Communication Currents

Current Commentary

Understanding Generational Differences in Civic Communication

June 1, 2011
Political Communication

There exists a prevailing perception of young people as being apathetic and disengaged. Unfortunately, this negative perception is not without evidence. As was demonstrated by youth voting rates in both the 2010 Midterm election (24%) and the 2008 Presidential election (62%), the Millennial Generation does not vote at the same level as older generations. Elections are an essential feature of democracy and when voting rates are used as a measure of civic behavior, there is justification for concern about the future of our democracy. Voting is not the only way citizens engage with our democracy, though. Indeed, there are a myriad of other ways that citizens – and especially young people – engage in politics and the civic life of their communities. In light of this fact, there is another more nuanced opinion of young people that believes that they are neither disengaged nor apathetic but are differently engaged than older generations. I believe that this is true. I also believe communities, policymakers and educators need to understand these generational differences in civic behaviors so that they can design programs that will encourage young people to supplement their nontraditional behavior with more traditional civic acts such as voting.

J. Michael Hogan, the author of last issue’s Cross Currents feature: “Rhetoric and Communication Studies as Education for Citizenship,” seems to reinforce the negative and limited characterization of young people in his article. Hogan cites declines in youth voting as evidence that the Millennial Generation is disengasged and apathetic. To his credit he acknowledges the opposing opinion of young people being differently engaged, however he does not give this opinion much credence. He writes, “Some scholars assure us that young people have simply shifted away from ‘old forms’ of politics to ‘new forms of political interest and engagement.’… Yet as Cliff Zukin and his colleagues concluded in their recent study of youth politics and civic life, ‘sizeable portions’ of the last two generations of young people have simply ‘opted out’ of politics altogether, and that ‘portends a less attentive citizenry and potentially dire consequences for the quality of our democracy.’”  By disregarding these new forms of engagement, though, Hogan misses an important opportunity to understand the deep civic fervor felt by many young people.

When I started managing the American Democracy Project (ADP), a national initiative of 230 universities focused on higher education’s role in preparing informed, engaged citizens for our democracy, I was told a deeply negative story about my generation. We are apathetic. We are disengaged. We do not ‘unplug’ long enough to pay attention to current issues. And on and on. I have long struggled with this characterization of my generation because it does not match what I know to be true. I graduated from Portland State University in 2006 where I enjoyed an education that was deeply infused with student engagement. I am (and was in college) involved in my community and I am (and was in college) involved with politics. And I am not an anomaly. In 2001, a group of students gathered at Wingspread to discuss youth engagement and offered their opinion of why young people adopt nontraditional civic behaviors. Their conclusion is captured in the following quote, "We discovered…a common sense that while we are disillusioned with conventional politics (and therefore most forms of political activity), we are deeply involved in civic issues through non-traditional forms of engagement. We are neither apathetic nor disengaged." While many of my peers do not vote, many devote hours volunteering in their communities motivated by a deep desire to solve public problems. They opt for this volunteer engagement in large part because they see politics as dysfunctional and unproductive. And who can blame them especially in light of the current political rancor enveloping Congress and other institutions of government?

Despite this disillusionment with politics, though, many young people strive to stay politically informed. One way they do this is through online civic behaviors. A recent study found that “during the 2008 presidential campaign, 41% of those aged 18–29 watched candidate interviews, debates, speeches, and commercials online.” In addition to using the Internet to acquire political information, many youth engage in online discussions about politics and current events. These discussions take place on social networking platforms that are completely invisible to those who do not use these tools on a regular basis. I understand that some might be alarmed by these new forms of engagement because they look much different than their own political engagement; however, negative characterizations of the Millennial generation are limited at best and potentially harmful to the civic fabric of the US at worst. Without a dynamic understanding of youth engagement, we cannot design programs and solutions to address the downturn in traditional forms of youth engagement.

Russell Dalton, professor of political science at UC Irvine, wrote a helpful book that explores the generational differences in civic behavior aptly titled The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation is Reshaping American Politics. In Dalton’s book, he describes two different types of citizenship: “Citizen Duty” and “Engaged Citizenship.” Citizen Duty is often felt strongly by older generations, the most significant acts of citizenship being voting, paying taxes, and obeying the law. Young people are less concerned with this duty-based conception of citizenship, opting for volunteer activities, participation in social entrepreneurship and collaborative governance activities, and boycotting and/or buying only certain products they believe to be ethically produced. Engaged Citizenship also places a higher value on being accepting of diverse perspectives and backgrounds than the duty-based conception of citizenship. Dalton concludes that neither form of citizenship is complete but that both have things to learn from one another. I could not agree more.

Despite his negative characterization of young people, Hogan offers a helpful set of prescriptions for reversing negative trends in political engagement. Young people need to learn how to communicate effectively with one another and they also need help developing a robust set of civic skills. As was mentioned, young people volunteer in record numbers and through these experiences are developing some of the important civic skills needed to function in a democracy. As is well documented, though, they tend not to engage in politics and because of this, they are missing out on developing important skills of political engagement. It is important for us to understand and explore the generational differences in citizenship behavior so that we can usher young people along the spectrum of citizenship behavior into the realm of political engagement. We must design programs that activate the civic fervor already felt by young people and teach them political organizing strategies so they can address the systemic issues that cause the problems they are passionate about solving. 

The dysfunction of recent elections gives us an opportunity to reflect on how we interact with elected officials. Harry Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, in a series of ADP Blog posts here and here, imagines a world in which citizens partner with politicians in meaningful ways to solve community problems. This is exactly the type of politics that my generation yearns for. So it is up to elected officials, community and campus leaders, and young people to reshape politics in a way that is healthy and productive so that we might partner with one another to address the challenges facing American democracy.

If we are going to reverse the negative trends in traditional forms of engagement, it is important for us to develop a deep understanding and appreciation of the generational differences in civic behaviors that extend beyond voting. It is also important for us not to demonize young people in the process of trying to engage them. Both generations have civic lessons to teach one another. Through my work with ADP, I have strived to forge bridges between older and younger generations that create opportunities for mutual engagement and civic capacity building. I want to encourage other organizations to develop similar alliances, as the future of our democracy depends on this type of cross-generational engagement. 

About the author (s)

Cecilia Orphan

American Democracy Project

National Manager