The Purposeful is Political: Gen Zs and Politics

By Edward Kipkalya

The pursuit for youth participation in governance, politics and other developmental processes is an increasing global concern. The youth in Kenya have been marginalized and excluded from political leadership since independence. This has placed the youth at the periphery of decision-making. The promulgation of the 2010 Kenyan Constitution entrenched several solid wins for the youth. Various articles recognized youth as a historically disadvantaged group and specifically put responsibility on duty bearers to take measures to enhance equitable access to socio-economic and political opportunities. Other downstream pieces of legislation which were enacted to give effect to the constitution also lay out measures that are aimed at limiting the potential of disenfranchising youths in different spheres of life.

However, this narrative slightly changed in 2013 when Kenyans elected the highest number of young women and men in leadership ever in the history of Kenya both at the national and county level – one governor, five Senators, twenty-three Members of Parliament (MPs), and three hundred and three Members of County Assembly (MCAs). 2022 has however, not been as smooth for those who expressed interest to vie for political offices, especially through political parties whose primaries were marred by some irregularities.

Based on the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s audited register, there are 22,120,458 Kenyans eligible to participate in the forthcoming August 9 elections out of which 8,812,790 are youth, representing 39.8 per cent of the registered voters. This is a decline of 5.3 per cent, when compared to 2017 poll data. Majority of the new voters are Gen Z (people born between 1996 and 2010) – also known as iGeneration (iGen).

Youth make up 39.8% of total registered voters in Kenya

IEBC, 2022

Whereas most people are quick to call Gen Zs the “lazy” or “self-obsessed” generation, that same mentality plagues people’s thought process of assuming that Gen Z groups are disinterested in politics.

According to the World Values Survey, political activity has stayed the same since 1981 and the same study showed that Gen Z is even more politically active than most generations when you include the data of the current generation’s involvement in political protests and rallies. A keener look at this research shows that we have been asking the wrong question for too long. The question mostly asked has been, why Gen Zs are so disinterested in politics. The right question to ask in my view should instead be, why are Gen Zs are so disinterested in voting. Over time, Gen Zs have been accused of being selfish and inconsiderate on account of their disinterest in voting. But the holders of this position have refused to acknowledge one legitimate concern harboured by Gen Zs – that half the time the candidates who present themselves for election into positions of public trust do not carry, understand, or even genuinely espouse the needs of this very critical constituency.

The assumption that Gen Zs do not care about matters to do with political participation, civic engagement or public affairs has been attributed to their ‘short attention span’.  However, it is important to note that Gen Zs act when they are outraged, when they feel personally affected or when they feel robbed of their future and their freedoms by the older generation that is currently in power. In Kenya, for example, we are seeing more and more young people calling public attention to the issues they care about, insisting that their demands are met. In our increasingly digitized, secular, and ideologically polarized era, Gen Z has overwhelmingly turned to political activism in their search for meaning, audience, and answers.

Nationally, we continue to see an evident lack of diversity when it comes to the voices speaking across our political systems, lack of trust in institutions, and very little political momentum or political will to significantly change the way things have historically been done. Whereas Gen Z has seen the same short-term decisions made by the same types of political leaders, challenging the status quo to deliver the kind of solutions that will bring transformational change and accelerate progress, Gen Z needs to ensure that political institutions truly represent them. I have no doubt that Gen Z has the energy, knowledge and creativity needed to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems.

In a few years, Gen Z will disrupt the political equation. This includes youth as aggressive political actors in the years yonder. It is neither something to be feared nor celebrated, especially among the Gen Z. On their shoulder lies a great responsibility to brand new politics, new (positive) disruption for the world they would want to inherit. According to a report by Thunes, a digital service company, Gen Zs are set to be the most educated generation and will make up 27% of the world’s workforce by 2025. Going by this data, it is my considered opinion that they will equally be a political force to reckon with by the same time, whether directly or indirectly.

Gen Z will make up 27% of the world’s workforce by 2025

Thunes, 2022

To this end, the Governance & Civic Engagement program at Emerging Leaders Foundation-Africa seeks to amplify the voice and equip young women and men (including Gen Z) with the knowledge and skills, values and networks required to participate in effectively, meaningfully, and confidently, and influence governance and policy processes across the multiple spaces they occupy. This is done both on virtual and offline platforms, at national and county levels, to the public or private sector.

As a Kenyan youth, I am optimistic that the youth of Kenya will one day claim their meaningful role as equal partners in the development process. Tunahusika kwa sababu Tunaweza!

The writer is currently the Program Officer in charge of Governance & Civic Engagement at Emerging Leaders Foundation – Africa (www.elfafrica.org). You can connect with him via Twitter: @Edward_Kalya

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