The Catholic University of America
Oct 19 2009

Democracy’s Children: Engaging Young People in Civic Life

Posted by James Youniss at 10:00 AM
- Categories: Education | Government & Civil Society

Scholars and pundits bemoan young people’s lagging participation in politics (only a minority vote), disinterest in following the daily news (an even tinier minority read the newspaper), and disappointing scores on tests of civic knowledge and American history (the majority fall into the “inadequate” group).  Downward trends began in the early 1970s and reached new lows around 2000.  The events of 9/11, Katrina, and conscious mobilization of the youth vote in 2004, sparked a upward shift which continued through 2008 presidential campaign and election. It is too early to say whether the data foretell a turnaround or represent only a temporary break in a 4-decade long negative drift.

The problem clearly merits obvious concern. If young people are not engaged in the political system, our citizen-centered democracy is dangerously crippled. An uninformed citizenry, if it votes at all, invites distorted political discussion by encouraging slogans and raised voices as substitutes for thoughtful debate and careful reasoning. As remedy, many of us who study youth propose improved civic education in schools, encourage the political parties to bring youth back into the fold starting with their on- the-street roles in campaigns, and aske municipal governments to involve youth in meaningful advisory committees. These policy recommendations can be found in recent books by Peter Levine: The Future of Democracy: Developing the Next Generation of American Citizens; Carmen Sirianni: Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Government, and James Youniss and Peter Levine: Engaging Young People In Civic Life.

The problem is not likely to go away through inattention. Studies have shown that most schools consider the civics curriculum as expendable and during hard economic times is shadowed by pressures to meet English and math standards. Meanwhile, demography is inexorably changing the make-up of the younger generation a majority of which is now  comprised of minority youth and immigrant youth whose parents have little experience with democratic citizenship. Unlike a century ago when it was fear that such youth would push the country into socialism or anarchy, the primary concern today is that youth will become alienated from our democratic traditions and become encapsulated in a virtual world of internet social networking and reinforced by disinterest from political leaders and elected officials.

Two new documents have probed this theme more deeply by exploring a serious gap within the youth cohort. Constance Flanagan, Peter Levine, and Richard Settersten (Civic Engagement and the Changing Transition to Adulthood) mined an array of studies to demonstrate a gaping chasm in political activity between young people who will or have attended college and their age peers who are not college bound. For example, whereas about one-half of eligible 18- to 24-year olds voted in the 2008 presidential election, this “average” hid the fact that about two-thirds of college-oriented youth voted but only about one-third of non-college youth voted. Jonathon Zaff, James Youniss, and Cynthia Gibson (An Unequal Invitation To Citizenship) add detail to the picture by identifying factors which facilitate college youth’s entry, but impede the entry of non-college youth into the political process. For example, the former are apt to be recruited and registered at entertainment-political rallies on college campuses and are likely to secure the kind of employment which helps young people settle into communities which nourish political involvement. Non-college young people are not targeted by the major parties, tend to have insecure jobs in the low-paying service sector, and are prone to residential instability. The introduction to politics formerly undertaken by industrial labor unions is no longer the viable form of political socialization for millions of employees without college degrees.

This gap is unlikely to close without strategic efforts to recruit and socialize non-college youth into the political process which instills a sense of belonging and citizenship. What then can be done to break this pattern and expand democracy for all our youth?

- Schools can strengthen the civics curriculum by using techniques which promote knowledge and introduce students to civil discussion of controversial issues; institute student government in which students have meaningful voice; introduce community service which connects students to ongoing work of civil society.

- After-school programs can direct youth to identify and deal with issues of importance in their communities; empower youth to take responsibility for safer streets safer, a cleaner environment, and assisting the work of non-profit organizations.

- Municipal governments can utilize youth’s knowledge, perspective, and energy on its various boards and committees pertaining to policing, transportation, education, and public as well as private work.

- Political parties can capitalize on the upward trend of youth engagement. Response to 9/11, Katrina, and Obama’s campaign, demonstrate that youth have a sense of social responsibility and will react positively when properly recruited. Efforts directed to college campuses need to be extended to non-college youth who can be reached in urban centers and at community colleges.

- The media need to stop framing youth in sensational or negative ways. Youth may be fascinating, troubled, and troubling, but they are also our major resource for the future. The media should attend to youth’s accomplishments so that academic achievement and community service get as much publicity as binge drinking and sports.

Youth will inevitably become the next generation of citizens. It is their duty to be prepared. It is our obligation to support that preparation with adequate resources and stimulating opportunities.


Stephen Schneck

Stephen Schneck wrote on 10/20/09 2:47 PM

Great piece!

I don't have the data, but I wonder if the downward trend in political engagement among non-college youth might not be reflecting the changing nature of their employment?

Forty years ago, working class youth went to factories, the trades, or the military. In the trades and factories, unions were strong mechanisms to educate young workers about political participation. Similarly, military service was (and still is) a source of such education--and let's not forget the kind of political consciousness raising that comes from the presence of a military draft. Unions are, of course, a shadow of their former selves. Military service is now voluntary and professionalized. And, perhaps even more importantly, the nature of employment for non-college youth is no longer large scale industry and manufacturing but small businesses in the service sectors.

If the problem is situated in the new realities of the non-college labor force, perhaps the remedies should be applied in the workplace. I heartily endorse new civics education efforts in the schools and governments; it makes sense. But, I wonder if ground zero for such efforts should not be in the workplace. Just a thought…
Jim Youniss

Jim Youniss wrote on 10/21/09 2:25 PM

Yes, changes in the workplace are implicated. Unions are a known source of political mobilization. As fewer workers belong to unions, a major mobilization vehicle is missing. Changes in the military are another factor. There are data showing that veterans of military service are more political engaged than their peers who have not served. I agree with your focus that schools and courses in civic are not sufficient for political socialization that is lasting.
We have covered these points in a White Paper sponsored by Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagment which will appear this Fall (Jon Zaff, James Youniss, & Cynthia Gibson). It is not simply work which has changed but the structure of the "20s," now called emerging adulthood, when many young people remain unsettled as they seek paths toward financial and social independence.
The pattern: Complete school, get a job, establish independent residence, marry, and have children, has splintered into multiple sequences which, in turn, seems to delay integration into the political system.

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