stem from anger at America's past and present, but they also reflect our generation's commitment to making robust change for the future. We believe that we can make things better.

But patriotism is a two-way street. If we don't want to lose a generation's belief in this nation entirely, our elected leaders and our institutions will have to rise to the challenges we face in a way they haven't yet. And just as American leaders need to give "Generation Pandemic" a reason to believe in this country, our generation has the responsibility to make America something in which we can believe.

To our own generation: Don't give up on America just yet! We love our country because we have the power to change it. And for now, while our own health may not be at the same level of risk as our older citizens, this is our responsibility to the generations that came before us. Continue to stay at home whenever possible, help elderly neighbors however you can and support essential workers wherever you are. To create the America that we envision, we must continue to rally behind each other and our communities.

To our leaders: Our friends are losing pride in our country because this nation isn't living up to what they believe it can be. Our institutions must respond to this pandemic on a national level, so we are turning to you. We won't resolve these challenges to our health and our economy without good faith, bipartisan cooperation that recognizes the scale of response this crisis demands. We need a clear, consistent vision to give us renewed trust in our government. Give us solutions aimed at fixing the problem for all of America; give us a united message that reminds us what it means to be the United States.

We would all be wise to keep in mind that this is a pivotal moment for many young Americans' feelings about the United States. How we respond to this crisis matters -- not just for our nation's health and economy, but for our belief in our country and in each other.

This isn't 2001, and this generation is not the same as the one that carried our nation through 9/11. But we believe that young Americans are no less ready and willing to help our country through this new crisis; they are no less up to the challenges of the present moment.


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