Who needs anger management? Dismissing young engagement

At the World Economic Forum in early 2020, President Trump was asked about teenage activist Greta Thunberg. Should politicians listen to her more, recognize and act on climate change? His reply? She needed to work on her “anger management.” And: “How old is she now?” He then commented on her cover of Time Magazine (“she beat me out”) and said she should focus on countries that pollute more than the U.S. does.

This was typical of Trump – he’d tweeted about her anger before – but really, it’s typical of the adult world responding to young people’s political engagement. Other contemporary youth-dominated movements like March for Our Lives or Black Lives Matter are similarly dismissed. Paradoxically enough, responses can be quite childish. Thunberg is too angry, young, and popular, not to mention the whataboutism. And while most activists understand that antagonism is part of the political game, it’s relevant for those of us interested in how people in general become politically engaged. What does such dismissiveness or even ridicule mean for the development and motivation of young citizens?

Young people become targets of our hopes for the future, yet are often considered silly, cynical, apathetic or conversely, overly emotional or annoyingly idealistic. But citizenship norms shift. While modern era citizen ideals echo those of the good student, who does as they were told, keeps quiet and trusts in authority and “the system,” these ideals are increasingly questioned: were citizens ever really that well behaved, and is that what we really want?

Whether it be the issues or ways they engage, young citizenship is studied persistently, prodded and policed at times, in different fields of research. The threat of losing young people to political apathy seems to co-exist with an essentialist dismissiveness based on their supposed naïveté or inexperience. When we lament how they engage – through citizen journalism, political entertainment, social media, or slacktivism, movement and identity politics – we might need to focus more on understanding why these might be preferred, and why we are so instinctively skeptical.

And in this process, factor in that age links to generational privilege and election politics. Born 1996 or later, “Generation Z” is more diverse and educated than previous generations. In the short-run, however, they’re especially hit by pandemic unemployment and uncertainty. According to the Pew Research Center, July marked a shift: more than half of 18-29-year-olds now live with their parents, surpassing Great Depression levels. In the longer run another important marker of adulthood, becoming financially independent, is shifting globally. Pew notes that in the U.S., the rate of financially independent 22-year-olds has dropped from 32 percent in 1980, to 24 in 2018. Such factors potentially influence young people’s political efficacy – their belief in “the system” and themselves.

In March, 70 percent of Gen Z said government “should do more to solve problems.” Often, the issues concerning Gen Z and Millennials aren’t addressed in campaigns – further explaining their engagement in media and movements that do. My work on young adult satire engagement exposes an uneasy citizen negotiating between political criticism and idealism, performance anxiety and self-ascribed naïveté and cynicism. As Nina Eliasoph wrote in 1998, political or economic disenfranchisement can encourage “cynical chic solidarity,” where individuals distance themselves from politics to protect integrity. It signals “that they have not been fooled into wasting their time on something they cannot influence and cannot be held responsible for whatever happens.” Protecting integrity through various kinds of impression management is increasingly important in (and at) an age where identity is everything, and large parts of what we do or say is archived and searchable online.

Contemporary expressions of young adult engagement can be understood as symptomatic of the state of political efficacy. For instance, the use of irony and trolling in memes and satire can provide pleasure, protect integrity and efficacy, while processing opinions, trust, and criticism. During the 2020 marathon vote count, memes referencing topics like Trump’s “STOP THE COUNT!” tweet, the role of the media, or the election’s worldwide attention flooded online spaces.

There is reason to believe we sometimes lack the ability to separate young people’s lacking efficacy and criticism from cynicism or apathy. The ancient Greek distinction between cynics (fatalistic, disengaged) and kynics (subversive, critically engaged) is helpful in understanding young engagement. As we keep forgetting, young people are growing up in a world we created. When adults dismiss or ridicule their actual engagement, and simultaneously ignore the context they find themselves in, it’s not exactly encouraging.

This might be though: two days after the election, Greta Thunberg satirically engaged Trump on Twitter. Mirroring his recurring anger management comment, she retweeted his “STOP THE COUNT!” adding: “So ridiculous. Donald must work on his Anger Management problem (…) Chill Donald, Chill!”