Today’s young people are socially conscious, civically engaged and dedicated to helping those less fortunate than themselves, says a study examining college students’ commitment to social activism. According to a report released by The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) Millennials (or members of Generation Y) are more civically active than their predecessors, Generation X. Millennials, defined by CIRCLE as those who “came of age in the year 2000” were found to be more likely to engage in social activism than participants interviewed in 1993-1994.
The CIRCLE study conclusions, which were garnered through research at 12 U.S. college campuses, compared present findings to results of a 1993 project by the Charles F. Kettering Foundation which also examined college students’ levels of devotion to civic improvement. Research back then focused on members of Generation X, famous as the disconnected, grungy “slacker generation.” The 1994 findings indicated that members of Generation X considered politics “irrelevant,” and deemed political activism to have “little purpose.”
What accounts for the differences between the two generations? Assistant Professor and Director of the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media at the School of Communication at Colorado’s University of Denver, Lynn Schofield Clark, Ph.D., offers some insight.
“There are at least three major political issues that influence young people’s daily lives,” Clark explains, who describes today’s issues as having the same relevance to Millennials that desegregation and Vietnam had to young people in the 1960’s. “First, the issue of copyright of pirating music. This brings up the issue of selfishness, because big industries are making a lot of money, while artists maybe are not. This issue provokes young people to ask, ‘Who are we? What do we value? How do we reward [artists]?’”
Millennials are more actively concerned with gaining equal rights for gays and lesbians than previous generations. “This is one of the earliest generations to see gay/straight alliances. Politicians are debating and discussing gay and lesbian rights, so Generation Y has a connection to that, as opposed to, say, labor unions [an issue of a past generation].”
The issue of immigration reform has been making headlines, and piquing the interest of Millennials, who are concerned with equal opportunities for education. “They have students asking, ‘Who has a right to a college education?’”
Another key issue involving Millennials is the Iraq War, Clark says, which has targeted their peer group as they watch their friends go overseas, and mourn those who have lost their lives. With talk of reinstatement of the draft, this issue has become salient for many young people. The gravity and emotions surrounding the Iraq War have contributed to a “backlash against selfishness,” Clark maintains, creating a cultural environment which “forces [Millennials] to be involved in public issues, like in the Sixties.” These dynamics contrast with the sense of “disconnect” that the youth of Gen X experienced in the Eighties and Nineties.
Society’s needs require more than volunteering, Clark maintains. Key problems exist because “we don’t see a commonality. We live on our own maps.” The gap between volunteers and those they serve involve disparate life experiences and little sense of collective, shared interests. “I hope young people will come to realize that we need a partnership between those who are privileged and those who are economically disadvantaged,” Clark says.
The image of the dedicated activist sharply contrasts with many popular media images of famous Millennials, a dichotomy that present interesting questions in terms of the “backlash” that Clark mentions. Could the overload of troubled, wealthy, controversial pop culture figures like Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan have contributed to the backlash, creating a need to embrace an anti-heirhead image that Gen Yers would prefer to represent? “Everybody wants to be the non-Paris Hilton,” Clark responds and, in a separate email, stated that “It does seem that some of today’s young people are sick of the selfishness around them.”
Alexander P. Orlowski, a junior sociology/political science major at Ohio’s University of Dayton (UD) recently completed a summer internship with CIRCLE and worked on analyzing the data for the report. His reaction to these very visible Millennials? “Personally, as a Millennial, I steer clear of the whole ‘MTV/Britney/Lohan scene. So my experience with that is severely limited. However, in my personal opinion, those…individuals do not only reflect poorly on the Millennial generation, but humanity as well.”
Orlowski cites several factors which have contributed to forming the socially dedicated Millennial identity. Like Clark, who writes, “I think 9/11 and the polarization of the country in its aftermath, combined with alienation from traditional government is partly responsible for the shift to civic engagement and local initiatives,” Orlowski names similar dynamics which have shaped Millennials’ perspectives. “When the September 11th attacks happened in 2001, Millennials were in junior high or high school and just beginning their formation on greater worldviews. We then had an invasion into Iraq and worries of resurrecting the draft,” Orlowski explains. “Immediately, Millennials were forced to think about how these world issues could affect them in a very real way in the near future.”
While educational requirements have also demanded more hours devoted to civic service, this doesn’t mean that students haven’t embraced the values behind them. “Additionally, volunteering among youth rose in the late 1990s, and early 2000s. Many students were required for graduation by their high schools to get involved in their communities,” Orlowski states. “As one student in our report said, ‘Most high schools now have community service requirements and it’s come to the point where they’ve trained you so much into it, it becomes second nature and habit to do service.’”
Natural disasters play a role in the Millennial sense of responsibility as well. Orlowski also cites Hurricane Katrina as a factor, characterizing it as “a major national event where this generation could have direct impact. We saw lots of college students take time to go and volunteer. UD has sent a student delegation every break since it happened.”
Disenchantment with the current political system has fueled passion to get involved, Orlowski explains. “Volunteering became a way to get involved in the political system, as one student observed, ‘Policy and politics is this thing that’s kind of hard to move, it’s very easy to get fed up and just turn to volunteer work.’ Or another, ‘So obviously, this is an issue and a concern for Americans. I think community service has sort of taken the spot of politics for a lot of people.’”
While Generation Y has been groomed to view civic engagement as a duty, social, political and economic issues have highlighted its value, making volunteering more than just a requirement to list on one’s college application. “So really, throughout all of their young adult lives, I believe our generation has been forced to get involved by some of these issues and school requirements, and it has just then taken a life of its own,” Orlowski maintains. “Not to mention the fact that campus compact and other organizations have lately made intentional efforts to increase student involvement and service learning. Additionally, on the economic side, the threat of Social Security no longer being in place when we retire has gotten a lot of students planning for their extended futures.”
With all of the violence and catastrophe which this young cohort has witnessed, combined with a government that many are “fed up” with, how do Millennials avoid becoming trapped in a cycle of hopelessness and cynicism, an accusation which members of Generation X have faced for years? “As for Gen Y escaping from becoming cynical or jaded, I think it deeply stems from their desire to get involved and make a positive change. They still view the political system as somewhat frustrating, dissatisfying, and inaccessible, but still seek ways to engage it and their communities,” Orlowski explains. “In a way, I think that Millennials realize that they need to get involved in these issues, because they are concerned about them and they realize they can affect their generation in very real ways.”