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My generation might vote, but we have little hope for change

I was 10 months old when the planes hit the Twin Towers.

I was a year old when the U.S. invaded Iraq; 4 when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the South; 6 when modern social media was beginning; 8 during the 2008 recession; 9 when Barack Obama was inaugurated; 10 when Osama Bin Laden was  killed; 11 when Trayvon Martin was murdered, and when the Aurora movie theater was shot up; 12 when a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary, and when the Boston Marathon was bombed; 15 when Trump was elected and Pulse Nightclub was attacked; 17 during the Parkland, Florida shooting; 19 when a pandemic was declared, George Floyd was suffocated by Chauvin and a surge in BLM protests followed, and Biden and Harris were elected; 20 when the Capitol was breached; 21 when U.S. COVID-19 deaths reached a million, Buffalo and Uvalde fell victim to mass shootings, Roe v. Wade was threatened by SCOTUS, climate change reached a point of virtually no return, and Russia invaded Ukraine.

My childhood — kicked off by the nation's worst nightmare and defined by the consequent shift in American morale — rarely got a break from a nation-altering occurrence that was overwhelming even for adult minds.

I practiced active shooter drills beginning in elementary school. None of us knew what they were for. We would be quietly scolded for making noise, whether it was stifled giggling or just innocent kid behavior. The principal would announce the end of the drill, and we'd return to our times tables unaware of why we needed to avoid the windows and lock the door.

Lest our little bodies be pulverized by an AR-15 while we sang the days of the week.

I am not proclaiming that mine and my peer's experiences with world-changing history are unique. I often face criticism when speaking about the global atmosphere and how I believe it shaped the young population: "Try living through a World War, or buying a house in the recession," they'll scoff. It's a strawman meant to unjustly project naivety onto us. To remind us that, apparently, only longevity matters when it comes to life experience — not the content and frequency of what our developing brains have been forced to grapple with.

My grandmother is in her 90s: born into the Great Depression and brought up during WWII, Vietnam, and a host of critical 20th century developments. Following almost every recent incident, she's claimed that, in her long life, she has never witnessed something like it.

And then adults wonder why young people often have little hope for this nation, and for this world.

The reason: the landslide of horror seems never-ending, and the prognosis for change is grim. Those "above" us have and continue to fail us — especially minority youth, who face the brunt of the imposed hate and fear.

How can we hold on to hope if there's nothing to inspire us to?

I spoke to several members of my generation about this. Most of them aren't very optimistic.

Many of them still vote: in fact, according to a 2021 Tufts University analysis, 50 percent of 18–29-year-olds voted in the 2020 election — but not ambitiously. In 2022, 36 percent of youth believe that "political involvement rarely has tangible results;" 42 percent don't think their vote makes any difference, a study by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School concludes.

I believe the main culprits for this drop in confidence are repeatedly broken promises made by candidates and office holders to the upcoming generation. Biden, for example, based a portion of his campaign on partial relief from student loan debt and a plan for reducing carbon emissions. We know that campaign promises are usually bait for constituents, but after the Trump administration, many young adults couldn't help but hold onto hope that the previous disasters would be amended by Biden. We were hesitant to trust because we've been burned before, but we showed up and cast our ballots for Biden anyways.

Well, now we're being torched. 

Bernie Sanders was a favored candidate for my demographic; his lifelong devotion to improving living conditions for the common American mirrored a popular sentiment among millennials and Gen Z. Sanders' socialist-leaning pursuits reverberated among newbie voters. It was a long shot, but some — including myself, who selected Sanders on my primary ballot — truly believed he would stand a chance against Trump in 2016 since his ideals — medicare for all, student loan forgiveness and free public college/trade education, a Green New Deal, and social justice/police reform — were praised by a large proportion of American youth. I imagine his nomination would attract an even larger turnout at the polls.

But, not to much shock, Sanders announced the end of his campaign, and Biden — the safest option — won the primary election. And yet again, the young voter was only a pawn in securing power for the Democrats.

I voted in 2020 because I felt like I should. I didn't have much confidence in either candidate, but I did have a burning hatred for Trump, so Biden it was. For my liberal, democratic, Trump-despising and government-distrusting friends, it was a similar deal. For the previous four years, our outlook on the future suffered more than ever. It was a hot time for intense protests, but nothing came of them. Previous administrations' achievements were constantly rescinded. The pandemic was the straw that broke the Gen Zer's back.

My generation tends to vote because they understand the consequences of not doing so (look at voter turnout in 2016 compared to 2020) — there's little assurance that their ballots contribute to anything but political posturing.

One teenager I talked to unenthusiastically responded, "Why not?" when I inquired why he was planning on heading to the polls.

This wasn't an uneducated, uncaring young man. This was a high schooler who was highly interested in politics and international relations. He understands — on his own accord — global politics better than I, and probably many adults older than both of us. And yet, he expects nothing. He's desensitized.

"It's the one thing we are given the choice to do."

"I had to grow up and figure out that the military doesn't actually protect our 'freedom,' and that the government isn't here to protect us either," said another person I talked with.

We are used to not being listened to. And being dismissed. And denigrated.

And abandoned.

What will you leave behind when you're dead and gone? A dying planet? A dilapidated economy? A petrified education system? An out-of-control police state?

We are grasping at the fraying thread of hope, and yet, a large number of young people still vote in a system that ignores us. Because if we don't, even less effort will be devoted to helping us out, or even believing us.

So, before you blame us for our apathy, reflect on your own.

Sarah Sylvester, a resident of East Lyme, is a senior-to-be at McGill University. She is an editorial intern for The Day.

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