Young Adults: Disengaged from the Public Sector?

Did the election of 2008 indicate that emerging adults would turn the corner to become more engaged in the public sector? Christian Smith, with Kari Chistoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog, in their book Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood contend that the evidence shows that they are “less involved in various forms of overt political activity and are less reliably and consistently involved in politics than previous cohorts of young citizens” (195). The election of 2008 was a “temporary blip” or “media hype.”

What is your response to this sketch of civic engagement? Do you think emerging adults are any different than ordinary Americans in the degree of their engagement?

Here is their major, if tough-spoken, conclusion: “The vast majority of the emerging adults we interviewed remain highly civically and politically disengaged, uninformed, and distrustful” (195-196). They feel “disempowered, apathetic, and sometimes even despairing” (196). They found “six types”:

1. Apathetic: 27%. Don’t care.
2. Uninformed: 13%. Don’t know.
3. Distrustful: 19%. Don’t believe. Informed somewhat.
4. Disempowered: 10%. Doesn’t matter. Informed somewhat.
5. Marginally political: 27%. Somewhat engaged. Informed.
6. Genuinely political: 4%. Engaged and informed.

What about volunteering and charitable giving? “… they are also not big on volunteering and voluntary financial giving, at least at this point in their lives” (210). They do not have time and resources for such endeavors. What was notable in this research was that “most emerging adults in America have extremely modest hopes, if any, that they can change society or the world for the better” (211). They see this as realism, not cynicism or narcissism.

What’s the story here?

Age. Emerging adults are emerging into a mature life but are not yet there.
Scandals and public events. Emerging adults grew up amidst serious scandals about public leaders.
Perceptive. Emerging adults see what is going on and perceive the issues well; they know little can be done.

1. Moral confusion and disorientation. There is a lack of a genuinely moral public vision for the common good.
2. Mass consumer materialism. This is the difference between the common good and self-interest.
3. Individualistic relativism. They are individualistic; they believe everyone is different so much one wonders if they perceive “common” goods. They don’t tend to see an objective reality beyond the self. Helping others is a personal choice; not a duty.
4. Technological submersion in interpersonal relationships in private settings. “Citizenship is not a word in their vocabularies” (223).

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  • What about the general trend toward big institutions in general? I’m seeing this over and over again. The mega-churches and denominational churches are gradually aging while young people are either joining house churches or pursuing a personal spirituality. Educational institutions are beginning to be abandoned as students want to take more charge of their education rather than being forced to take required classes for which they have no interest. They tend to see government as the problem rather than the solution. And even charitable institutions are being seen as self-perpetuating autocracies. The “go local” movement is hitting them in spades. I anticipate that we will see more and more involvement in local issues and interventions while continuing to abandon larger venues.

  • scotmcknight

    Rick, I’m not sure the evidence supports de-institutionalized civic engagement. There was nothing in this chp that I recall supporting your proposal.

  • Rodney Reeves

    “They are individualistic; they believe everyone is different so much one wonders if they perceive ‘common’ goods.” And yet, ironically, they hunger for authentic community.