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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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