Gen Z is a formidable force for change. United in their trauma, with an understanding beyond their years and the need for systemic change, they require and expect a ‘seat at the table.’ Any presidential candidate is wise to understand their core values, fears, and anger. Gen Z and Millenials make up a significant portion of the voting block in the USA 2024 elections. Is Gen Z the secret weapon in the fight to save America? Our guest, John Della Volpe, deeply believes this to be the case. John is a pollster, an advisor to President Joe Biden’s administration, and the author of the best-selling book Fight: How Gen Z Is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America. In this conversation with Anne Pratt, John shares more about Gen Z, the forces that shape and fuel them, their issues of concern, and much more. Tune in and learn how this generation’s fear, passion, and heightened sense of urgency may well be the golden key to helping save democracy in America.
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“The FIGHT To Save America” with John Della Volpe in the USA
How Gen Z Channels Fear and Passion to Save America and Possibly the World
In this episode, our thoughtful board leader joins us from the great State of Massachusetts. He is a leading authority on youth and politics, a pollster, an advisor to President Joe Biden’s administration, and the author of the best-selling book Fight: How Gen Z Is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America. It’s a must-read for anyone engaging with the most exciting and promising generation in decades.
He is the Founder and CEO of SocialSphere, a public opinion research firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He’s consulted with heads of state and Fortune 100 CEOs and is the worthy recipient of multiple fellowships and awards. He appears frequently on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and his research insights are often published in media outlets in the USA and abroad. Stay tuned as he shares more with us about Gen Z, the forces that shape and fuel them, their issues of concern, his advice to President Joe Biden, and his Boston “Mandela Moment.” We warmly welcome my friend, John Della Volpe. Welcome to the show.
John, it’s so wonderful to see you again. Thank you so much for coming to the show and sharing your incredible work with our audience. I’m looking forward to it.
It’s my pleasure. I appreciate you having me. Thanks, Anne.
I would love to begin with the fact that you have been the Polling Director at Harvard Kennedy School for the Institute of Politics, looking at polling the youth, the youth of the United States, the youth of America. You’ve also launched your best-selling book, and congratulations. It’s fantastic. We’ll reference it a little more, but I thought upfront what would be interesting is what brought you into this line of work. Why the youth of America?
It was never my idea to be a youth-centered or youth-focused pollster or public opinion researcher. It was the winter of 1999 and 2000 when two undergraduates at Harvard College, Aaron and Trevor, who were sophomores, were confounded by the seemingly disconnects on our campus and other campuses and high schools Across America.
On the one hand, it seemed like they and all their friends, peers, and fellow students across the college or the country were centered on community service and volunteering to solve meaningful issues. However, few were interested in voting or discussing politics or felt invested in the political system. When they look back to the previous presidential campaign of 1996 between Bill Clinton’s re-election year against Senator Dole, they noticed that youth engagement was near an all-time low.
They said, “We want to do a survey. Don’t our peers understand that if we volunteer and vote, we can move the country forward more significantly?” They couldn’t do the poll themselves, and I was lucky to get that phone call and be one of a handful of folks in Boston, Cambridge, who were active public opinion researchers. That’s how it started. It was supposed to be a one-semester event. We’re 40-something semesters into this, and it’s a life-changing opportunity for me.
It’s a fantastic opportunity, and I applaud how this has flourished and resulted in your tremendous best-selling book entitled Fight: How Gen Z Is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America. Talk to us about the title Fight. We know that when people are faced with trauma, they can fight or take flight. Why fight?
I’ve now been doing this for twenty-something years. We’ve captured essentially the entire Millennial generation, understanding their values, opinions, and attitudes. It was a few years ago when, during the summer months, I typically spent much time traveling and talking to young Americans. I noticed this seeming disconnect again between this extreme level of anxiety, depression, and concern they had for their mental health that they were very open to share.
However, at the same time, I noticed this resolve and resiliency that they were dealing with these traumas, but it made them more focused and angrier. I’m trying to deal with some of the issues of great concern. Again, the book’s premise, the spark of the book, was their concern for each other’s mental health. However, I was so inspired by the data after each story that I learned that you can flee or fight.
They’re fighting in seemingly every significant way they can, specifically from where I’m focused. It’s fighting inside the political arena. It’s easy to turn away. It’s easy to do what their older siblings, parents, and grandparents did, which is not participating in the levels at which they’re participating but digging down and fighting. It’s a good fight.
I’m also struck by some of the book’s reviews and content about how this is possibly one of the greatest generations in America. Perhaps your point about them being up for the good fight, what is that passion? What significant issues do they care about, and what do you think ignited that passion?
To take one step back, when I talk about Gen Z, it’s essentially 70 or 80 million young Americans from middle school age 12, 13, or 14 years old through their mid-20s. If they don’t have a meaningful memory of 9/11 and the days after that, that is how I’m thinking about this generation. They are the most diverse and educated that we’ve seen.
However, what connects them is this shared sense of trauma. As we’ve discussed, I don’t think there’s been any generation since the greatest who’s dealt with more chaos more quickly in their formative years than this generation. That’s one thing that runs through them. Through that, rather than fleeing or cowering, they’re more protective of those who are more vulnerable than themselves. They’re fighting not just for themselves but for their friends, family members, folks they don’t know, and their country. Those are some of the main throughlines or the main characteristics of this generation.No other generation since The Greatest has dealt with more chaos more quickly in their formative years than Gen Z. Click To Tweet
Also, in your book, you alluded to some of the issues that come up that are on their minds, things around the debt crisis, students being able to afford their education, gun violence, and school shootings. What do you think they would put as the top critical issues that they would like addressed?
When you look at the country where they want to live and raise their families, it’s under the umbrella of individual rights and freedoms. That’s something that we don’t hear a lot talking about. On the day of polling, you hear a lot about the economy, inflation, immigration, the border, etc., which are all very important. However, what Gen Zs are most concerned about is, well before Roe v. Wade was overturned, the Dobbs decision, etc. (Editor’s note: Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, No. 19-1392, 597 U.S. 215 (2022), is a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which the court held that the Constitution of the United States does not confer a right to abortion.)
It was this concern that the rights and freedoms of young Americans were at risk and were rolling back some of the progress out there that our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents fought for. That is one overarching umbrella of issues; within that, it’s the right to clean water and air. It’s the right to access quality education regardless of your ZIP code. It’s the right to have control over your own body, specifically a woman’s reproduction rights.
It’s the right to access healthcare. It’s the right to work hard and then to afford a college education and a home. It’s the right to feel safe when you go to a movie theater, a shopping mall, a supermarket, or a school. Those are the issues. It’s the right to feel comfortable with who you are and to marry whoever you love, regardless of what the state might say. Those are the issues that animate this generation.
The foreword of the book also struck me. The young gentleman, David Hogg, was a survivor of the heinous Parkland school shooting in Florida. He made the point that ‘we are a generation suffering from trauma and loss but not defeated.’ He also alludes to the fact that the generation is not alone. They can organize. What is your experience and exposure, John? Have you seen how this generation is organizing itself? To what extent do you think they feel they still need the support of different generations?
I met David Hogg, who, as you mentioned, wrote the foreword just a couple of weeks after February 14th, 2018, when the shooter took so many lives. I met him a few days afterward, well before his march in Washington. I was struck by his innate sense of his voice, the environment, the struggle, and the fight he was about to pursue.
He said he knew he would leave Harvard when he visited us to speak with then-minority leader Nancy Pelosi. I remember specifically he said, “It’s not going to be settled in a day, a week, or a month. It’s going to take a lifetime. It will take many generations to get where we need to be.”
From that point forward, I understood David’s interest in using all the publicly available tools to create a movement bigger than any one person, community, or generation and to work and inspire all generations. It’s intra-generational but also leverages his ability to organize from the ground up and work and collaborate to make progress with those leaders from the top down. That’s when we see the most incredible opportunity for change and progress.
John, can you share what struck you? You wrote about it in your book, but could you share the event?
It was Valentine’s Day, especially for those reading and listening outside the US, who have difficulty grasping what was happening. I write that in the time it took me to order my coffee, 5 or 6 minutes at my local coffee shop., an individual walked out of an Uber, walked into one of our schools, and took fifteen lives, classroom by classroom. He hopped back (into the car) and ordered a diet soda at the local sandwich shop. All of that happened in six minutes because of the use of the automatic weapon and the dozens and dozens of military-grade ammunition that he had.
I remember precisely where I was. I was in the hallway in front of our front desk at the Institute of Politics, seeing the aftermath and the children lined up one after another in these photographs that we’ve seen all too often after a mass shooting. David Hogg and his sister chose the Parkland community, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, because of their interest in storytelling and their family’s interest in the news, media, and debate.
David was locked in a closet recording this. He thought these could be the last moments of his life, and he wanted to leave that recording. When he returned home, he knew this was his opportunity as a student to share that story with America and the world. There was a struggle in his house. His parents wanted to protect him, but he went out. Ironically, the first person to talk to him was Laura Ingraham, the conservative commentator on Fox News.
David took that opportunity not to focus on some of her questions about the shooter. Instead, David used that opportunity to challenge the rest of us and to empower us. Also, to say that we’re going to collectively stop school shootings. “It needs to start now. It needs to start with all of us. Here are some things that all of us could do together.” That was based on his gut, but it was also a brilliant communication, political, and leadership strategy.
From your interaction with him, what do you think his defining moment was? Was it at that point where he knew he could be killed himself?
Yeah. He was a storyteller. He’s a student of history. The moment of his innate interest in time, a story with his historical spot came together to make something special. What’s incredible about those young people is that they act like the average 16 or 17-year-old in one minute. I talked about some of the stories of having breakfast with them, and then a couple of moments later, you’re talking to some of the most inspirational and influential people on the planet at that time.
I still think it’s hard to quantify the difference they’ve made, but I do tell in the book that I don’t know if we know Greta Thunberg’s name. (Editor’s note: Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg is a Swedish environmental activist who challenges world leaders to take immediate action for climate change mitigation. She persuaded her parents to adopt lifestyle choices that reduced her family’s carbon footprint.) I’m not sure that the climate and the environment are as central an issue as they are in our politics now, if not for Parkland. There’s a straight line between David Hogg and Greta and his co-organizers Jaclyn Corin, Emma González, etc., and the work of Greta, which I talked about in the book.
I’m also struck by your work as well, John. You’re a pollster and an adviser to President Joe Biden. Based on the findings and the insights you’ve gleaned from this book, what advice do you give President Biden?
A couple of things. One is that regardless of what other people, pundits, or elected officials may think, younger voters, particularly Gen Z, and Millennials, want to do big things. They are willing to vote and turn out in far more significant ways than most of us could imagine if they were in power. That’s the first thing. To win elections and govern, he recognizes the importance of speaking to as many different subgroups and communities within America.
Too often, before 2020, with a few notable examples, the main characters and the nominees for both political parties ignored younger people. It was expensive. They didn’t think they could be outed, etc. The most important advice that I gave but it was part of who he already was. I wasn’t changing his mind. I was helping him with a strategy to go out and speak to young people. That worked quite well. Significantly, few young people were with him in the primary in 2020.
Bernie Sanders hadn’t done as well as in 2016 among the younger people. The youth was fractured through various candidates, but St. Patrick’s Day was one of the critical moments of that entire campaign. It was March 17th, 2020. COVID was ramping up. The campaign was winding down, and then Vice President Biden called out to the young supporters of Bernie Sanders and said, “I hear you. We haven’t had a lot of dialogue during this campaign. I respect your support for Sanders, but here is what we have in common. Here are the values that I have. This is how it relates to your vision for the country. Let’s work together and build this coalition.”
By resetting everything, he said, “Give me a chance. I hear you. I recognize that.” The White House needed to know this to their core. The administration, the senior staff, etc., see the importance of younger people and know they deserve a seat at the table. There is a seat at the table, and they are constantly checking in, not just with labor and some of these other vital constituencies, but they’re checking regularly with younger people. Also, time after time, they’re keeping their word.
Biden said, “I hear you. This is what I’m going to fight for.” He’s accomplished a lot of it, which is why, to many people’s surprise, we’ve had the highest voter participation ever among younger people during his administration. He has earned a significant portion of a faction of that vote as anyone, including Obama. The only person who ever beat him was Obama in the first cycle. He’s received 60%-plus in 2020 across most of those key states.
That’s phenomenal. Regarding the core issues that Gen Z care about, what’s at the top of the ticket?
It’s dealing with those larger umbrellas of rights and freedoms, but I hear a lot about affordability and concern about paying for college. Also, there is concern about the cost of housing. It’s these economic factors that are of great concern. The concern about access to quality education, K through 12, and higher ed is significant.
Also, climate change is a (high) table stakes. It would be best if you had some alignment around that. Those are the issues you most often hear about, and there is a rising concern about the political divisions within our country. All of those things are adding to the economic stress and mental health concerns.
Also, we’ve seen a lot of those policy changes being enacted. It’s inspiring. Shifting gear a little, what was perhaps a defining moment in your young life and a more challenging moment for you? Could you take us back in time? What was that? What was your moment of revelation?
One of the early transformational moments was perhaps being 10, 11, or 12 years old. I grew up in a working-class city in Massachusetts. My grandfather had an opportunity to visit the White House. He was a labor leader in the late ’70s or early ’80s. This must have been in the early ’80s because Reagan was President. I remember him visiting the White House. I remember him bringing me some gifts and trinkets back to me.
Even at that young age, I had been interested in politics. Still, I saw the closeness and how an everyday person, someone I was related to, a working-class laborer for his entire life, and a veteran could meet the president. He could access the White House. That was something that was an inspiration for me. I began to develop a greater interest. My politics and his politics evolved. We had a lot in common as my politics developed after that, but that was undoubtedly one thing that was important in my development.
When you say “His politics,” are you talking about your grandfather or the president?
I was talking about my grandfather. He was one of those things that we call a Reagan Democrat. He was an FDR Democrat who turned pretty conservative during Reagan’s term. He ended up extremely conservative and much more conservative than I am. He has probably appreciated some of the dialogue and debates we might have had or the lecture he would give me over the telephone.
John, this work has informed you tremendously about the bigger picture, but in your view, what are the biggest challenges facing the United States and the world now?
So much of the world is connected, and many other nations and leaders face our challenges. Central to it has to be our political divisions and divides related to politics, media, etc. The inability to agree on a common set of facts and for us to see the many more things we have in common than divide us is central to my most significant concerns.
A third of the young people I survey believe this country will have a second Civil War. I’m not sure that’s necessarily different here than in other countries or continents. That goes back to my greatest interest: generational values and political attitudes. I found that the country is divided seemingly 50/50 but closer to 2/3 or 1/3. 1/3 of folks under 45, Millennials and Gen Z, have a particular point of view regarding where our priorities ought to be.
Also, about 2/3 or close to that number of people over 45 or 50 have very different views. That model and framework are things that we’ve seen throughout the West. For example, it is the same thing we saw in the UK around Brexit. We are seeing it up in Canada as well. Those are among the challenges and, therefore, the opportunities. As Mandela would do, listen across cultures or divides and try and find opportunities for unity. That’s what we need.As Mandela would do, we need to listen across divides and try to find opportunities for unity. Click To Tweet
Before we turn to that, I was struck by something in your book. You’ve alluded to the Millennials, and perhaps for our audience, can you define the Millennials’ generation? I know you refer to them as the tip of the spear for Gen Z, but how would you define Millennials or Gen Y demographically and psychographically? Why do you think they are the tip of the spear for Gen Z?
Gen Y or Millennials, roughly speaking for folks in the US, it doesn’t necessarily always translate to other parts of the world because it’s about a common set of experiences and current events during their formative years. Millennials are generally young people in America in their late 20s to 40 years old. The standard definition would be from 1981 to the mid-90s. Interestingly, there is little daylight between Millennials and Gen Zs on a series of political value statement typologies. There’s a lot that they have in common.
The difference is in terms of the role that they see themselves having in society, the role of government, their priorities, etc. The difference, though, is at this formative stage. Millennials (as I talked about Aaron, Trevor, and their cohort) were more focused on volunteerism and community service. They do not have the urgency their younger brothers and sisters and Gen Z have.
How they vote is essentially the same, but the difference is that Gen Z is much more politically active at an earlier age than Millennials. What’s fascinating is that in the next presidential election here in 2024, 40% of all the votes will be from these two emerging generations of Millennials. Essentially, they’re the sons and daughters of the Baby Boomers. I’ll vote for Baby Boomers in the next election. That’s a potent force. Whether you’re a political leader, a corporate leader, a nonprofit, an academic, etc., understanding these values and how to incorporate them into your work is essential.
I was also struck by something you shared about how they’ve connected the dots between politics and economics and how that’s impacted policy and systemic inequalities. Has that fueled the urgency of voting and making your vote count?
There’s this recognition to address systemic challenges. These aren’t issues. This isn’t just about the best way to pay for this or that program. There’s a recognition that the way capitalism is practiced is not providing the opportunities it should for every American working hard.
There is a recognition that the systemic challenges around policing, racism, and criminal justice are doing real damage to individuals, communities, etc. Also, systemic challenges around institutions and the influence of the elites in corporations, especially in this country. Therefore, they realize there’s an urgency to bring that change. They need to do more than just one thing. They need to use every one of these tools possible to create that change.
It also raises the question. Do you think American capitalism as we know it can survive? Secondly, what do you think Millennials and Gen Z are willing to do to influence how American capitalism is set up as a system?
I don’t think there’s any question it’s going to survive. It’s a question of how and what the modern form of capitalism looks like. One of the more striking moments in many years of the Harvard Youth Poll is a dozen years ago when I did a survey, and we focused on young people’s perceptions of labels and ideology. We asked a series of questions, including thoughts about capitalism, socialism, patriotism, and feminism. Various ideologies and labels exist, and the majority did not say they supported capitalism.
It still had a higher net support than socialism did. I thought that was a mistake. I did the poll again because sometimes, in 1 out of 20 polls, we’ll have some 5% sampling. I found that it wasn’t until we talked to Americans over the age of 50 that there was net support. I gave the definition. I did another survey. We shared the definition. When I shared the definition, support increased in the survey, which taught me that it’s a way in which it was being practiced that people were responding negatively towards.
The best explanation in terms of how we fix it or modernize it was by a young person. This young culture said that the problem with capitalism could be fixed if we had a partnership, perhaps between the two Roosevelts, Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, the two presidents. Teddy Roosevelt had a program called the Square Deal where he would use his authority and influence to break up monopolies to give young businesses and entrepreneurs an opportunity to succeed. They matched that with the New Deal with Franklin Delano Roosevelt building the social infrastructure. Those elements will be incorporated as Gen Z and Millennials become more active members of the government, banking, and finance sectors.
Turning to a human being whom we admire and respect enormously regarding his life, leadership, and legacy, Nelson Mandela, could you take us back to a ‘Mandela Moment’ for you? There must be many moments, but a moment that you recall. It could be an event, a speech, a book, a poem, or something that has inspired you and shaped the way you think now.
I was fortunate. I did not live in Boston, but I was close to Boston a year after graduating in 1990. We were allowed to be in the presence, along with 250,000 other members of our community in Boston, when Mandela came to Boston after being released from prison. I remember that almost like it was yesterday. I was working on my first or second political campaign not too far away.
I remember driving up and feeling like I was part of this global community for the first time. Back then, Boston was still a pretty divided place, but being part of this sea of humanity and having the opportunity to be in the presence of Mandela was such an inspiring moment. I began my political career and have committed to appreciating that big things can happen.
With patience and resilience, things you cannot imagine could happen. That was undoubtedly a pivotal moment in terms of my life and my career trajectory because someone like me is not getting paid a lot. You’re moving from town to town, working on campaigns, but to see it all connected and how much he meant to so many other people who shared in his struggle one way or another, it was such a gift to be a part of, in the same place at the same time.
How did you feel?
I was empowered and inspired. In college, I was interested in human rights. I was engaged in Amnesty International through pop culture and Arts Against Apartheid. (Editor’s note: Art Against Apartheid was an independent, multiracial, and politically diverse coalition of artists, cultural workers, students, and the broader community working in the USA, committed to democratic ideals and principles of racial equality.) I’ve been focusing on and understanding the issues but just to be there. I’m not sure I could envision what would happen a few years later regarding where he would go and where your country would go. I remember being part of that whole collective community of people impacted by one individual. I don’t think I’ve ever been part of something even since then.
That’s pretty remarkable. It talks about the possibility of this moment as well. In your working career, John, have you had a tough moment that has challenged you where you felt, “How am I going to get through this?” What has been that moment? Can you give us some context, and how was that for you at the time?
There are a lot of moments in both politics, like winning and losing. That’s always hard, especially in the earlier days when you’re younger and you put all of your effort into something. In addition to Harvard, I’ve got my own company, and that’s constantly challenging. My colleagues and I were very early adopters of social media and analytics to help provide additional insight in terms of some of the other work we’re doing.
I’d never had investors, and I spent a tremendous amount of our personal income to invest in some of these data tools and systems, etc. When Cambridge Analytica came, and Facebook ended up pulling back on all their data, it left me with millions of dollars of investment with nothing to show. That was a significant challenge.
Leveraging all of the profit from our company for many years into building these tools, believing that Facebook would do the right thing and abide by the terms of a five-year contract I had, but they pulled the plug within just a couple of days’ worth of notice because they saw that other hostile individuals of states were infecting their algorithms, etc. It could have killed my business. That was undoubtedly a significant challenge regarding how I needed to restructure things quickly.
What was the contract?
We were among the very first to access Facebook’s back-end data feed. That allowed us to see an anonymized firehose of what individuals were posting. I would see their gender, age, occupation, and their contents. From my business public opinion and my company SocialSphere, if I can identify what is so vital that someone will share it or post about it, it is a significant insight into how they think.
It provides a holistic view if you take that and then complement it with public opinion surveys and focus groups. Access to that firehose of data, there was a minimum five-year contract that we had signed with Facebook to provide us that access to data on a global basis. Again, to do that, we spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in systems, platforms, and infrastructure to collect, synthesize, report, and sell it to a variety of clients around the world.
We had clients around the world. We were seeing some activity that seems suspicious. We tried to make sense of it, but it was October 2016, right before the 2016 election. Cambridge Analytica was happening, and then we got a phone call. I remember exactly where I was when I got or ended the phone call. It took us a while to dig ourselves out of it and reposition the business.
What was the threat in 2016?
I don’t know why Facebook did it, but that also happened to be the time when Cambridge Analytica in the UK was involved in the US election. They were concerned. I sense that Facebook was concerned about sharing data that others like ourselves could prove was fictitious or false—also, the use of bot farms in Russia or others intent on providing misinformation and disinformation. My sense is that was their concern. Rather than giving access to others to help them figure this out, they ended it for everybody, us being the first. We are a small company doing some important and unique things in this space. It was extra incredibly damaging.
Also, very stressful for you, John. How did you navigate out?
It was very stressful. I had three kids close to college age or in college at that time, but I navigated out by going back to the core business and what we knew well, which was asking the right questions in the right way to the right people. We went back to entirely focusing on modernizing the classic form of opinion research.
You’ve done a masterful job, John. It’s pretty daunting. What supported you during that period?
I was always fortunate to have a lot of support. As you know, my wife Linda has always been the backbone of everything and our business. She gave up much of her original career to help care for our eldest son, Andrew. That changed her career. When we started the company, she was the finance, accounting, and legal backbone. Thankfully, that was huge. Also, the support of other employees and partners in the company to move forward and many great clients. It was hard because it was not the company or finances. It was all of these things at the same time.
You have a fantastic, formidable partner in Linda and make a remarkable team. It’s the best testament to your partnership as well. Let’s turn to some fun facts about you. What do you think your children would say they admire and appreciate most about you?
They probably appreciate how diligent I am and how curious and invested in what I do. I certainly know how hard they work in their young careers, and hopefully, they appreciate seeing that from Linda and me.
With the benefits of the remarkable work you’ve done with your learning, what would you say to your fifteen-year-old self?
Probably to have more confidence. One of the hard things is knowing when to trust your instincts and your gut when you look up to others who have been successful in different industries. I’ve learned the importance of trusting your gut and having confidence in being an innovator or seeing some innovation. Just because it hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean you can’t do it, or there’s a good reason why it hasn’t been done before. That’s an integral part of it. Have more confidence, trust your gut, and search for mentors who can round out some of your weaknesses or places where you see inefficiencies.One of the hard things is knowing when to trust your instincts and your gut when you look up to others who have been successful in different industries. Click To Tweet
You have fantastic art on your back wall. What is that animal?
It’s a ‘love rat.’ That is not an original Banksy because it would be worth millions if it did. (Editor’s note: Banksy is an England-based street artist, political activist, and film director whose real name and identity remain unknown. Active since the 1990s, his satirical street art combines dark humor and graffiti with unique stenciling techniques. Banksy art is featured on streets, walls, and bridges worldwide. It grew out of the Bristol underground, collaborations between artists and musicians.) One of the little things I picked up during COVID-19 was an appreciation for street art. That is from Barcelona, and there’s a piece from Ukraine, London, and others. A newfound hobby and interest of mine is appreciation. It’s connected to what I do. It’s giving people a voice. I try to give voice through the book, focus groups, and surveys, but this gives so many people a voice in this art.
Coming back to the leadership side, for you, in terms of the future of leadership, what do you think Mandela would say to our generation and the next? Do you think his leadership example is still relevant now?
There is zero question about that. To dig in, listen harder, not take no for an answer, and embed yourself into these communities that may not understand you or you may not understand them. One of the great lessons from Mandela is his constant interest in listening and understanding all sides of people’s concerns and seeing himself through other people’s eyes, etc. That’s a crucial lesson for today when there’s so much division and distrust. That’s one obvious thing for me, to be honest.
Do you think you would say that to our generation and the next?
Yeah. I’m sure that he would probably reprimand us. I could see him doing that. He has done that. He would implore us to help our children understand better because there’s this disconnect between what we think of our kids and the gaps between that and the day-to-day reality. I believe he would implore us to use this opportunity in terms of leadership, experience, networking, and ability to see things that the younger generations haven’t quite experienced yet. We should use those for good and spend more time helping elevate this generation more quickly into solving systemic challenges we all face regardless of where we’re from.
This is our final closing moment, John. What is your last message about the future of leadership and the role that Generation Z can play in the United States and the world?
I’m incredibly optimistic. There are undoubtedly near-term concerns for the instability worldwide and many different governments. However, if we could enable it, they would take advantage of it even if we didn’t. For the younger people to rise up and begin to take some responsibility. I see incredibly positive things in the future. They will redefine what it means to be happy and to be a member of the community.
How they measure progress will be how much money is in your income bank account and how happy you are. How much time do you have in your home, family, and community? That is where we’re headed. It’s imperative and incumbent upon all of us who are older to appreciate the struggles that they’ve seen. They haven’t seen our country or a few others united with a single purpose.It's incumbent upon all of us who are older to appreciate the struggles that the younger generation has seen. They haven't seen our country united with a single purpose. Click To Tweet
This is what they’re striving for. They’re fighting for those people who are more vulnerable than themselves and for the government to protect and provide opportunity for everybody regardless of where they’re coming from. Also to shrink the inequality that exists. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Suppose we approach this with a recognition of the trauma that they’ve dealt with and provide as many opportunities as they can to give them a seat at the table. In that case, it’s unnecessary to be in charge of everything but to be engaging and listening. That’s what the White House does so well in this country; others could also benefit from that regardless of the leadership positions folks are in.
John, thank you so much. You’re certainly a force for hope and change not only in your smaller communities but for this country, the United States, and the world. I’m looking forward to doing many more things together to build this collective movement worldwide. Thank you.
Talking to my friend, John Della Volpe, the Polling Director of Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, helps us rethink how democracy hangs in the balance in the USA and plays out in a world on edge. What is the big question, and what is the fight? If the question guides the answer, perhaps the bigger question is, “Will Gen Z help save democracy and America? Also, help protect a fragile World Order to stabilize the world?
As the democratic free world grapples with the ongoing democracy recession, 2024, like never before, shines a spotlight on the global state of democracy. 2024 sees 70 elections in countries involving 4.2 billion people. For the first time, more people and more than 50% of the global population can go to the polls. That does not necessarily mean more democracy. Many elections are not free nor fair.
In the United States of America, as the temperature rises, the fight is considered “an unpopularity contest” between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. The voters and the courts will cast their verdict on Donald Trump. Gen Z, a crucial Democratic voting block, may or may not tip the scales for Joe Biden. As fractures widen within the political parties on each side of the political divide, a September 2023 Pew Research Center survey shows a growing malaise and fatigue among American voters.
Sixty-five percent reported that they always or often feel exhausted. Fifty-five percent are typically driven by anger; 10% have frequent flashes of hope, and only 4% feel regularly excited. When asked to use a single word to describe American politics, ‘divisive,’ ‘corrupt,’ ‘messy,’ or ‘bad’ were all top of mind. Ultimately, the results will probably come down to a handful of votes, a few tens of thousands of votes, and a few swing states.
The American 2024 election is not simply a fight about policies, gun control, immigration, racial and environmental injustice, and income inequalities. Although those issues are important, the fight is a fight about ideology, autocracy versus democracy. As John illuminates, Gen Z, the Zoomers, born between the late 1990s and early 2000s, are more stressed, anxious, and depressed than previous generations.
Using their fear, passion, and heightened sense of urgency may well be the golden key to help save democracy and America. Significantly, the fight has substantive global consequences like climate policy, America’s geopolitical standing, ongoing support and aid for countries like Ukraine and Taiwan, and the war in the Middle East. As a world on edge has front-row seats waiting and watching the American 2024 election drama play out, the fight is bigger.
It begs a bigger question, “What fight is America fighting, and how can Gen Z be persuaded to tip the scales and help maintain a fragile World Order and greater world peace?”
Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices, and bold leadership is about taking bold action. Just one small step at a time, one step for you, but together a giant step for humanity. Take care and take thoughtful, bold action.
- Fight: How Gen Z Is Channeling Their Fear and Passion to Save America
- John Della Volpe
About John Della Volpe
John Della Volpe is Founder and CEO of SocialSphere. One of the world’s leading authorities on youth in politics, John has advised heads of state, Fortune 100 CEOs, military generals, athletes, and entertainers—currently serving as pollster and advisor to President Biden.
John has directed the Harvard Youth Poll for two decades, the most comprehensive study of youth attitudes related to politics and public affairs for Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. John’s best-selling book, Fight: How Gen Z Is Channeling Their Passion and Fear to Save America, has been called “the definitive account of America’s next great generation” and “a great read with a tremendous amount of learning for anyone engaging with the most exciting generation in decades.”
In 2008, John received an Eisenhower Fellowship, for which he traveled extensively throughout Asia (including a supervised day in North Korea). Additionally, John served on the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission on Media (2011); was named a “Future Legend of Marketing” by the Ad Club of Boston (2013); received the Arthur E. Hughes Award for Career Achievement from the University of San Diego (2018); and was appointed an SNF Ithaca Fellow at the Biden School of Public Policy & Administration at the University of Delaware (2022).
John appears regularly on Morning Joe and is an NBC and MSNBC Contributor; his essays are published in the New York Times and Washington Post.