Last month, 18-year-old high school senior Emma Gonzalez became the face of the gun control movement after 17 of her classmates were killed in a mass school shooting in Florida. If baby boomers and Gen Xers think Gonzalez is too young to galvanize the nation behind the cause, they have forgotten their history.
Thousands of students participated in the National School Walkout on March 14, a call on Congress to combat gun violence. Inspired by Gonzalez and her peers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and organized by the group behind last year’s Women’s March, the walkout was meant to build momentum behind a movement they’re calling “Never Again.” They’ll now converge on Washington, DC on Saturday, March 24, under the call to “March for Our Lives.”
The event echoes successful civil disobedience strategies perfected by boomers and embraced by following generations. When they were in their teens and 20s, boomers and Xers’ protests and political actions changed the country. Now between 40 and 70, with a hold on the nation’s purse strings and Washington, boomers and Xers’ have been stymied by our most pressing problems.
History tells us engaged teens and 20-somethings have always been our antidote to the insurmountable. To solve problems previously-deemed utterly insurmountable—the epidemic of gun violence, systemic racism, and overwhelming gender inequality—older people must look to them to drive change.
Time can obscure our view of youth. As we get older, we might assume historical figures achieved their successes at a later age. But Thomas Jefferson really did write the Declaration of Independence at 33, Martin Luther King Jr. led the Montgomery Bus Boycott at 27, and Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal while in their 20s. These examples are dramatic; they aren’t atypical.
Seven of the signatories on the Declaration of Independence were Jefferson’s age or younger. King was barely out of his doctorate program when he began his work, but he was more than a decade older than fellow civil rights pioneers Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, and Claudette Colvin, who, as a 15-year-old, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus nine months before Rosa Parks undertook the same offense. From Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez organizing labor campaigns in their mid-20s to teenagers LGBTQ activist Jazz Jennings’ work on behalf of transgender kids and Gonzales’ anti-gun campaign, youth has been at the heart of nearly every American cultural revolution.
Part of the skepticism in the idea the kids can save us from problems previously-deemed utterly insurmountable—the epidemic of gun violence, systemic racism, and overwhelming gender inequality—may lie in the fact that our current leaders are so old.
Donald Trump is the oldest first-term president to take office in America’s history. If Hillary Clinton had won, she would have been the second-oldest (behind Ronald Reagan by mere months). Had Bernie Sanders won in 2016 or John McCain in 2008, either one would have set the record as the oldest first-term president.
America’s Congress is getting older too. The average age of a member of Congress has increased steadily since 1981. At Reagan’s inauguration, the average age of a member was 49.5; today the average age in the House is 58 and in the Senate it’s 62. The leadership in both parties tends to be even older than average. While Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is 48, Congress’ chief powers are even older than their peers: Senate Majority Leader Mitch Michael is 76, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is 67, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is 77.
Despite all the talk of the rise of millennials and an ascendant Generation Z, modern Americans have grown increasingly accustomed to older politicians. Gonzalez and her peers have a shot at changing gun laws. They also have a chance to remind modern America that young leaders are thriving.
Traditional media, newspapers, and television, made the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students famous. New media, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, advanced that fame and has possibly given them a platform to leverage real change. Video clips of Gonzalez’ speech at anti-gun violence rally days after the Parkland shooting went viral. Gonzales, who wasn’t even on Twitter before the shooting, now has 1.2 million followers and is one of a score of students using the web to drive the #NeverAgain agenda.
These teenagers’ notoriety makes them seem remarkable. But if past activists had the same digital tools at their disposal, we would remember more of their names. King and Chavez’s courage and character put them in history books, but they are avatars as much as men. They and other symbolic leaders represent the thousands of anonymous teenagers and 20-somethings who organized marches, walkouts, sit-ins, and occupations, who spearheaded the widespread rejection of values long-held by many Americans from capitalism to patriotism to discrimination.
The 1960s tend to stand out as the peak of protest, but the number of students raging against the machine may be rising. A 1990 Times’ feature highlighted a survey of 200,000 students revealing 37% had been involved in a protest during high school, up from 21% in 1983 and 16% in 1967. A more-recent survey of college freshman suggested that demographic’s participation in protests may have reached a 50 year high in 2015. With the National School Walkout tomorrow, the March for Our Lives on March 24, and another nationwide walkout planned on April 20 to coincide with the anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, it’s easy to imagine protest participation hitting an all-time high this year.
After historical reflection, we shouldn’t wonder if youth can change the world. Their work has unquestionably been the engine powering revolution for over half a century. A more useful question is, How can older people help them make these changes?
In early March, essayist Tim Kreider wrote in The New York Times, “My message, as an aging Gen X-er to millennials and those coming after them, is: ‘Go get us. Take us down…Rid the world of all our outmoded opinions, vestigial prejudices and rotten institutions.’” Kreider’s genuflection to his juniors is refreshing, but he goes too far. If we want to combat seemingly-insurmountable problems, we need a coalition led by millennials and Generation Z and buttressed by sympathetic older generations.
In Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” which he wrote at 22, he sings to his elders, “Your old road is rapidly agin’/Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand.” The message is clear: Youth have the will and wisdom to build a better world and older people are welcome to help in the construction—people of all ages can join in the demonstrations on March, 14, March 24, and April 20. Just don’t stand in the way. History proves you’ll be trampled.