Generation Z — which includes those born between 1997 and 2012 — has been arguably more publicly active at an earlier age on global concerns than any previous generation. The next generation is active on issues from gun control to LGBTQ rights and education – but they’re probably best known for sacrificing Fridays for a more environmentally friendly planet. Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neubauer, and Jamie Margolin have made it their priority to pressure the international community to take action against climate change.
While not as publicly demonstrative, some research findings suggest that this new generation also holds strong opinions on foreign policy, war, and even nuclear weapons.
The one difference? The opinions on all-things nuke-related are much more polarized.
I developed an experimental survey for my dissertation (approved by the ethics Institutional Review Board) that explores causal mechanisms of Israeli and US public support for the use of nuclear weapons, and the factors that influence individuals’ willingness to ascribe to a normative taboo. My pilot study, with respondents from the University of Central Florida, has given me some early insights.
Independent of the psychological treatments (the core of the survey), I added a last-minute ‘explorative’ survey component: “Are there any other thoughts, comments, or concerns about the above topics (airstrikes, Iran, nuclear weapons) that you would like to share?”. Although the sample size is small (99) and external factors such as the politics of the region and demographics of the group impact the survey results, they are still valuable for a broader understanding.
With a few outliers born before 1997, 95% of respondents were Gen Z. The answers from the students were quite complex and ranged from favoring nuclear deterrence and the protection of the American homeland, to advocating nuclear disarmament, to highlighting the human costs of the use of atomic bombs, to expressing concern over Iran’s nuclear path. For example:
- “If the United States were to be attacked first by a nuclear weapon, I believe it is entirely ethical to retaliate accordingly. An eye for an eye.”
- “Protect America at any cost.”
- “Now that multiple states have nuclear weapons it is harder to prevent a ripple effect once one weapon is implemented! The NPT prevents most nations from having nuclear weapons but allows the original owners to maintain them! I think the only way to make sure nuclear weapons are not used again is if we all give them up.”
- “Military strikes are a temporary solution, only diplomacy can settle the question of a nuclear Iran in the long term. Unfortunately, I think that moment has past and we are likely to see a nuclear Iran in the next several decades.”
The differences in opinion are in line with Pew Research’s finding that “the views of this generation are not fully formed and could change considerably as they age and as national and global events intervene.”
Interestingly, only a handful of students selected did not answer the question at all. This was against all expectations — especially since there was no true incentive to answer an open-ended question after over 20 preceding ones.
These answers challenge conventional assumptions that the concepts of Mutually Assured Destruction and nuclear weapons have vanished from the public understanding.
Some Gen Z’ers were brief, others gave quite sophisticated answers. One student expressed his dissent with conflict in general by saying, “War is wrong; it’s just profitable.” Some elaborated on the ethics: “The use of nuclear weapons is unethical because it takes the lives away from people who had more to live for than being caught up in their countries’ foreign affairs.” Others highlighted their support for nuclear defense: “I think that while morality of using nukes is bad and that we lose a sense of our humanness, if it is used to ultimately save lives and as a deterrent, I think it is ok,” and “The use of such force is (…) understandable if and only if a state must protect its citizens in the long-haul.”
These answers challenge conventional assumptions that the concepts of Mutually Assured Destruction and nuclear weapons have vanished from the public understanding, and that younger generations generally support the campaign to ban nuclear weapons. Joe Cirincione, the president of Ploughshares Fund, has spoken of the “emergence of a new mass movement” that might pressure Congress for nuclear weapons reform. He’s right that there is an increased public awareness among younger generations on nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, this research would suggest that they are highly divided on the issue.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Ploughshares Fund, Global Zero and others in support of nuclear disarmament cannot assume that they have absolute public support for their laudable mission to change the nuclear discourse.
With this in mind, public awareness and nuclear education campaigns must ensure the non-support for nuclear weapons first. Platforms for experiential learning about nuclear weapons fundamentals and outreach from activists, scholars, and policymakers are much needed to educate the public and gain their nuclear non-support.
Rachel Bronson, CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has highlighted that “young people are hardly apathetic to the deteriorating environment in which we now operate.” Gen Z has become the most vocal one yet on global issues. Whether they will move toward more nuclear arms control or nuclear proliferation we don’t know. But we should expect to hear more from Gen Z on nuclear matters. Instead of Friday strikes for climate change, perhaps we’ll see a comeback of Cold War-like anti-nuclear protests.
Doreen Horschig is a Ph.D. candidate in Security Studies and teaching associate at the School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs at the University of Central Florida. For updates and results of the experimental survey see doreenhorschig.com.
*Some students’ answers were grammatically edited. No content was altered.