Beginning this month, cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer will feature work from a rotation of community columnists, each of whom will tell the stories of our region through their unique prism. This is the introductory column of Maple Buescher.
To be young is inherently to be in a position of flux: Psychologists identify the “age of instability” as one of the five hallmarks of emerging adulthood. To be young in 2022, however, is to be experiencing that time of personal instability at a moment when it feels like the entire world is quivering on a precipice.
As we enter 2022, the world is curious about its future, in every possible way. From climate to culture, Americans are engaging in debates about what the future will look like. What do we need to do to prevent climate collapse in 50 years? What role should race and gender play in tomorrow’s society? As we hope to loosen the clench of the pandemic that has defined the past two years, how do we move forward?
In those discussions, young people are invoked with startling frequency. From the climate to gun control to antiracism, the rhetoric often centers around children and youth, who will be affected by these policies and who will, more importantly, live in the world they produce. But we are more often talked about than talked to; young people are strikingly underrepresented in government. As the world looks to its future, the discussion is dominated by people who will not be around to experience it.
I am here to be a voice for the people who will.
My name is Maple Buescher, and I am currently 18 years old. I am a freshman at Bates College in Maine and a proud 2021 graduate of Cleveland Heights High School. This fall, I voted in my first election for my local school board officials. I am considering a major in English, with the ultimate goal of going into journalism. Most notably, of course, I am a young adult figuring out my path through the world, as the world figures out how to hold itself together.
I am not alone. My generation is a curious one, and we have a lot in common. Our perspectives on current events, on social issues, and on the future are intensely affected by the world we are growing up in—one of limitless communities, floods of information, divisive politics, instant gratification, and intense connectedness.
One of the most defining features of my generation is that so much of what is being termed “unprecedented” and “anomalous” is, to us, simply the only world we’ve ever known. I began paying close attention to national politics when I was 13 years old; that year was 2016, when the United States faced a viciously polarizing election. I know from history books that politics in America wasn’t always as contentious as it was under Donald Trump, but I have no memory of such a time. Similarly, my classmates and I have done active shooter drills since kindergarten. To fathom a world where school shootings don’t exist is, to us, an exercise in imagination.
The list goes on: I was born after the American invasion of Afghanistan, and until last summer none of my peers had experienced a world where the United States was not at war. Black Lives Matter was established as an organization when I was 10 years old and has been an intrinsic part of the world as far back as I can remember. I applied to colleges while the world shut down to protect our most vulnerable people from a global pandemic, doing virtual tours from my bedroom. I have no memory of a pre-Internet world: Students from my sister’s school organized a walkout, protesting the school’s handling of sexual assault cases, entirely over Instagram, I’ve signed petitions thanks to TikTok activists, and I keep in touch with friends who live on multiple continents on a daily basis, thanks to Snapchat.
The impact of my generation’s worldviews is significant. Nearly half of us say that we are worried about a mass shooting occurring within our community—more than twice as much as Baby Boomers. Likewise, two-thirds of people under 30 support the BLM movement, compared with less than half of those over 50. And a third of Gen Z says the pandemic’s impact was “extremely negative” psychologically, compared to just 6% of the Silent Generation. It is undeniable: We see the world in a unique light, because we are coming of age in a time when none of it seems to make sense.
If any of this sounds unusual, strange, or flatly unthinkable—well, that’s why I’m here.
Perhaps you haven’t heard directly from students who graduated in 2021 about what it means to go to school online. But amidst debates about online schooling, those voices are crucial. Perhaps you haven’t heard from high school and college students attending school amidst debates about antiracist education. But the voices of students experiencing such education matter as curricula becomes law. Perhaps you haven’t heard from avid TikTok or Instagram users about what the prevalence of social media means. But in an age when activism and community develop and flourish online, the voices of those users are as important as the voices of the statisticians measuring quantitative effects. Or perhaps you simply haven’t heard directly from young people about why we’re less likely to want kids, why we are likely to marry later (if we marry at all), and why we’re more likely to support policies like student loan forgiveness. But since Gen Z will soon make up a significant portion of the voting bloc, those sentiments are significant.
I am here to be one voice from among the diverse crowds that make up each of those communities.
I am here to be a voice for more than that, of course; and I am, after all, just one voice. While generational similarities exist, Gen Z is not a monolith, and it is not a definition. If you ask me who I am, I’ll tell you that I’m a college student, a literature fanatic, a violinist, a reader, a writer, a sailor, a sister and daughter and friend, before I tell you that I’m a member of Gen Z. I do not at all intend to write about issues that solely affect teenagers and young adults, nor do I claim to speak for all of us. I, like everyone, am my own multifaceted person.
And despite the gloom and doom that has defined much of our adolescence (and much of this column), I and the members of my generation are still young, and mostly still optimistic about our futures. We are not all nihilists fearing the end of days. We are looking ahead to the future with bright eyes, with clasped hands, and with limitless possibilities in mind. We are a generation of activists, of thinkers, and of dreamers. We, like most of America, are gazing toward the future. And while we’re no more sure than the rest of the country where we’ll end up, we are all intent on getting there. I intend to be here to chronicle it as we figure it all out.
You can reach columnist Maple Buescher at firstname.lastname@example.org.