Engaging Disengaged Youth in the 21st Century: A Guide for Understanding the Trends & Meeting the Challenges

by Sarah Palmer, December 2003
published with permission


  • Only one in ten Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 can name both of their senators, as compared with one in five adults between the ages of 30 and 45 (Delli, Carpini & Keeter, 1996).
  • In 1997, 27% of college freshman reportedly think keeping up with public affairs is very important, as compared with 59% of college freshmen in 1966 (Sax, Astin, Korn, & Mahoney, 1997).
  • 32.3% of young adults reported that they had voted in the 2000 presidential election, compared with 54.7% of the entire voting age population (CIRCLE, n.d.).
  • Less than four out of ten 15-25 year olds report that "citizenship entails certain responsibilities" (Keeter, Zukin, Andolina, Jenkins, 2002).

Statistics like these show us the "proof" behind a commonly held belief- that youth and young adults, from "Generation X" [birth years 1965-1975] to "DotNets" [birth years 1978-1988], and all those that come after them, are an apathetic bunch. They have become disengaged from civic life. They don't talk to their neighbors. They watch more television than ever. In general, they don't care.

This apparent disconnection from civic life and a failure of an entire generation to use their voice has dire implications not only for the future of this country, but for the present. The United States was founded on principles of democratic participation. A failure to espouse these principles in practice is troubling.

The 2000 Census reported that there are 38.4 million Americans between the ages of 15 and 24. They account for 14% of the population (U.S. Census, 2000). They are not a segment of the population that we, as a nation, can ignore. This report addresses the hot topic of youth disengagement from civic life. It is intended to serve as a resource for youth, their parents, teachers, and all those who work with them to better understand the trends, and to work more effectively at countering them. It will look specifically at youth in the United States, with special consideration of populations that are traditionally underrepresented in political discourse: female youth and youth of color. Additionally, alternative explanations to the apathy argument will be explored.

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Understanding the Problem

Civic engagement refers to a wide range of ways in which citizens can engage in their community. Exercising the right to vote, volunteering, going to public meetings, or writing a letter to a public official are all ways that we typically think of to be civically engaged. We have seen statistics revealing that these activities are happening less and less in today's society. There is some discussion about whether the disengaged youth of today will become the engaged adults of tomorrow. Many believe, however, that young adults today have come of age in a very unique political climate. Current events, such as sex and financial scandals in the Clinton administration are still in recent memory. Michael Carpini, in his 2000 article "Gen.com: Youth, Civic Engagement, and the New Information Environment" argues that these scandals are recent examples of a 30 year stretch of "systematic devaluing of the public sector" beginning with the Watergate scandal (Carpini, 2000, p. 343). This chart, created from data collected in 2002, reveals astounding numbers of American youth that report having little or no trust in government. This is a reality that we must address in any attempt made to engage youth in politics.

Political engagement, however, is just one component to civic engagement. Emphasis on government and politics alone gives an incomplete picture of the extent of youth's civic engagement. Volunteerism is another important area to consider in assessing the extent of youth's disengagement.

A 2002 study of undergraduates at the University of Texas at Austin revealed that 74% of students volunteered during the 2001-2002 academic year. (RGK Center News, 2003). This astounding percentage is reflective of other national studies indicating that volunteerism is increasing among young adults. Youth are volunteering in their communities and they are doing so more than their adult counterparts. Of the 74% of students that reported volunteering, 79.5: responded that a "civic responsibility" to volunteer was a motivating cause for volunteering (RGK Center News, 2003).

The 2002 report "The Civic and Political Health of the Nation: A Generational Portrait" paints a more cynical picture of youth and volunteering. They reported that although rates of volunteering are high,

"much of this volunteering is episodic. . . and decidedly nonpolitical in motivation. Young adults epitomize these trends: They are the most episodic in their efforts, most apt to be volunteering because of the assistance of an outside group, and least likely to turn to volunteer work to address social or political problems" (Keeter et al, 2002, p. 17).

The study also found that only 3% of volunteers ages 15-25 work for either "environmental groups, political organizations or candidates" and just 10% indicated that their work was a "way to address a social or political problem" (p. 19). So, while high rates of volunteerism are promising in any consideration of civic engagement, the disconnect from the political arena is again, a source of concern.

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Engaging Young Adults of Color

Civic disengagement is a problem among all youth, but is even more critical of an issue among young adults of color. Data collected by CIRCLE which tracked voter turnout in presidential election years from 1972 to 2000 showed that consistently, a smaller percentage of the Latino population voted than youth of other ethnic backgrounds. Sometimes, the gap was as much as 20% lower than that of White youth. With the exception of 1984 and 2000, voting rates for African Americans also fell far behind that of young, white voters (Lopez, 2003).

For people wishing to encourage civic engagement among youth, it is important to work within the culture of the particular group you may be trying to influence, in a culturally competent manner. Careful consideration of the following is critical to your success:

  • Discussion of Politics in the Home. The findings of the 2002 report, The Civic and Political Health of the Nation: A Generational Portrait, revealed that whether or not families discussed politics at home was an important indicator of youth's future civic engagement (Keeter et. al, 2002). 58% of Latino youth ages 15-25 report that they never or infrequently discuss politics in the home, while only 47% of white youth report the same thing (Lopez, 2003). The youth you are working with may be 1st generation and live in a home with parents who are unfamiliar with the United States political system.
  • Perception That You Can Have an Impact. The biggest barrier you may be facing in your work to engage youth of color may very well be the perception that they cannot make a difference. This chart reveals that this perception is more prevalent among both African American and Latino youth in the United States than white youth.
  • History. Take into account the history of civic engagement within the specific culture you are working with. Were they ever excluded or discouraged from participation in the political system? What are the effects of that history today (Sanchez-Jankowski,2002)?
  • Distrust in Government. Does the group you are working trust government or the political system? A considerable amount- 34%- of white youth ages 15-25 report having little or no trust in government. That number rises to 40% for African American youth and 42% for Latino youth (Lopez, 2003).
  • Nontraditional Manifestations of Civic Engagement. Many of the statistics indicating that youth of color are disengaged may be a reflection of a definition of civic engagement that comes from white culture. For example, volunteerism, one key component of civic engagement, was found to be more prevalent among people of color than previously thought when informal ways of serving your community, such as helping an elderly neighbor, were taken into account (Lukka & Ellis, n.d).

There are some great examples of organizations working to engage young adults of color in the political process. Rock the Vote, http://www.rockthevote.com, is the quintessential organization doing such work. On their website, youth can register to vote, get information on issues such as the education, the environment, and censorship, and sign petitions. They have recently begun to target youth of color who are "severely underrepresented in the political process" (Rock the Vote, 2003). In 2002, Rock the Vote began a new initiative: Rock the Vote in the Latin Community. Using La Ley, Molotov, John Leguizamo, and other famous singers, actors and comedians from the Latin community in the United States, Rock the Vote has done outreach to this often overlooked segment of the youth population. Additionally, they have begun a "Rap the Vote" campaign or "Rock the Vote for the Hip-Hop Generation." The program has produced a series of public service announcements being aired on hip-hop radio stations with well known industry giants, such as Mary J. Blige and Sean P-Diddy Combs. The campaign tours historically black colleges across the U.S. (Rock the Vote, 2003). Careful consideration of the culture and history of the specific population you are working with will help you to more effectively stimulate civic engagement.

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Engaging Female Young Adults

The 2000 presidential election results showed us that young men and women voted at similar rates and women's rates of volunteering are significantly higher than those of young men (Keeter et al, 2002). However, in working with young women, just as in the work with young people of color, a consideration of their history is important. Women have only had the right to vote in the United States since 1920 and continue to be notably underrepresented among those holding office in every branch of government. Continued work to engage women in politics is essential.

There are mainstream movements specifically aimed at encouraging young women to vote. One such movement, "Chicks Rock, Chicks Vote" (CRCV), http://www.chicksrockchicksvote.com, is a site launched in 2003 by the popular all female country band, the Dixie Chicks. The site is aimed at educating young women on the political system in the United States, current issues specific to women and the history of women in politics in the United States. The goal is to increase the number of female, young adults who vote. The site states "Women make up the majority of the population of the United States. More women TODAY are graduating from colleges and universities than men! Majority Rules, right? But not unless you stand up and be counted" (Chicks Rock, Chicks Vote, 2003)

In addition to voting and volunteering, there are some other expressions of political engagement specific to young adult females that are often overlooked. Anita Harris proposes that "young women may well have another vision of civic engagement and political protest that has not yet been documented or understood" (Harris, 2001, p. 130). Harris suggests that the way many women engage in political discourse is decidedly private, underground and away from the mainstream, and shows up in underground magazines, "grrl webpages" and alternative music scenes. Increased research into this vision of civic engagement is warranted. A thorough understanding of this trend and the reasons behind it will hold important implications for people working to engage young adult women.

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Non-traditional Manifestations of "Civic Engagement"

The statistics about youth voting and other ways in which young adults are not participating in public youth indicate it should be an area of great concern. However, as Harris points out "researchers have generally focused on what young people do not do in relation to participation in society, and their roles as active citizens (Harris, 2001, p. 129). A broader and more inclusive definition of what constitutes civic engagement may offer a much more optimistic perspective.

  • Consumer Activism- Boycotting and Buycotting. A large number of young adults express their opinions through the products they do and do not buy. In 2002, 15% of youth ages 15-25 reported boycotting a product because they disapprove of the company or the conditions under which the product was made. 12% report buycotting- buying products from companies they do approve of. 24% of youth from the same cohort report doing both boycotting and buycotting (Keeter et. al, 2002). This outlet for expressing one's opinion on political and social issues is not well researched or understood. Nonetheless, the startling statistics from this 2002 study reveal that consumer boycotts and buycotts have the potential to be a powerful tools for activists hoping to harness young adults.
  • Underground Magazines. Since the 1980's, underground magazines or "zines" have become an outlet for the political and social expression by young people in this country that is often overlooked, precisely because it is, by definition, outside of the mainstream media. It has been said of zines that they "operate as a site for politics and a place for debating and refiguring young women's [and men's] place in a post-industrial world" (Harris, 2001, p. 132). The readership of zines nationwide is difficult to assess. But they are an overtly political expression.
  • The Internet. The 2002 report by Keeter, Zukin, Andolina and Jenkins collected data on canvassing, the practice of going door to door to speak with neighbors about a political issue or particular candidate. They reported that only 2% of the DotNet generation (ages 15-25) and 2% of Generation Xers (ages 26-39) have canvassed neighborhoods in their life (Keeter et al, 2002). This is a misleading statistic on civic engagement. As the internet becomes increasingly accessible and utilized by more and more people, the practice of canvassing is becoming obsolete.

A thorough discussion of the role of the internet as a forum for political activity is beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is noteworthy that the internet is burgeoning as a place for young adults to organize and communicate around campaigns and political issues. MoveOn.org [this should be a link] is one internet site that has gotten a great deal of media attention for it's ability to organize America's youth quickly and efficiently, especially around the 2003 war with Iraq and the upcoming 2004 presidential elections. It aims to engage "ordinary" Americans in the political sphere and has had a great deal of success. Currently, 1.4 million Americans, many of whom "haven't been political before" are members and receive regular updates and requests to sign petitions about issues on the legislative agenda (MoveOn.org. 2003). Eli Pariser, a 22 year old spokesperson for MoveOn is actively countering the perception that youth are disengaged.

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Putting It All In Perspective

The literature on civic disengagement of youth is often written with a tone of urgency and fear for the future. Many of the statistics on voting and political participation do point toward a significant area of concern for the future of this country. However, there are many reasons to be hopeful.

September 11, 2002 marked a turning point in the history of the United States. It was an unprecedented tragedy for this country. However, it did serve as a catalyst for building social capital and encouraging civic engagement among adults and youth alike. The results of a poll by the Tarrance Group, conducted in early 2002, revealed that 24% of college age young adults reported volunteering more since the events of September 11 (Independent Women's Forum, 2002).

The September 11 Generation, http://www.september11generation.org, is a testament to the organization and activism that resulted from that tragedy. It is a website that organizes youth who are too young to vote to encourage their friends and families to vote. They claim to have broken a voter turnout record in 2002. Through "Fire-Site Chats" "Hot Topics" and interactive message boards, they educate and engage youth. This website, in addition to many others, do provide meaningful opportunities for youth to engage in political life in the United States.

Debates on the responsibility of the public education system to address civic engagement rage on. But models of both civic education curriculums and service learning show promise for increasing youth civic engagement (Gibson, 2001). One resource for teachers wishing to incorporate service learning and civic education into their classrooms is Freedoms Answer, http://www.freedomsanswer.org. The website provides samples of curriculums on political issues and a "how-to" on organizing effective service learning projects.

While there are many convincing arguments that today's youth have grown up in a unique political climate, it is noteworthy that the debate on how to socialize youth in the political arena is not exclusive to this generation. Progressive Reformer John Dewey focused extensively on this topic in his early 20th century writings (Dudley & Gitelson, 2002). The renewed debate at the turn of the 21st century should not invoke fear, but rather, should be seen as an opportunity to develop tested methodologies for engaging youth that can be applied to future generations.

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A Call to Action

"Engaged citizens do not create themselves. We should no more expect spontaneous engagement than we do spontaneous combustion. The norms of the culture are against the former, just as the laws of physics are against the latter" (Keeter, et. al, 2002, p. 2).

Robert Putnam, in his landmark book, Bowling Alone, reported on many factors contributing to the lack of civic engagement in current time, including increased time watching television, longer commutes, busier schedules and lower membership rates in social organizations (Putnam, 2000). He concluded however, that the biggest factor in dwindling levels of engagement can be attributed to generational change. That is, we fail to instill this commitment in the next generation. Parents, teachers, mentors, volunteer managers, and all those that work with youth and young adults should look to this information as a call to action. Youth are not inherently apathetic. Rather, they have not been shown how to be civically engaged, or why it is important. Their lack of engagement is, in many ways, the failing of those that came before them.

Elizabeth Van Benschoten, in her article "Youth-Led Civic Organizing: Countering Perceptions of Apathy and Redefining Civic Engagement, a Conversation with Joel Spoonheim of the Active Citizens School" uses the following definition of civic engagement: "civic engagement is about helping citizens recognize their authority, learn the skills to create change, and organize a base with others who share a common vision." (Van Benschoten, 2000, p. 304). This definition, which emphasizes empowerment, and the acquisition of not only knowledge and skills but also a place in the arena, is one that should be kept in mind as you approach your work engaging young adults.

As we approach our work engaging young adults from all walks of life in the political arena, we should remember the following: a substantial number of young volunteers became engaged in service after being asked (Keeter et. Al, 2002). This simple tactic—asking—could be all that it takes to more effectively bring youth into civic life.

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  • Astin, A., Korn, W, Mahoney, K., Sax, L. (1997). The American Freshman National Norms for Fall 1997. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute.
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  • Chicks Rock the Vote. (2003). Chicks Rock Chicks Vote. Retrieved on December 1, 2003 from http://www.chicksrockchicksvote.com
  • CIRCLE, The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. (n.d.). Retrieved on December 7, 2003 from http://www.civicyouth.org/staff_advisory/index.htm
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  • Gibson, S. (2001). From Inspiration to Participation: A Review of Perspectives on Youth Civic Engagement. Carnegie Corporation of New York, New York.
  • Harris, A. (2001). Revisiting Bedroom Culture: New Spaces for Young Women's Politics. Hecate. 27: 1 p. 128-139.
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  • Lopez, M. (2003). Fact Sheet: Electoral Engagement Among Latino Youth. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Retrieved on December 3, 2003 from http://www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/
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  • RGK Center News- The University of Texas at Austin. (2003). Survey Demonstrates Volunteering A Vibrant Practice On The University of Texas at Austin Campus.
  • Rock the Vote. (2003). Retrieved on December 1, 2003 from http://www.rockthevote.com
  • Sanchez-Jankowski, M. (2002). Minority Youth and Civic Engagement: The Impact of Group Relations. Applied Developmental Science. 6:4 p. 237- 245.
  • September 11 Generation. (2003). Retrieved on December 3, 2003 from http://www.september11generation.org
  • United States Census 2000. (2000). United States Census Bureau. Retrieved on December 7, 2003 from http://www.census.gov/main /www/cen2000 .html
  • Van Benschoten, E. (2000). Youth-Led Civic Organizing: Countering Perceptions of Apathy and Redefining Civic Engagement, a Conversation with Joel Spoonheim of the Active Citizens School. National Civic Review. 89:4, p. 301-308.
  • Youth Vote Coalition. (2003). Retrieved on December 3, 2003 from http://www.youthvote.org

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