Gen Z, Climate Change Activism, & Foreign Policy, with Tatiana Serafin

Oct 15, 2019

Generation Z makes up over 30 percent of the world's population and this group of people, most under the age of 20, are already having an extraordinary effect on society, culture, and politics. Tatiana Serafin, journalism professor at Marymount Manhattan College, breaks down the power of this generation, focusing on climate change activism. How can they turn their energy into concrete action?

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Weekly. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City.

This week’s podcast is with Tatiana Serafin. Tatiana is a journalist and a professor at Marymount Manhattan College and a member of the U.S. Global Engagement (USGE) working group at Carnegie Council.

Tatiana’s focus these days is on Generation Z and the influence that this huge group of people, most under the age of 20, are already having on society, politics, and culture, on a worldwide scale. We spoke in the days after Climate Week and the UN General Assembly in New York, so our talk centered on climate change activism. We also touched on the changes occurring in foreign policy and journalism.

Special thanks to Nikolas Gvosdev, Carnegie Council senior fellow and director of U.S. Global Engagement. He set up this talk and provided the framework for the discussion.

One more note—Wednesday October 16 is the sixth annual Global Ethics Day. Launched by Carnegie Council in 2014, Global Ethics Day is an opportunity for institutions to hold events to explore the essential role of ethics, and how we can strive to make the world better. For more, go to

Climate change is the biggest ethical issue in the world today so that makes this talk even more timely.

Here's my conversation with Tatiana Serafin.

Tatiana, thank you so much for coming. It's great to talk to you.


ALEX WOODSON: I want to start with the climate strike march on September 20. You attended that. If you could set the scene for people who weren't there, what was that like? What did you take away from it?

TATIANA SERAFIN: Absolutely. I wasn't sure what I would find on the climate strike. The mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, had encouraged students to go to the climate strike, but I wasn't sure what that meant: Were there going to be a lot of people? Was this going to be a small group?

I participated in two ways. I sent some of my students to the climate march to cover it as a news story for class, and I also went in my role as a Girl Scout troop leader with my daughter, who is 11, so we met up with the Girl Scouts, who promote the environment as a big issue. Already, you start to see that there's this young push for the environment.

When we got to Foley Square, there were so many more people than I thought. It was packed. There were signs everywhere—fun signs, serious signs; children as young as in a stroller with their parents; lots of teenagers; lots of different activist groups.

The climate strike itself had three agenda items, all of them focused on decreasing fossil fuel usage, helping transition to greener technologies, and holding these leaders accountable. So, there was that big focus for the climate strike itself. Then, there were all of these other groups there—voter registration groups, vegan groups to decrease the carbon footprint, all these different groups. It wasn't just the young people. There were also "Grannies for Greta," the hashtag on Twitter.

What I also found fascinating was that it was promoted to be a youth climate strike, but you saw parents like myself with their children; you saw older people. There was a huge mix of people, and the volume was tremendous. It took about an hour for us to get organized because the police actually weren't prepared for the volume of people, and they had to shut down the streets so that we could all go in an orderly fashion and march from Foley Square down to Battery Park. The march itself went down Broadway, and it was just so full of energy and people rallying in a way that was so inspiring because of the age of the kids that were there. It gave me a sense that there was an inspiration and a change and a shift that I don't know that many people in power are looking at or seeing.

Once we got down to Battery Park City, there was a series of speakers and performances by quite young activists, as young as 13. There was a girl who had lost her home—her home had been devastated by Hurricane Sandy—and that started her activism. She was 13, standing there on stage, Marisol Rivera. All of the students and activists who spoke were in their teens, and it was really inspiring to see how eloquent and passionate they were about the environment in a way that showed this idea that it's not just the United States. This wasn't a U.S. climate strike is what I want to stress, it was a global climate strike.

There were people there representing and talking about Bangladesh, a young activist talking about her family in Bangladesh and how they had to move and come here to the United States; there were indigenous dancers from Brazil speaking about what is going on in the Amazon. It was really and truly a global perspective on the climate change that, aside from the number of people there, I found inspiring and that I also don't think was covered as much.

Once we were there, the numbers started to come through, that there may have been 60,000 to 250,000 people participating, and not just in New York City but all over the world.

ALEX WOODSON: Yes, millions.

TATIANA SERAFIN: All over the world. I have to say, though, the superstar moment was when Greta came onstage. I haven't seen anything like it. I've been to many concerts and many rallies. I have never seen anything like it. The crowd started to chant, "Greta! Greta! Greta!" It was amazing.

The amount of energy and passion that she inspires, which I also think should be looked at—this one individual was not speaking from a national point of view but a global point of view about an issue that so many people were passionate about. It was truly a wonderful day to be a part of this issue that I think is a big turning point.

ALEX WOODSON: I want to talk a little bit more about Greta because it's amazing. She's 16 now. She started the climate strikes a little over a year ago in Sweden. It has grown into this gigantic thing with, as you said, millions of people marching all over the world. What is it about Greta and this idea that has been so successful, that has been different than other attempts at this type of activism?

TATIANA SERAFIN: Two things I'd like to say are different about Greta and how she has been able to achieve what she has been able to achieve on this particular issue. The first is the power of Generation Z (Gen Z). It is a group that sometimes may be misidentified with Millennials and lumped together but is truly a separate generational group with different desires and expectations and is growing.

ALEX WOODSON: What is Gen Z exactly? As you said—and I think it's true—they sometimes get misidentified with Millennials. When does Gen Z start? What are the parameters there?

TATIANA SERAFIN: In general, between the Census Bureau and the United Nations, the new generation started being born in 1996-97, distinct from Millennials, and it grows to 2010–12. That's the parameter that we're looking at.

These are the first to be digital native. They grew up knowing screens. They're not wedded to television, neither MSNBC or Fox News Channel. They don't participate in that. They get their news digitally via social media, and they connect via social media. I don't just mean Facebook. Every few years I see a difference. Today it's Instagram and TikTok; tomorrow it might be something different, the point being that these digital platforms are not nation-specific.

In fact, if you look at the world, there are nine dominant players—six are U.S. and three are Chinese. I think we need to be looking at this—part two—at the tech giants. So, it's the generational divide and the tech divide that we need to talk about when we look at why this was effective.

Generationally, Gen Z promotes community. Because of this borderless world that they live in digitally, they mostly identify with their age group, but it doesn't matter to them where this person falls. When you look at digital sites like Refinery 29 or Mic, I like to see what categories they have in their masthead to see how they're covering ideas. They have categories like "community" and "identity," which is not something that The New York Times has. The New York Times has a traditional masthead—business, arts—and I think these companies need to be looking at the ways that this new generation is thinking. Gen Z is a little over 30 percent of the global population of people.

ALEX WOODSON: That's amazing.

TATIANA SERAFIN: When you combine it with Millennials, which is another 30 percent, they represent 60 percent of the global population today, in 2019. That's an incredible mass of people who are thinking very differently from Gen X, which is what I'm part of, or Baby Boomers, which is what people tend to focus on in their reporting, and I think there's a huge opportunity—we'll move on to news maybe in a little bit—for reporting to get better on Gen Z global issues.

But they think very differently about community, and they care about the world in a different way. In a recent McKinsey survey, three out of four Gen Zers said that they care about world and global affairs, but we're not reaching them with the information that they're looking for because they look at it in different buckets, not in, "Oh, I'm in France," or "I'm in Italy."

For example, I'll give you an app, because they live on apps: Depop is this app that started in Milan, is now in London, and is now in New York, of young people selling their clothes. It's not eBay. It's Depop. Not many people know about it, but it has exploded.

The kinds of people that they're hiring—because I also look at hiring categories; where are Gen Zers wanting to go?—the titles are "community engagement," "activist." These are the titles that Gen Zers are going to. I think one of the reasons why the climate change movement took off is that there is this groundswell of looking at life differently, globally, and at issues that impact them ethically.

Part two, of course, is that digital side, that they aren't separated from other people because Facebook is everywhere, Google is everywhere, YouTube is everywhere, and that they're able to communicate quickly. Climate change took off so fast. People put up websites, people started organizing, and everything was done online. This was not done through print; this was not done through television. Everything was done online.

ALEX WOODSON: Nick Gvosdev—the director of U.S. Global Engagement at Carnegie Council—set this up for us, so you have to talk about foreign policy, which is his area of focus.

Everything that you just said is a great rundown of Gen Z. I think there's a lot of new information there for people, definitely for me. How do you see this impacting foreign policy? Are politicians, policymakers, starting to notice this group of 30 percent of the world's population? How is this playing into policy now and maybe into the future as well?

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that we're only at the beginning of it. If you look at, for example, in the United States at the Democratic nominees for president, some of them have climate change platforms if you look at their position statements. Some are better than others. Of course, you have the Green New Deal in Congress with Ocasio-Cortez, and that's getting a lot of support from Gen Z and activists.

But I think we're only at the tip of the iceberg. I think change has not been manifested in the policy realm, but I think that we're at this cusp where change has to come because the voting bloc is growing. In 2016, 4 percent of Gen Zers were able to vote; in 2020, 10 percent will be able to vote. So, one in ten eligible voters will be Gen Zers. I think that increase is significant. It's similar for Millennials. You put those two voting blocs together when they are focused on a particular issue, and I think that will lead policymakers to notice and to make changes.

Right now I think we're just at the beginning of it, but I do think you see the change coming because the level of activism is so much greater, and I think activism begets activism. We're talking a lot about climate change and the climate strikes and the protests and the Green New Deal, but there is also the side where you see teacher strikes that started last year and have increased.

The idea of strikes has sort of come back in vogue on many different issues, and education is one of the other priorities that Gen Zers have, in particular. And we hear it with Bernie Sanders—the college costs and him offering free education for all, depending on how it's going to come forward planning-wise.

The issues of the Gen Zers are being talked about, perhaps not in so much policy-prescriptive ways. We don't have the policies down yet, but we have the acknowledgement that if you look at some surveys, you see climate change is their number one priority, followed by immigration, followed by gun reform, followed by education, and actually—believe it or not—foreign policy makes its way into the top 10. I think that's because of what I stated in the beginning, that Gen Z wants to know about global affairs. Three out of four of them want to have more information. It's just not currently being packaged to them by politicians or by the news media.

ALEX WOODSON: One thing that Nick has written about that I think is interesting is that as Gen Zers and maybe as Millennials, too, get into more powerful positions in Congress and wherever else, you're going to see different international alliances. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) might not be so important in the future, you might see more alliances between the United States and Latin America. Another thing that he wrote about was you might see a green alliance come together of countries that have fighting climate change as their focus. Are those some areas that you see policy developing as well?

TATIANA SERAFIN: Yes. I think when you look at the demographics of Gen Z, they're the most diverse demographic ever, Hispanics, African Americans, you see all populations increasing. They are the most diverse, and I think that is why it will lead them to different alliances.

Even what we saw at the climate change talks, all the people standing up there were absolutely from diverse backgrounds that transcended boundaries. They were here in New York City, but they were talking about Bangladesh, Brazil, and Colombia—this idea that this problem is not nation-specific, it is a global problem. This is a different way of talking about an issue and allows, I think, not only countries to take a leading position but allows perhaps activist groups, more non-governmental organizations—

At the United Nations I also took my students to the start of the United Nations [General Assembly], and there were many, many climate strikers standing in front of the United Nations starting on Monday, [September 23] protesting coal-fired plants. Grannies for Greta were back there and many people. I think what you see is this idea that this is not a national issue, that a nation can possibly lead with, because it's a global problem and we have to somehow find a different paradigm.

Greta loves to talk about "out of the box" thinking. Whenever you see an interview with her, she keeps stressing that the current framework that we have in international relations is not able to fix the problem, that you have to think outside the box. She has been, on an individual level, one of the greatest proponents. In one year—she started off one year ago in August by herself in front of the Swedish Parliament. Look how far she has been able to come.

ALEX WOODSON: When you talk about something like the Green New Deal, you're talking about these major policy changes that could happen. That makes some people nervous and makes some people scared.

I wonder, Gen Z must understand—Greta definitely understands that when she's saying these things she's making people nervous, she's making powerful people very scared of maybe the power of her constituency. Maybe it's not their job, but how can Gen Z bridge that gap between all their energy and new ideas, and people who are a little older—Millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers—who aren't ready to throw the status quo out the window?

TATIANA SERAFIN: I have two answers, and I think they're both very interesting. Let's start out small. When I was at the United Nations with my students, there were actually many older activists from West Virginia fighting against a coal-fired plant being built. In that way, I do think it's seeping into many other groups.

I think what Greta has done is smart. As part of her platform, her second position is the ability to transfer skills to renewable energy. She recognizes—and the climate strike protestors and the activists recognize—that there will be many displaced workers. So, what do we need to do? We have to focus on giving them new skills. That's a big push in this economy, too. If you look at the changes in the economy from a tech perspective with robots coming in, many jobs are going to be lost. It's not just climate change that's going to lose; it's the tech revolution.

How do you fix it? You train people in new areas, and so their big push is training people in renewable energy and providing more subsidies to build windmills, and focus on solar and these other opportunities where you can place your energy and resources. In that way I think they've been very smart because they rebut the arguments of those who say, "We're going to lose jobs."

ALEX WOODSON: You're a journalist. You teach media studies. Is that correct?

TATIANA SERAFIN: I teach journalism, political reporting, media law and ethics.

ALEX WOODSON: You mentioned this in one of your answers before—how is the media covering Gen Z? What are they doing right? What are they doing wrong? Where should they be focusing their energies when they're covering this huge population?

TATIANA SERAFIN: Two answers. I think that the legacy papers and platforms aren't quite there with their Gen Z coverage. They are at a default in coverage because there has been so much business struggle, with ad revenues down and how do you get subscribers. They're not quite there in trying to get at this new generation, who reads completely online; who likes short-form articles; who prefers video over long-form.

In a way, even for myself, I often say, "Oh, my gosh! You have to read more." It's not that Gen Zers don't like to read. It's that to get stories to them, they have to be fast, they have to be snappy, they have to get to the point, and I don't think that the legacy players are there yet.

There are some digital-native startups like Axios that are doing great because their stories are in bullet form, so you get the point right away. Then there are the Vices and the Refinery29s of the world that are really focused on that audience and understand their focus on identity and community.

One of the best—and this happened in 2016, and they continue to do great coverage—places to look at political coverage focused on Gen Z is Teen Vogue. They are doing such great reporting and such great work because they really understand their audience. For legacy publications and platforms, they're not there yet.

In addition, I don't think that they're approaching the idea of foreign affairs and foreign policy reporting in a way that is accessible to Gen Z. To people who do not see boundaries, the focus on just reporting the story from, "Oh, this happened in Egypt," or "This happened in Australia"—how does that connect to people here, because there are way more connections than people are addressing in the media. I feel that there's a great lack.

For climate, there was an initiative that is up to 300 people now who are part of #coveringclimatenow, and they've gotten together different organizations under that hashtag to write specific climate stories and to promote climate coverage. They say that in part—this is the reason that climate coverage is now the number two trending coverage behind unfortunately what's going on with the impeachment. If there was no impeachment, they believe that climate would be the number one covered topic because of this hashtag and these organizations getting together to improve climate coverage.

That may be a model for news organizations to follow: create a hashtag for immigration or gun control that, then, different organizations can collaborate under and build stories for this generation.

ALEX WOODSON: You have an 11-year-old daughter, as you mentioned. You teach college students. What comes next for them? The climate strike has been hugely successful as a protest movement, but there needs to be something more if they're really going to change the world, if they're really going to make changes to fight climate change.

What comes next for people as young as 11 years old, for people 18, 19, 20, who might be about to enter the workforce? How are they going to keep the momentum going?

TATIANA SERAFIN: Here in the United States, 2020. That's all I have to say. I think that we are going to see a huge amount of grassroots mobilization. You already see it.

The amount of voter registration is up. The amount of students I have voting in 2019 in local elections—here in New York City, for example, we have public advocate, we have judge elections. The amount of students understanding and getting involved on a local level is very inspiring, and I think they know that their strike has to lead to action, and action equals the ballot box. I think 2020 is going to mobilize a lot of this activity.

On younger levels, you see a lot of activity with youth organizations. My perspective on Girl Scouts is they are promoting the environment in ways big and small, from cleaning up beaches to the things that they can do, to working with organizations like Greening Greenpoint and planting more trees. Even on an "I'm 11 and I can't vote for another seven years" level, you can actually physically do something to help the environment, and many youth-focused organizations are promoting that.

By the way, I have to mention there's a lot of momentum to change the voting age to 16, which will be huge.

ALEX WOODSON: What's the thinking behind changing the voting age to 16? What's wrong with 18?

TATIANA SERAFIN: Primarily you see a lot of younger students saying, "Why can't we vote? What is the distinction between 16 and 18," to answer back your question, precisely for that reason. What's the difference?

They are getting licenses and saying, "I can drive; why can't I vote?" There is this whole Vote16 movement, and different states have taken it up in small ways so that you can register to vote when you're 17, so when you hit 18 you're ready to go. They're taking baby steps. No state has actually approved the 16, but there's a big push for that.

ALEX WOODSON: Interesting. I hadn't thought about that.

I think that's about all I have as far as questions. Is there anything else that you wanted to touch on or speak about?

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think since we mentioned 2020, my parting comment would be that at the end of every decade there seems to be this movement of change. What we saw in the last decade unfortunately was the financial crisis, but it led to lots of change. There was and has been talk of a recession. Now that seems to have ebbed, but we don't know, with trade or whatnot.

I think there's a definitely rise and a definite change as we enter a new decade. I think it's not going to be the U.S. decade; it's going to be a global decade, and we need to look outside of our borders and support how Gen Z is looking at the world.

ALEX WOODSON: Great. Thank you so much.

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