From President Barack Obama to VP Kamala Harris, Gen Z Has Always Seen Black Leadership In Action. Here’s How It’s Shaping The Youngest Adult Generation

Born between 1997 and 2012, Generation Z was the first to grow up with an example of a Black commander-in-chief. The eldest members of the cohort were preteens at the start of Barack Obama’s presidency and entered early adulthood adjacent to messages of hope, change, and unlimited possibility. On the younger end of the spectrum are Gen Zers born in post-Obama America; they were in middle childhood in 2020 when Kamala Harris became the nation’s 49th Vice President and the only woman or person of color ever to occupy the role. Unlike Boomers, Gen X, and millennials before them, Gen Z grew up with examples of Black leadership in the executive branch and beyond. 

In addition to demonstrations of Black leadership in political office, the number of Black-owned businesses in the US increased by 34.5% in the lifespan of Gen Z. The number of Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies grew from just two in 1999 to 13 in 2019. While American society is a long way from achieving parity in Black leadership, Gen Z has witnessed helming Black leadership at higher levels than any other generation. Experts say it’s profoundly impacted self-esteem and what’s perceived as possible for Black members of Generation Z. 

ESSENCE combed the research and spoke with a sociologist, a Columbia University professor, and a Gen Z entrepreneur to examine how lifelong examples of Black leadership in action shaped America’s next generation of Black leaders. While it’s impossible to know the entirety of Black leadership’s influence on Gen Z, experts say today’s young adults feel entitled to their seat at the proverbial table. They demonstrate heightened awareness and activism around social issues and, as a whole, Gen Z is sidestepping the traditional college-to-career model to pursue their own custom career paths and trades.

Gen Z is sidestepping the traditional college-to-career model and going for trades.

Experts say growing up with the examples of barrier-breaking diverse leadership, out-of-the-box success stories, and “you can do anything” messaging has encouraged Gen Z to chase their dreams outside the prescribed guardrails sanctioned by society. Many are skipping college and pursuing trades. That was certainly the case for Gen Z entrepreneur Tiara Willis. “I felt a lot of pressure from older generations to go to college because I had excellent grades and a budding career. I graduated high school with high honors at the age of 16. However, I knew that going to college could mean a lot of stress, distractions, and unnecessary debt,” Willis told ESSENCE. “Instead of attending a college or university, I decided to pursue an affordable trade that I knew would positively impact my influencer business while giving me desirable industry skills. I had already learned that in many instances, obtaining a highly sought-after trade is not only cheaper than college but also a quicker way to get into a desired workforce,” Willis said. 

She’s not alone—a survey by TD Ameritrade found that nearly 40% of Gen Z respondents said they were either “not interested” or “not sure” about attending a four-year college. The survey also found that 45% of respondents were interested in pursuing a vocational or trade school education. So while older generations viewed conventional bachelor’s degree programs as their ticket to economic mobility, Willis represents a growing number of Gen Z adults betting on alternatives to traditional university degrees

Gabrielle Gambrell, an Adjunct Professor of Marketing & Communications at Columbia University and NYU says Black Gen Z feels less inhibited than those who came before them. “Gen Z realizes how adequate they are by nature and demand recognition more than any other group. So the idea of “why not” and pushing the status quo is backed by this generation more than ever,” Gambrell said. 

Seeing the impossible realized by Black people in leadership has removed the lid from what they believe is possible. Gen Z doesn’t feel beholden to traditional or prescribed paths to success. Instead, they’re perfectly comfortable charting their course. For Willis, a Gen Z beauty influencer, the assessment rings true. “Putting my energy into monetizing my passions instead of taking college classes I knew I wouldn’t need, helped me to be a successful entrepreneur,” Willis said. 

Black Gen Z expects inclusion.

Courageous career pursuits isn’t the only way in which examples of diverse leadership have impacted the outlook of Gen Z. For Gen Z, inclusion is a bare minimum. “They don’t struggle with imposter syndrome the way we did,” said Roderick Graham, a Gen Xer and Sociology Professor at Old Dominion University. Gambrell agrees. “Black Gen Zers pridefully embrace their culture and recognize the benefits of being Black. They know that Black culture shapes the entire world and will remind anyone who forgets,” she said. For example, Gambrell says, “Hearing someone has become the “first” of a major role or title, their attitude is more of “it’s about time,” versus, “wow, what a great accomplishment. The logic is that we’re worthy, more than valuable, and should have titles, roles, and anything we desire.” 

While older generations sometimes perceive Gen Z’s expectations of inclusion as naive, Graham—who has completed research on the use of technology to overcome racial barriers of African-Americans—says it’s not necessarily true. He believes the convergence of social media and the precedence of Black leadership better enables Black youth to “find their people,” which emboldens them to confidently stand in their truths. “Young black people are connecting and communicating [on social media] about everything from entrepreneurship to leadership to social justice issues,” Graham said. “It’s a profound change from several decades ago, where black people with similar interests and ideas could not find each other.” 

Further, Gambrell believes Gen Z’s expectation of a seat at the proverbial table is not a demonstration of naivety, but a show of the audacity of hope. “Black Gen Zers recognize generational and cultural inequalities, but they aren’t letting history stop them from pursuing their dreams and aspirations,” she said. In their view, obstacles don’t equate to impossibilities. 

Black Gen Z is hyper-aware of social inequities and engaged in working toward solutions.

Beyond career ambitions, Gen Z is concerned about social change and societal progress as a whole. 

Obama’s presidency coincided with the rise of social media, which allowed Black members of Gen Z to follow and engage with politics more directly and personally. In addition, the President’s use of social media helped to increase the visibility of his administration’s policies and initiatives, which inspired younger generations to become more aware and informed about politics and social issues. 

In addition to witnessing an inspiring and inclusive new era of politics, Black Gen Z also saw the swift backlash that resulted from the election of former President Donald Trump, whose MAGA agenda played out in real-time across social feeds. Additionally, Gen Z came into racial awareness and witnessed the far-right white nationalist groups’ demonstrations in Charlottesville and the nation’s capital on January 6th. 

Experts say heightened focus on police brutality and criminal justice reform has contributed to growing awareness and activism among young Black people but may also negatively impact their mental health. While widespread illustrations of violence against Black people are nothing new, research shows that the constant inundation of Black trauma and the murders of Black men, including George Floyd and Philando Castille, likely embedded feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, and despair into the psyche of Gen Z. Overexposure could manifest in depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health conditions. 

Overall, Black representation in the nation’s executive branch and its corporate executive suites likely had a significant impact on Black members of Gen Z, increasing their awareness and activism on issues affecting the Black community and inspiring them to pursue their unconventional leadership dreams. However, like Boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials before them, only time can reveal the full effect of their collective experiences on the generational psyche.

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