Generational Decline in Civic Engagement a Wake-Up Call

Social inertia may be comfortable, but it's just not tenable to allow today's generation of civic leaders to be one of our last.

By Michael Borrelli
Published March 22, 2012

It was a bittersweet evening, and it began with an email announcing that the regularly scheduled Hamilton Civic League meeting was moved to Artword Art Bar off of James North.

Because of family duties, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to attend the meeting at its original location up at Homegrown Hamilton. But since Artword is right in my backyard, I thought it worth the hop, skip and jump through alleyways and Christ Church's beautiful courtyard to drop in, even if I had to leave early.

As I arrived, the monthly Green Drinks was wrapping up, and I found a sliver of space near the back.

A couple of dozen engaged Hamiltonians were listening to a rep from the Hamilton-Wentworth Stewardship Council, and almost all of these citizens stayed around after he left the hot-seat and turned things over to the HCL's intrepid Chair, Larry Pomerantz.

Though I was only able to stay for an hour (and enjoyed a Guinness that I should have imbibed on St. Patrick's Day), the conversation I did hear was lively.

The recent move by City Council to reject a staff recommendation for bi-weekly garbage pickup was a point of contention, with many voicing their disagreement with the decision to allow Hamiltonians to send even more garbage to landfill.

The city's budget was also on the agenda, and an in-depth discussion of the vagaries of this mystical process was underway as I slunk away to tuck my son into bed.

As I made my way back past the Cathedral, gazing up in beer-induced awe at the time-worn Gothic spires, I marveled at how fortunate I was to live in a community that actually cared about governance and politics.

Generational Differences in Civic Engagement

These good vibes were still lingering an hour later as my tea steeped on the dining room table. As Megan listened to music for our weekly community radio show, I pulled out my "homework": an academic article I'd printed earlier that day.

The article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology was co-authored by Jean Twenge, a renowned professor and author of 2006's Generation Me.

Her latest work is more-or-less a follow-up to that book which posited that today's youth ("Generation Y" or "Millennials") aren't living up to the hype: they're far more selfish, narcissistic and inward looking than suspected, and that their billing as "Generation We" is overstated.

Twenge & co.'s article, Generational Differences in Young Adults' Life Goals, Concern for Others, and Civic Orientation, 1966-2009 [PDF] was widely picked up by media outlets earlier in the week, usually under a headline sporting some gleeful variation of "Millennials not all they're cracked up to be," but I was a little suspicious of this generational epicaricacy pumped up by old farts in newsrooms. I wanted to see the study's results literally unmediated.

That's when my day began to get depressing.

It's safe to say that Twenge and her colleagues Keith Campbell and Elise Freeman performed a solid, methodologically sound study, using huge data-sets that tracked the attitudes and aspirations of American high-school seniors and college freshmen going back as far as 1966.

The analysis they perform on the data is interesting, if a little flashy for my vanilla statistical tastes, but I didn't note anything that would seriously challenge their findings.

Civic Engagement Lower Among Millennials

And the findings are not good, at least if you are holding some hope that today's youth will somehow dig society out of the economic, environmental and democratic mess dug by their parents and grandparents.

Many newspaper articles highlighted the study's findings that backed up notions that today's youth are selfish and materialistic members of "Generation Me". For anyone who regularly interacts with adolescents, these results probably come as no surprise.

What might raise an eyebrow or two are the findings that demonstrated a continued decline across generations in civic engagement and participation among young people.

Despite years of pronouncements that Millennials are an outward-looking group of optimists ready to get things done when they take power, the study found:

All of the items measuring civic engagement and social capital were lower among Millennials than among Boomers at the same age, and all but two were lower among Millennials than GenX'ers (p. 12).

Lower social capital? Among kids reared on playgroups and Facebook? I know, it sounds counter-intuitive, so maybe that's why I snatched at the first glimmer of hope:

The largest exception to the trend away from less community feeling was in community service and volunteering, which increased...between GenX and the Millennials (p. 14).

Phew! I felt better reading that until my hope was completely dashed in the next sentence:

Why would only these items increase, when other items measuring concern for others and civic orientation decreased or stayed the same? High schools increasingly required community service for graduation over this time period.

I sighed. My good mood was all but gone.

Wake-Up Call

Still, I thought of all the young people I know in Hamilton who are actively trying to make a difference, so I couldn't help but think that the study somehow had it wrong. Many of my fellow residents at the Beasley Neighbourhood Association smile with enthusiastic, youthful faces.

One of them, Jeanette Eby, is even nominated for a YWCA Woman of Distinction (Under 30) award for her community work.

Unfortunately, convenient anecdotes pale in comparison to a study of 9.2 million young people, and thinking back to the HCL meeting earlier in the evening, I had to go to bed acknowledging a that there weren't too many young people at Artwood that night.

Whether these generational shifts are a sign of impending doom, or just a natural change in a maturing society, I think it was a wake-up call for me.

Though my son is still very young, I've already started to think about how to expose him to civics and to get him involved in our community in meaningful, sustained ways.

As hard as it may be to engage youth in an era of attack ads and robocalls, democracy demands a literate and engaged civil society. Social inertia may be comfortable, but it's just not tenable to allow today's generation of civic leaders to be one of our last.

Michael Borrelli is a social researcher living with his family in Hamilton's North End. He tweets @BaysideBadger.


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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted March 22, 2012 at 07:30:27

This is not shocking. Spend some time with members of 'generation me' and you'll see why. Sure, they are not ALL like that, but just like the study suggests, the general attitude is of indifference.

I think that in order to get them engaged in politics, civic affairs and the like, the members of these groups need to reach out. In the past, new members would be drawn to these things or be urged to do so by their peers; this is no longer the case. If those groups want to attract people from Gen Me, then they need to put in the leg work to get them.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted March 22, 2012 at 08:48:44

If those groups want to attract people from Gen Me, then they need to put in the leg work to get them.

Absolutely agree, Downtown. I dare say, however, that it's harder than ever for those groups to successfully reach out and attract younger people. We could speculate at length on the reasons: less biographical availability (i.e. overprogrammed youth), reduced attention spans, etc.

Perhaps there's also a gap in methods: for a cohort used to "organizing" or acting via social media or other looser means, on their own schedule, actually showing up to a real-life meeting, and being expected to sit there and quietly listen for two whole hours might be a big shift. As someone on the Gen X/Y line, I can definitely empathize with frustration around the "Freedom is an Endless Meeting" concept of organizing.

Comment edited by Borrelli on 2012-03-22 08:49:15

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted March 22, 2012 at 19:51:24 in reply to Comment 75359

I'd have to agree. Since there's a general trend of indifference and an expecting of someone to do the hard stuff for them, they can't be bothered to get off their collective duffs and go get involved.

I'm on the cusp of the Gen X/Ys too. I grew up in a home where it was expected you do your civic duties: vote, go for jury duty when called, pay your bills and taxes (on time), help people who need help, and so on. That seems to be gone now. Maybe more online things? Maybe more open-ended things? Not sure what the fix is.

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By Mark-Alan Whittle (anonymous) | Posted March 22, 2012 at 08:58:41

I'm from the "Jones" generation, retired and living life to the fullest. I won't be around long enough to see what society will become, once the "Me" generation gets at the levers of power. Amen to that. The "Jones" generation had it made, the next generation, not so much.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 22, 2012 at 09:48:27

Are you sure this isn't just the normal disengagement of youth from the practical side of politics. I mean, every generation has its young activists, but these never translate into voting numbers. Historically most people don't get engaged in civic politics until they put down roots.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted March 22, 2012 at 09:54:20

Historically most people don't get engaged in civic politics until they put down roots.

Very good point, however the study looked specifically at responses from high-school seniors and college freshmen over a long period of time (going as far back as 1966).

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted March 22, 2012 at 12:42:15

I'd have to question the research methods here, since (as Pxtl mentions) young people tend toward the unconventional which doesn't often get counted. Do the hundreds of kids I've known who've put on raves see that counted toward their "community service" and "social capital"? Politically speaking, we're seeing the largest wave of protests since (at least) the 60s, yet nearly all of it has been explicitly opposed to electoral action...

That being said, I see where you're coming from. Many of us buck the trend, but lord knows my friends aren't an appropriate sample group. What needs to be remembered is that this behaviour was learned, mostly because it's exactly what we were taught. Growing up we were fed constant lectures about "success" which defined personal worth in terms almost totally tied to one's income and (debt-financed) possessions. We were raised by TVs and malls. Is it so surprising, then, that kids now often have five or six figures in debt before they're 25?

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted March 22, 2012 at 13:22:42 in reply to Comment 75372

What needs to be remembered is that this behaviour was learned, mostly because it's exactly what we were taught.

To an extent, that's very true, but the economic situation also plays a part, I think. I'm not economic reductionist, but I still can't help pointing to Figure 1 on page 7 of that study.

The goal/value "Becoming well off financially" started its 20 year rise in importance in the early 1970s, essentially the same time real incomes in the USA began to stagnate.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted March 23, 2012 at 09:11:42 in reply to Comment 75373

Also with the point where a tiny fraction of incomes started to skyrocket relative to the rest.

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By Say what (anonymous) | Posted March 22, 2012 at 15:24:27

I was at this meeting and many young people and older ones too, do not believe in the system anymore. They see no co-relation that our political representatives actually represent the people anymore.

One discussion point was Aerotropolis. which really is a major issue in our community but too many do not even know about this is about. How can they when our local corporate newpaper does not give real info, those heydays are gone.

They have a petition, however at present there are only around 200 or so signatures, and with our population being over half a million, I would say that this idea is going nowhere.

They have to get out into the streets and start talking to people, they have to start organizing, since it is the giant spider which causes things like Aerotropolis, that land developers have the ultimate say in things and our leaders bow in awe, for the economy, too bad too mnay are not part of the economy anymore. The spider causes poverty, environmental issues and so on and so on! Better to attakc the root instead of the effects!

I wonder if they should be a concerted effort to build solidarity with other groups, since this is only one piece of the larger puzzle. Maybe there should be a rally outside the OMB meeting, which would draw the corporate press, so that the real message gets out there. Acting like Tiny Tim, holding your cap out asking, Please sir, can I have more, is not going to work, considering the age of austerity that is coming soon.

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By jcw (registered) | Posted March 22, 2012 at 16:06:15 in reply to Comment 75384

A rally outside the Ontario Municipal Board meeting would be excellent.

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By Generation Meme (anonymous) | Posted March 22, 2012 at 23:49:29


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By Generation Meme (anonymous) | Posted March 22, 2012 at 23:53:39 in reply to Comment 75398

Or, alternately:

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By older (anonymous) | Posted March 24, 2012 at 15:41:10

Hmmm.... young people are apathetic? Is this concept from the 50's or the 2050's?

The young might have the time and attitude to break windows and campaign against "the Man" but actual comittment to ideals in a Useful and Meaningful way takes a few years of perspective. Woodstock did not result in much...

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By MAINSTREET (anonymous) | Posted March 26, 2012 at 18:59:35


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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted March 27, 2012 at 02:50:15

As of last week, 300 000 students were out on strike in Quebec over tuition fees, with around 1-200 000 rallying in downtown Montreal, the biggest single march since at least the Referendum in the mid-nineties.

Engaged enough for ya?

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By Baboune (anonymous) | Posted March 27, 2012 at 13:34:42

Pauvre Quebec...

“Provinces … differ in their ability ‘to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services’ because they have to spend different amounts to offer similar services; in other words, because they have different expenditure needs,” he writes, quoting Section 36.2 of the Constitution Act.

For example, if the equalization formula factored “need” into it, Ontario would have received an additional $822 million from Ottawa in 2008-09 while B.C. would have been given an extra $879 million.

Even energy-rich Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, where cost-of-living expenses are growing fast, would have gained $526 million, $332 million and $310 million respectively.

But Quebec, by far the largest equalization recipient, would have been given $3.11 billion less that year.

“Ontario and Quebec would receive equally large equalization payments of just over $4.5 billion each. Under the current fiscal capacity-only system, Quebec receives more than twice as much as Ontario, $7.6 billion versus $3.7 billion.

That allows Quebec to provide its residents with services like $7-a-day childcare, which Ontario could never afford.

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