Transforming Youth Political Participation


In 2007, Thomas Friedman wrote an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times, questioning the general attitude and role of young Americans today. Friedman spent time at different universities, observing the social trends and aspirations of the millennial generation in relation to our drastically changing world. “I am impressed because [the millennial generation] is so much more optimistic and idealistic than they should be. I am baffled because they are so much less radical and politically engaged than they need to be,” Friedman wrote. With the crash of the U.S. economy, 9/11 and the wars that followed, an ecological crisis and a future of uncertainty, young Americans should be radically active in regaining a hopeful future for themselves. It’s unclear if young Americans have fully conceived of the issues they will be forced to reckon with in the near future. Digital media has played a crucial role in deterring youth from involving themselves with political matters and have reshaped how youth relate to these issues. Activism and political participation has left the streets and moved to the web, a comfortable place of hyperconnectivity. The millennial generation, or “the quiet generation” as Friedman calls them, has become increasingly disengaged with political matters at a time where youth political participation should be at its highest.

The millennial generation’s “coming of age” is happening much later compared to previous generations and is now having a detrimental effect on the level of concern millennials have for political and social issues. The setback millennials are facing is in large part due to the economy. No one is guaranteed a job or financial security, even with a college degree (Buchholz). According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, “37 percent of this generation (18–29 years-of-age) is either unemployed or not in the workforce. This is the highest share for this age group in nearly 40 years” (Taylor). The implications of these statistics are far greater than just a lack of opportunity for young people. Paul Taylor, Executive Vice President of the Pew Research Center suggests youth today are “getting to all of the milestones of adulthood later, whether it’s moving out of your parents’ house, getting a first job, buying a first home, getting married, having kids- these things are all happening five to seven years later than they did for this generation’s parents, the Baby Boomers” (Woodruff). When the Baby Boomer generation was coming into its adulthood, the economy was relatively stable, and the trends showed that they focused their energy on other issues besides making money. Radical protests and movements lasting three decades defined the Baby Boomer’s “coming of age”. In a recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a study shows that young Americans in 1971 ranked the importance of being “well off financially” number eight on the list of their life goals. However, starting in 1989, young Americans placed financial stability at the top of their list (Chau). The shift in values from one generation to the next is not only seen in their list of priorities, but in their efforts to partake in civic life.

Millennials were less likely to think about social problems, make efforts to conserve natural resources, be interested in or participate in government, voting, contacting their representatives, participate in demonstrations or boycotts or giving money to political causes. The decline in environmental concern and action are markedly steep. Three times as many Millennials said they “made no personal effort at all to help the environment compared to [the previous Generation] Xers (Stanton et al).

Efforts to solve political, social and environmental issues have been pushed aside by young Americans due to current conditions where finding a job is at the top tier of their priorities. As previous generations came into their adulthood, they focused their attention on activism: the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, the civil rights movement, etc (Woodruff). The closest the millennial generation has come to a counter-cultural movement is Occupy Wall Street; however it vanished within a year. The economic crisis should have created a group of angered citizens, not a generation lost within “the stuck-at-home mentality” (Buchholz).

Millennials are less caring of political matters because they appear less relevant to their lives compared to their parents and grandparents. As the “coming of age” for millennials moves farther and farther away, a sense of responsibility and sacrifice is delayed. Young Americans don’t see many ties to their country and government until they are forced to, but the problem is, no one is laying down the stakes. “This generation has grown up in a decade when our country has been fighting two wars,” says Taylor, “[a]nd yet, it has far less exposure to military service and all the responsibilities and burdens that implies than any previous generation in American History” (Woodruff). Previous generations had a sense of responsibility starting at the age of 18 because of the draft. Since the end of the Second World War, the percentage of Americans fighting for America has decreased.

2 percent of males in this generation of 18- to 29-year-olds are military veterans. If you look at the Xers, same stage of life, 6 percent [of males] were military veterans. The Boomers, same stage of life, 13 percent…The silent generation, 24 percent (Woodruff).

When a greater percentage of the population is being directly effected, greater measures are taken to get involved. Unfortunately, millennials have been held back from realizing that there is a current cause to work for, because so few are directly effected.

The generational differences social scientists are observing between millennials, Xers and the Boomers, have all been uniquely identified; however, the most unique and significant change has been the rise of technology and social media. Social media and networking has transformed the way youth view and relate to politics and civic life. The constant use of digital media has led youth to perceive political matters as being too broad and chaotic to deal with. “What the increase in technology brought was an increased expansion of our knowledge of current events. When you hear about what I like to call the three D’s: debt, destruction, and death, almost daily, it becomes second nature to start to believe that making a difference in the world is near impossible” (McCully). The millennial generation is experiencing information overload and has led to a decrease in the number of young Americans who are motivated to battle large issues through political involvement. The short attention span millennials have developed due to the Internet and social networking has harmed their ability “to tackle complex challenges”, according to Alvaro Retana, distinguished technologist at Hewlett-Packard:

The short attention spans resulting from the quick interactions will be detrimental to focusing on the harder problems, and we will probably see a stagnation in many areas… The people who will strive and lead the charge will be the ones able to disconnect themselves to focus on specific problems (Anderson).

According to the Pew Research Center, hyper-connectivity has led to “less time for problems to be worked out whether they are of a personal, political, economic, or environmental nature” (Anderson). Neil Postman, a media theorist, believes that this problem stems from our over usage and exposure to digital media: “The commercial asks us to believe that all problems are solvable, that they are solvable fast and that they are solvable fast through the interventions of technology, techniques and chemistry” (Postman). Technology and digital media has played its role in connecting people and issues at a fast rate, but has also lead millennials to believe that major world issues are impossible to solve.

Social media and networking has increased the number of youth that are involved in local matters, while straying from political involvement. Volunteer work and community involvement, where solutions are more conceivable in a shorter amount of time, have replaced what political involvement was for the Baby Boomers. According to recent studies published in the Journal for Cyberpsychology and Behavior, “[s]tudents who mainly use Facebook Groups tend to mostly be involved in the more comfortable types of activities or associations” such as local clubs or online-based groups (Park et al). Millennials view community involvement as a more tangible and rewarding way to create change. The Harvard Institute of Politics conducted a survey and found that

[t]hose born of the Millennial generation no longer fit traditional left-right spectrum of politics and are increasingly disillusioned and disengaged with the political process. More and more, young adults are turning to volunteer and service work to effect change in their communities rather than relying on politics and public policy (Millennials).

Pew Research Center statistics show that Millennials volunteer and are involved in their communities more so than any other generation in America, yet vote least often (Taylor). Community involvement has become increasingly popular due to the organization and interconnectedness that the Internet and social networking allows for. The Millennial generation is now channeling activism through technology.

Political and community engagement through modes of technology are reshaping the way youth are involved and has lessened the need for old forms of political involvement. In a conference proceeding on millennial values and trends, Neil Howe, widely recognized for his expertise in studies of social generations and generation cycles, stated,

[the millennial generation is] moving technology back to the community. And in fact, they’re revitalizing and galvanizing political campaigns and community action through technology. This was not designed or anticipated by older people… and you see this in hugely higher rates of community service and volunteering (Woodruff).

Participatory politics is now happening online. Some political scientists positively view this shift in youth involvement. According to the University of Chicago Professor Cathy Cohen, digital media and technology is helping youth become more engaged in political matters because it allows young “individuals to operate with greater independence in the political realm, circumventing traditional gatekeepers of information and influence, such as newspaper editors, political parties, and interest groups” (Jenkins). She suggests the Internet democratizes the political process because it allows for a greater number of voices, more circulation of political information, and a more effective way to mobilize action-based efforts. Political philosopher Joe Kahne, views political involvement online as a positive thing, only because it amplifies the voice of young people (on the Internet), however he believes the value of online political involvement is being diminished because the Internet does not show young people how to move from voice to influence. “In our work with youth organizations, digital platforms, and youth themselves, we have to find ways to help youth connect to institutions, act strategically to have influence and to put pressure on the places – whether corporate or governmental – to prompt the change youth want to see occur” (Jenkins). Political and social activist, Steven Best, argues the opposing viewpoint from personal experience;

[y]outh have been using the Internet to inform and debate each other, organize oppositional movements, and generate alternative forms of politics and culture… [W]e would argue that computer literacy involves not merely technical skills and knowledge, but the ability to scan information, to interact with a variety of cultural forms and groups, and to intervene in a creative manner within the emergent computer and political culture. Whereas youth is excluded for the most part from the dominant media culture, computer culture is a discursive and political location in which youth can intervene, engaging in discussion groups, creating their web sites, producing multimedia for cultural dissemination, and generating a diversity of political projects (Best).

Young Americans might not be picketing or working to elect their state senator into office, but they are finding their own means of participation in a youth-lead space; the Internet. In fact, studies show that youth who participate in political activity online will more likely be active members in society: “Youth who engaged in at least one act of participatory politics were almost twice as likely to report voting in 2010 as those who did not. A large proportion–37 percent of all young people–engages in both participatory and institutional politics” (Jenkins). This period of low political activity might start to change as more and more young people get politically active online.

The millennial generation, although not as radical as they ought to be, has developed a new way of communicating and collaborating to solve issues. Instead of disregarding young Americans, the political system should re-adapt itself to fit the values of the millennials. I propose the solution of combining political activism with social media, in a way that combines young peoples voices and ways they can be influential in society. My action plan for this semester is to create a website or blog that will help young people, starting with New Trier students, make sense of political matters and show simpler ways about how to get involved. Political participation can and should combine values of millenials, but also values of democracy. I will create a tool for young people to use so they can better relate to current issues and figure out how to make sense of solving them.

Anderson, Janna, and Lee Rainee. “Millennials Will Benefit and Suffer Due to Their Hyperconnected Lives.” Pew Research Center. Pew Internet and America Life Project, 29 Feb. 2012. Web. 11 Jan. 2013.
Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner. Contemporary Youth and the Postmodern Adventure. N.p.: n.p., 2008. Print.
Buchholz, Todd G., and Victoria Buchholz. “The Go-Nowhere Generation.” New York Times 10 Mar. 2012: n. pag. Print.
Chau, Joanna. “Milennials Are More ‘Generation Me’ Than ‘…..” The Chronicle of Higher Education [Washington D.C] 15 Mar. 2012: n. pag. Print.
Jenkins, Henry. “Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action.” The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins. Henry Jenkins, 20 July 2012. Web. 6 Jan. 2013.
McCully, Savannah. “The ‘Everyone Is Special’ Generation Becomes Apathetic.” Patch. Patch, 27 Mar. 2012. Web. 10 Jan. 2013.
“Millennials and Political Involvement.” Institute of Politics at Harvard University. Harvard IOP, 10 Nov. 2010. Web. 11 Jan. 2013.
Park, Namsu, Kerk F. Kee, and Sebastian Valenzuela. “Being Immersed in Social Networking Environment: Facebook Groups, Uses and Gratifications, and Social Outcomes.” Cyberpsychology and Behavior 12.6 (2009): n. pag. Print.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves To Death. Vol. 20. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.
Stanton, Glenn T., and Andrew Hess. “Generational Vallues and Desires.” Focus on the Family. Ed. James Dobson. 1997 – 2012 Focus on the Family, June 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2012.
Taylor, Paul, comp. Ask the Expert: Young People and Political Engagement. Pub. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2012. Pew Research Center. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.
Woodruff, Judy. “Millennials: Portrait of Generation Next.” Pew Research Center (2010): 3+. Digital file.

Written by Caroline Gray, 18 


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