Gen Z: An untapped pool of support for nuclear disarmament

By Rishi Gurudevan | April 8, 2024

Student nuclear activists outside the Massachusetts State HousePhoto by Maria Udalova, Brookline Students for Nuclear Disarmament

Successful social and political movements have a long history of being driven to victory by young voices, dating back to at least Ella Baker and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee  in the 1960s,  if not earlier. In the United States, Washington has responded to pressure from young people with legislation like the momentous Civil Rights Act of 1964 , and the more recent Inflation Reduction Act, the biggest investment in climate infrastructure by any government in history—to name just two examples. My question is: Why aren’t 21st century nuclear disarmament advocates more aggressively recruiting Gen Z, the generation of people born in the late 1990s and early 2000s? Especially when Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future—the climate change activist group she founded in 2018—has done so well among my peers? What is it about nuclear disarmament that makes it different?

True, my generation hasn’t lived through Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the Cuban Missile Crisis. We didn’t grow up doing “duck and cover” drills in our kindergarten classrooms (though we were subjected to various other dystopian security exercises) or shuddering at a screening of The Day After. All we supposedly care about are the latest TikTok videos and Instagram reels. So why should we take interest in nuclear issues that we see as relics of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations?

Is my generation a lost cause?

Based on empirical evidence as well as my own work on nuclear disarmament, I reject that notion entirely.

First, the data. A 2023 study from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs recorded public opinion and knowledge about various aspects of US nuclear weapons policy and broke down survey responses by age group. Surprisingly to some, Gen Z was about as likely to be familiar with nuclear issues as Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers. My generation was also the least likely to believe that nuclear deterrence was “very effective,” and the most likely to conclude that nuclear weapons made America “less safe,” of all the age groups surveyed. Most important, 62 percent of Gen Z was interested in learning more about US nuclear weapons policy—second only to Gen X at 64 percent.

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I was ecstatic when I saw this figure, but not surprised. Collaborating with students from across the United States has shown me firsthand that young people are absolutely capable of caring about the threat that nuclear weapons pose to humanity, and of organizing ourselves to do something about it; we just aren’t aware of that threat to begin with. Once the word is spread to us by an expert, a social media influencer, or a summer blockbuster, we’re more than willing to take action.

One example is an incredible group of teenagers I worked with from Southern California. In December 2023, students at John Burroughs High School convinced then-Mayor Konstantine Anthony of Burbank, California (a city of over 100,000 people) to issue a proclamation in support of nuclear abolition. After hearing about the threat of nuclear war from an expert guest speaker at the Back from the Brink Campaign, the students formed a grassroots coalition at their school, collected dozens of petition signatures, and met with local government officials to explain the issue and convince them to take action. They got results.

Again, this idea that the voice of young people resonates with politicians is not new. Yet in 2024, our contribution is all the more important to the success of any movement. Today, our sources of information are heavily influenced by social media, AI, and other digital spheres. These spheres, dominated by Gen Z, have immense potential for positive change. Remember #blackouttuesday? Greta Thunberg’s 14 million Instagram followers? The teenage school-shooting survivors who shared their stories with the world in the wake of the Parkland massacre? The success of recent movements to combat police brutality, climate change, and gun violence is unquestionable. It’s clear to me that if the global nuclear disarmament effort is to reach a similar scale to these examples, it must be driven by the same powerful force: young people.

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If worldwide nuclear abolition is the ultimate goal, the path to victory will include making the prevention of nuclear war part of the political zeitgeist of the 21st century. Disarmament advocates must not wait for another nuclear catastrophe—or near-catastrophe—and the mass death of innocents for my generation to wake up. Today, the world is a terrifying place in which Vladimir Putin has threatened to use nuclear force to aid the unprovoked invasion of the sovereign nation of Ukraine, and former US President Donald Trump has encouraged Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” with NATO allies that don’t meet defense spending thresholds. The danger is clear and present.

But nuclear activists have also reached a critical moment of new opportunity. The New York Times’ Editorial Board recently declared that “It’s Time to Protest Nuclear War Again,” Oppenheimer’s Cillian Murphy dedicated his Oscar for Best Actor to “peacemakers everywhere” in front of an audience of tens of millions, and public figures including former California governor Jerry Brown (who is also the Bulletin’s executive chair) have emphasized the film’s most important message: “It’s time to heed Oppenheimer’s warnings.” Nuclear activism is once again gaining traction.

I, a 16-year-old kid who’s scared out of his mind about nuclear war, call upon all the nuclear experts who want to save the world to help me capitalize on this opportunity and change your approach to this movement. If you’re a scholar, an activist, or both, find a way to share your knowledge and passion with a new group of young people, citing the issue’s blooming resurgence in popular culture. A class, a lunch, even a short conversation could be enough to motivate someone to take action on nuclear disarmament. Whether you’re working with kindergarteners or college students, your actions will help inspire the next generation of change-makers to win the decades-long struggle for a world free of nuclear weapons. Reject cynicism and embrace this opportunity. Only through intergenerational collaboration will humanity be spared.

Together, we make the world safer.

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1 month ago

Hey Rishi:

I dropped out of Phillips Andover, so I suppose that makes us rivals of sorts. (But that was a long time ago.)

Check out my website at

I would love to talk to/with Gen X. I concentrate mostly on the birthplace of nuclear weapons, the Los Alamos Lab, and its expanding production of plutonium “pit” cores for nuclear weapons.


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