AbstractConsiderable concern is focused nowadays on young Americans’ civic engagement. “Civic engagement” is often used as a catch-all term to refer to a wide array of civic and political activities, but this term misses civil citizenship. This article draws on interviews I conducted with thirty-five young American professionals to explore what they think constitutes a “good citizen.” What emerges from their answers is less a political or civic citizen than a civil citizen whose polite individualism, proximate reach and facile, fleeting engagement may help explain younger Americans’ weaker political engagement.
In public discourse about democracy and citizenship, “civic engagement” is often used as a catch-all term to encompass a variety of attitudes, knowledge and activities. Yet this catch-all concept glosses over important differences in American citizens’ engagement. Several recent studies indicate that younger Americans born in 1965 onward are less politically engaged than their elders – at least by traditional measures of voting, partisan affiliation, political knowledge, and party activity – but that they are as much if not more civically engaged, especially in community volunteering (e.g., Dalton, 2008; Zukin, Keeter, Andolina, Jenkins & Delli Carpini, 2006).
Cliff Zukin and his colleagues (2006) draw on three original national surveys and eleven focus groups conducted in different parts of the country to conclude that “the vast majority of citizens are either disengaged from all forms of public life or specialize in either civic or political forms of engagement,” (Zukin et al., 2006, p. 200) but that younger Americans in what they call the GenX and DotNet generations (born in 1965-1976, and after 1976, respectively) are less likely to be engaged overall. To the extent that these younger Americans are engaged they tend to be “civic specialists” favoring “direct hands-on work in cooperation with others” – from runs and walks for charity, to tutoring and mentoring, to park and river clean-ups – which occurs “within nongovernmental organizations and rarely touches upon electoral politics” (Zukin et al., 2006, pp. 51, 63).
Russell Dalton (2008) analyzes data from the 2004 General Social Survey and the 2005 Citizenship, Involvement, and Democracy Survey conducted by Georgetown University to argue that older Americans are more likely to be “duty-based” citizens who vote, pay taxes, serve on juries, join the military when called, and obey the law. Younger Americans, in contrast, are more likely to be “engaged” citizens who vote less, but participate in less conventional politics like boycotts, public demonstrations and email petitions to politicians, as well as socially conscious consumerism, and helping others in need locally to globally.
Others affirm that volunteerism among American students has been rising since the early 1990s (Pryor et al., 2010; Wattenberg, 2008). But drawing on several national surveys, Wattenberg concludes that younger Americans are no more or even somewhat less inclined to boycott, petition, and demonstrate than their Baby Boomer predecessors while they are clearly less politically informed and less engaged in conventional political action, such as donating to and volunteering for political campaigns (Wattenberg, 2008).
While some scholars suggest that civic activity can lead to political activity (McFarland & Thomas, 2006; Zukin et al., 2006), there appears to be little evidence thus far that young Americans’ greater volunteerism is leading to greater political engagement (Macedo et al., 2005; Wattenberg, 2008). Indeed, a national survey of undergraduate students conducted by the Harvard Institute of Politics in 2000 found that 85% of respondents believed that “community voluntarism is better than political engagement for addressing issues facing the community” (Sitaraman and Warren, 2003, p. 17). This statistic, like Dalton, and Zukin et al.’s subsequent research, suggests that young Americans are developing a different kind of citizenship, one that does not accord with conventional politics, and which may even eschew politics altogether. An intriguing hint of a different kind of citizenship comes from a passing note about the focus groups Zukin and his colleagues (2006) conducted with Americans in varied locations:
[M]ost of the people we met were comfortable talking about their communities, their day-to-day activities, or their (mostly negative) opinions about politics and politicians….When we turned the discussion to more explicitly political forms of public engagement; however, it was a very different story. Few were able to describe their own political lives. Most had not thought much about it. Asked if citizenship carried any responsibilities, the few people who answered spoke mostly of good conduct, looking after one’s family, and occasionally being a good neighbor. Surprisingly few mentioned voting, staying informed, or participating more generally in the political world. While this pattern was evident in almost all the groups we spoke with, it seemed especially true for GenXers and DotNets….[F]or most of these young people, awareness of the more traditional world of politics seemed almost non-existent. (p. 49)
My own research here digs deeper into how young Americans on the tail end of Generation X (born 1965-1976) and at the start of the DotNet Generation (born after 1976) think about citizenship, uncovering a different kind of citizen engaged in “good conduct” rather than political or even civic action.
Much of what scholars currently know about young Americans’ citizenship comes from national surveys. For all their virtues, surveys typically constrain people’s responses to standardized answer choices. This is useful for measuring citizens’ knowledge, attitudes and activities as Dalton, Zukin et al. and others do (Torney-Purta, Lehmann, Oswald & Schulz, 2001; Verba, Schlozman & Brady, 1995), but it is less helpful for deeper understanding of how people think, in their own words, about citizenship and what it should entail. Of course, there is no clear correspondence between what people think and what they do. However, the meanings people attach to things can shape how they act toward those things. Existing surveys clearly indicate that many young Americans are acting differently than their elders as citizens, and these differences have consequences for the future of American democracy. It is thus worth digging deeper than surveys typically allow to gain a richer sense of how young Americans think about citizenship, in their own words.