Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
Conclusion and Directions for Policy
Civic engagement of young adults is important both for the functioning of a democratic society and for individual development. As generational replacement theories suggest, democracies depend on the social integration of successive younger generations into the body politic. For individual youth, civic engagement fulfills a need to belong and provides opportunities to work in concert with fellow citizens to realize shared ends. Through civic activities young generations come to appreciate their identities as members of the public. New generations get recruited into civic life by being in settings that offer opportunities to get engaged, to develop civic competencies, and to connect their lives with the lot of others.
But opportunities for civic engagement are not evenly distributed by social class or by racial and ethnic group, and wide disparities in political participation exist. As the transition to adulthood has lengthened, four-year colleges have become perhaps the central institution for civic incorporation of younger generations. They are heavily subsidized by public dollars, and no comparable institution exists for young adults who complete their education with a high school diploma or less. Institutions, such as unions, that once attempted to involve these youth in public affairs have diminished in reach.
Opportunities for sustained engagement by programs such as City Year could provide an alternative developmental path during the prolonged transition to adulthood. When youth aged eighteen to twenty-five are asked what it means to them to be an adult, they cite responsibility for one's actions and awareness of others.51 Their journey into adulthood could be more meaningful if society were to provide institutional opportunities for responsible civic engagement. Such opportunities could also compensate for the lack of occupational outlets, especially for forming careers, that many young adults face today.
Opportunities for sustained community engagement also could provide new norms or markers of mature adult behavior that young adults could use as a gauge for their own maturation. (Even without a steady job or life partner, it is still possible to be a responsible and committed member of one's community.) Society could also use civic activity as a new benchmark for assessing how this age group is faring. Finally, such sustained civic activity programs could be a new institutional model that would enable young adults from disadvantaged families to stay connected to mainstream opportunities and to adults who could mentor and guide their way.
The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act (P.L. 111–13), signed by President Barack Obama in April 2009, responds to several issues concerning civic engagement and the prolonged transition to adulthood. First, it increases the number of slots in AmeriCorps programs and adds new corps to address America's most pressing needs in health care, education, the environment, emergency preparedness, and public service. These new opportunities will enable corps members to work on civic issues and, at the same time, explore career options in expanding occupations. A year in an AmeriCorps program could become a pathway into adulthood and transform the episodic style of much of the current youth engagement into a more sustained form.
Second, the legislation adds flexibility to ways that young people can get engaged in service and so is attuned to the balancing act that characterizes young adulthood today. For example, the National Civilian Conservation Corps will now have a non-residential component, which means that youth could focus on such things as disaster relief or energy conservation in the community where they grew up and still rely on the support of family and friends. Third, the education award, which has been a key element of AmeriCorps, is increased to $5,350 (the amount of Pell grants) and can be applied to a wider range of institutions. Although the award remains small compared with the rising costs of education, these changes should make the program more attractive to youth at different stages in their educational career.
Fourth, and perhaps most important in our view, is that the legislation not only targets the needs of low-income communities but also makes the inclusion of marginalized youth a priority. For example, at least 50 percent of the participants in the National Civilian Conservation Corps must be youth from economically disadvantaged backgrounds (including youth in foster care) or represent the ethnic diversity of America. With respect to K–12 service learning, the law encourages a semester of service in high school, urges schools to tie service to local community needs, and also extends to sixth to twelfth graders the opportunity to earn income for a summer of community service. Although these efforts would hardly put a dent in the cumulative disadvantage that leads to inequalities in civic participation, they are steps in the right direction.
Accountability and innovation are integral to the goal of building the nation's volunteer infrastructure. Toward this end, the law includes a ten-year study of the benefits of service learning and directs the Census Bureau to conduct a national Civic Health Index. The law also includes capacity building for nonprofits, a social innovation fund, and training and technical assistance, especially for programs that mix youth with older adults.
The Kennedy Act represents an important investment but could be improved in several ways in the future. It forbids corps members from engaging in political activity of any sort. Thus, youth who become engaged in sustained efforts to address national needs as outlined in the legislation (safeguarding the environment, strengthening schools, improving health care in low-income communities) may not use the knowledge and experience gained in their service to work for policies that could potentially improve the very problems they are addressing in their volunteer service.
Further, the legislation provides nothing like a common curriculum or set of learning standards and objectives for AmeriCorps programs. The emphasis is on generating service hours and addressing social problems, but not making sure that participants obtain any specified set of civic skills or motivations. AmeriCorps would be more effective as a tool for civic engagement if, like the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, it aimed to teach democratic skills and was assessed on those terms.52
Overall, the evidence supports providing alternative civic learning opportunities for young adults not in college. AmeriCorps, especially if modified to become more educative and more open to politics, would be an important step, but would by no means suffice to close the civic engagement gap or to reverse declines since the 1970s.