Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
Decline or Delay? Trends in Young Adults' Civic Engagement
Young adults today are less likely than their counterparts in the 1970s were to exhibit nine out of ten important characteristics of citizenship: belonging to at least one group, attending religious services at least monthly, belonging to a union, reading newspapers at least once a week, voting, being contacted by a political party, working on a community project, attending club meetings, and believing that people are trustworthy.3 Only in a tenth form of citizenship—volunteering—are they more likely to participate, probably as a result of deliberate efforts over the past several decades by schools, colleges, and community groups to encourage volunteering. For several of these ten types of engagement—notably voting—rates have risen in the 2000s compared with the 1990s, but not enough to compensate for thirty years of decline.
These changes invite us to ask whether the nation's younger generations have permanently weaker connections to civic life than their predecessors or whether the lengthening transition to adulthood means that young people today take longer to begin to forge those connections (much as they take longer to get married or finish their education).
Trends in voting provide evidence that at least some of the change is a matter of delay, not a permanent generational decline. During any era, young adults are less likely than their elders to vote. Since 1972, when eighteen-year-old Americans were first eligible to vote, the voting gap between youth aged eighteen to twenty-five and their elders has fluctuated in presidential election years between 16 percent and 27 percent, with the smallest margin in 1972 and the largest in 2000.4
Figure 1 shows voting rates over the life course for twelve different cohorts (each born within a different four-year period) that became eligible to vote in time for presidential elections from 1956 to 2000. The overall pattern is that each generation moves toward the same high level of turnout over the life course. For instance, the cohorts that are old enough to have voted in five elections are all voting at rates above 60 percent. But the earlier generations start at a higher rate and rise less to reach the 60 percent level or above. Every successive cohort has had a lower starting point, but has also become substantially more engaged during their twenties and into their thirties, narrowing the gap.
This interpretation is consistent with a political life-cycle model that holds that political engagement increases as one's life, roles, and institutional connections in the community become more stable. Delays in role changes (stable jobs, marriage, and family formation) associated with the increasingly protracted transition to adulthood have been accompanied by delays in the voting patterns of successive cohorts of young adults. These trends in voting patterns tell a story of delay rather than one of decline.
But a protracted developmental period and delayed civic engagement cannot explain all the changes in forms of engagement. First, certain civic activities have become more common for young adults than they once were. As noted, the volunteering rate for young adults rose during the 1990s and is higher today than it was during the 1970s and 1980s. Today young adults are about as likely as their contemporary elders to volunteer, raise funds for causes, and say they have worked on local projects with other people in their communities. Youth today are more likely than their contemporary elders to engage in global activism, to use the Internet for political information and action (which was impossible thirty years ago), and to engage in lifestyle and consumer politics.5
Second, in some forms of civic engagement that have declined substantially, younger generations do not catch up with their elders as they move through their twenties. Newspaper readership is one example: recent generations have not narrowed the gap with their parents as they have aged.6 Social trust reflected generational declines through the 1990s but showed some recovery in the new millennium and, across cohorts, increased through the third decade of life.7 For some other forms of engagement (such as meeting attendance and working on community projects), we lack sufficient long-term data to be able to tell whether downward trends represent declines or delays.
For several decades, both forms and patterns of young adult civic engagement have been changing. For example, panel studies indicate that patterns of civic engagement in young adulthood have become increasingly episodic over the past several generations. Even the civic engagement of the baby boom generation (1965 high school graduating cohort) was more episodic than that of their parents at similar ages. Consequently, it is more challenging to predict lifelong patterns of conventional engagement based on adolescent activity. For the baby boom generation, levels of civic engagement in high school were a poor predictor of engagement in their mid-twenties. As the boomers settled into adult roles in their thirties and forties, however, patterns of civic engagement became more predictable.8 These trends across generations have led to speculation that the character of American civic life is changing toward more short-term and episodic engagement and away from enduring memberships in associations and community organizations. Nonetheless, the young adult years are a formative period when civic values and political ideologies crystallize. Opportunities for engaging with others to address civic concerns make it more likely that in the long run people will identify with and contribute to the common good.