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Kids These Days, Same as the Old Days?


 

A while ago, there was a snappy little exchange between Lawrence Martin and Alison Loat in the op-ed pages of the Globe, over the political engagement of kids these days. Martin called them lazy and ignorant, Loat said well, we all need to take responsibility for our lousy political culture. David Eaves chimed in saying that kids are certainly engaged, just not in the way old fogeys like L Martin want them to be.

My last column for the mag was sort of a meta-comment on the debate. My general point was that it isn’t necessarily helpful to frame these debates in terms of generational turnover, generational values, and so on, because I’m skeptical that talk about “generations” as identifiable cohorts with a distinctive worldview and set of values is useful.

In the Mark today, Don Lenihan and Vinod Rajasekaran of the Public Policy Forum posted what I think is intended as a reply to my column, setting it up as so:

In replying to it, we want to deal with three quite different questions that are entangled in the discussion: Are young people really disengaged? Is the fall in voter turnout a sign of their overall disengagement? Are young people really somehow different from earlier generations? Let’s take these one at a time.

On the first question, they go on to largely repeat Eaves’ argument, that kids sure are engaged, just in “non-conventional ways.” On the second, they largely repeat Loat’s argument, that in refusing to vote in any great numbers, youth are basically the canaries in the coalmine of a poisoned political culture.

Neither of these bears on anything I wrote. My argument was not that kids are disengaged; it was that regardless of what they are up to now, they’ll become more conventionally engaged once their lives become more, well, conventional. As for voting, we could talk all night about voter turnout (and I’ll try to blog on it soon). But for what it is worth, I don’t buy the Loat/Lenihan line — the trend is too widespread across the developed democracies to pin it on our particular political culture.

So what are we debating? Essentially, the question is whether kids these days — Gen Y, millennials, whatev — constitute a distinct cohort that has a unique set of values that will remain so across life stages, or whether the current trends are just highly visible stage traits. Don and Vinod (and Eaves) think that huge recent changes in technology is the catalyst for a genuine Gen Y worldview:

As a result, you can’t change the society without changing its members. If so, isn’t it reasonable to assume that a generation shaped by this new world somehow will be different from those who have gone before it?

Perhaps. But I personally haven’t read anything that supports this. I’ve read a great deal of stuff that amounts to hand-waving and speculative thinking, but no serious studies, surveys, and so on. In fact, the limited reading I have done on the subject suggests that “generations” are highly over-rated as sociological categories, or, at least, extremely difficult entities to pin down with any rigour.

I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise. (In fact I’d like to be persuaded otherwise, and please send me any readings or data you have on this.) But given the fact that old people have been saying the exact same things about kids these days for literally millennia, the burden is on those who want to argue that this generation really is different. At any rate, while it’s something that might arrive as a conclusion from our inquiries, I don’t see how we can justify using it as a premise.


 
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Kids These Days, Same as the Old Days?

  1. Perhaps it's that young adults are 'teens' until a much later age. Late twenties for some. Back in 1950, many people were married with children by 22 or 23. That could explain the shift to low turn-out by young adults across the developed world.

    Is it just that teens don't give a crap? I find a lot of them can't be bothered to be informed, but are all too willing to bitch about society.

  2. I recently decided to learn more about evolutionary psychology/biology and genetics psychology. I think the more likely explanation for the indifference of the under-25s is that's the way humans are hard wired rather than a phenomenon that's happened out of the blue and needs to be fixed.

    I am Gen-X and don't believe every generation has a "distinctive worldview and set of values" but I do think the occasional generation develops similar characteristics if there are a few shared cataclysmic events.

  3. I like what Potter has to say on this. Lower voter turnout occurs throughout western democracies. If there is one identifiable reason for that, it has to be common to all. Perhaps the age of democratic rule is the common factor. Perhaps the complacency toward voting has to do with the reserve factor. Younger voters will vote if there is a compelling reason to vote, but as democracy ages, the differentiation between choices in the vote grows more and more narrow, regardless of where in the world you happen to be. Like Potter, I believe anyone purporting to have answers is mere hand-waving. Like me, here.

  4. I like what Potter has to say on this. Lower voter turnout occurs throughout western democracies. If there is one identifiable reason for that, it has to be common to all. Perhaps the age of democratic rule is the common factor. Perhaps the complacency toward voting has to do with the reserve factor. Younger voters will vote if there is a compelling reason to vote, but as democracy ages, the differentiation between choices in the vote grows more and more narrow, regardless of where in the world you happen to be. Like Potter, I believe anyone purporting to have answers is merely hand-waving. Like me, here.

  5. Personally, I think an ad that features Justin Trudeau staring meaningfully into the camera would improve voter turn out for the 18-24 demographic. Just a suggestion.

    • I think most of the non-voting 18-24 year olds wouldn't have a clue who Justin Trudeau is.

      • But they know tall, dark and handsome when they see it.

  6. Distilled to the essential point you're wanting to make, yes, I completely agree. However, I have to say the way you framed it in your last column made it quite a frustrating read for me, as someone who'd fall into one of those "younger generation" categories; this is far more clear and far less, well, offensive.

      • Please note my hesitation to using the word offensive, as it is perhaps a little strong but it does sum up how I felt after reading it.

        The column was framed in such a way that it was made clear your intended audience was "older" generations rather than the people who were actually the subject of the column, and the way it created a sort of "us vs. them" dynamic. The anecdote opening the column followed by the opening line on in the second paragraph pretty much cement that feeling well before you've got to your main point (nevermind that the Beloit College list is crap, and that while "sexting" may be nice, sensational stuff for the media to follow, I highly doubt it is anything approaching common). Then, you phrase your point in such a way that the subtext to it is pretty much "those crazy kids will come around to our way of thinking in good time" and conclude the column with a self-congratulatory "they'll thank us". At the least, it's patronizing and really, suggesting that anyone should be thanked for the current state of our politics is just laughable.

        Like I said, I agree with the main point you're making if you cut it down to just being about the futility of trying to assign static characteristics and values to generations, but even then I still think you've only got half of it with how you support your statement. It isn't just that young people will eventually become more "conventional", it's that convention and our political leaders will change to better reflect our values as time passes.

  7. I believe low voter turnout amongst the youth of today is explained by a combination of these previously mentioned factors:
    – it takes a bit longer for the average youth today to get to the point in their lives where politics seems like it might actually matter, and therefore be something that should be followed
    – there is less differentiation between the mainstream political parties
    – the threat of a coalition and the recession notwithstanding, society today isn't faced with the same sort of fundamental issues as in the past, which may also relate to the previous narrowing of party platforms.

    Based on that I have never been able to get too worked up about the declining numbers and the occasional efforts to invigorate the youth vote.

  8. One thing has has changed from previous generations is the proportion of young people pursuing post-secondary education. Now that a high school diploma is near worthless in the eyes of job market, it's pretty much a necessity (I'm not saying it should be that way, just observing.)

    I wonder if that trend serves to disengage youth from what Potter calls "conventional" life? In my own experience attending and teaching (part-time) at universities over the last twenty years, I've been struck by the alter-universe nature of student life. The entire structure of a student's life has precious little to do with the rest of society, from economic to political to social/cultural realms. There's all kinds of reasons for this, not the least is the fact that many are living away from home for the first time.

    Even those students who are unusually engaged in a political sense tend to be drawn to things like women's issues, concerns with corporate power, third world poverty – hardly the stuff Ottawa (or the provinces and municipalities) play much of a role in debating.

  9. One thing has has changed from previous generations is the proportion of young people pursuing post-secondary education. Now that a high school diploma is near worthless in the eyes of job market, it's pretty much a necessity (I'm not saying it should be that way, just observing.)

    I wonder if that trend serves to disengage youth from what Potter calls "conventional" life? In my own experience attending and teaching (part-time) at universities over the last twenty years, I've been struck by the alter-universe nature of student life. The entire structure of a student's life has precious little to do with the rest of society, from economic to political to social/cultural realms. There's all kinds of reasons for this, not the least is the fact that many are living away from home for the first time.

    Even those students who are unusually engaged in a political sense tend to be drawn to things like women's issues, concerns with corporate power, third world poverty – hardly the stuff Ottawa (or the provinces and municipalities) play much of a role in debating or influencing.

    I largely agree with your overarching point, AP, that people have been griping about 'youth' for at least a few hundred years, and I don't want to overstate things. But if I were to explore one dimension in greater depth, it would be the influence of post-secondary years as a "liminal" and detaching period in one's life.

  10. One thing that has changed from previous generations is the proportion of young people pursuing post-secondary education. Now that a high school diploma is near worthless in the eyes of job market, it's pretty much a necessity to attend collegte or university. (I'm not saying it should be that way, just observing.)

    I wonder if that trend serves to disengage youth from what Potter calls "conventional" life? In my own experience attending and teaching (part-time) at universities over the last twenty years, I've been struck by the alter-universe nature of student life. The entire structure of a student's life has precious little to do with the rest of society, from economic to political to social/cultural realms. There's all kinds of reasons for this, not the least is the fact that many are living away from home for the first time.

    Even those students who are unusually engaged in a political sense tend to be drawn to things like women's issues, concerns with corporate power, third world poverty – hardly the stuff Ottawa (or the provinces and municipalities) play much of a role in debating or influencing.

    I largely agree with your overarching point, AP, that people have been griping about 'youth' for at least a few hundred years, and I don't want to overstate things. But if I were to explore one dimension in greater depth, it would be the influence of post-secondary years as a "liminal" and detaching period in one's life.

    • That's interesting Sean. It hadn't occurred to me, but the trend toward extending adolescence into ones 30s and even 40s is an obvious line of approach. Very interesting.

      • The more I think about it, there's other cultural shifts to account for too (if only to dismiss, which is fine!).

        If we think about our general move toward a society of consumption – in the broadest sense – that too may play a role in fracturing off youth from conventional society. As one particular example, consider the phenomena of popular music from the 1950s on. The bobby-socks fans (can't remember the exact term) of Sinatra were the beginning of a music industry driven strictly by youth, such that Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones and others were existed in an almost strictly under-30 bubble. Prior to that, music was fairly pan-generational, and segmentation had more to do with class or race than one's age (think "black" music prior to Elvis, for example.)

        Anyway, I sure enjoy these discussions you initiate!

      • The more I think about it, there's other cultural shifts to account for too (if only to dismiss, which is fine!).

        If we think about our general move toward a society of consumption – in the broadest sense – that too may play a role in fracturing off youth from conventional society. As one particular example, consider the phenomena of popular music from the 1950s on. The bobby-socks fans (can't remember the exact term) of Sinatra were the beginning of a portion of the music industry driven strictly by youth, such that Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones and others existed in an almost strictly under-30 bubble. Prior to that, music was fairly pan-generational, and segmentation had more to do with class or race than one's age (think "black" music prior to Elvis, for example.)

        Anyway, I sure enjoy these discussions you initiate!

  11. Aaron Wherry linked David Foster Wallace's Rolling Stone article covering the McCain campaign, it's a great read in the context of this thread, especially when you consider what McCain did in '08.

  12. And while I'm unsure if this is a direct answer to the question you're asking with regards to generational issues and studies, here is (via thefirstdrop.ca) a collection of CPRN reports on the topic of youth engagement in politics.

    http://www.cprn.org/theme.cfm?theme=102&l=en

    I'm just reading through the synthesis (http://www.cprn.org/doc.cfm?doc=1769&l=en) right now, but this does seem to go pretty much to the heart of the question you're asking, so far as I can tell.

  13. Andrew, thanks for keeping the conversation going. Judging from the Mark today, you continue to spark a discussion on whether this generation is any different from those that preceded it, although there are substantial efforts underway internationally that attempt to understand the impact of the internet on all this… and I'll leave it to them.

    On voting. Andrew, hope you can blog soon on this, and here's some fodder to get you started. We do know that declines in voter turnout in Canada, as in other countries, is the result of lower turnout among the young (see http://tinyurl.com/pyc3k6 for more info). We also know that there is some early indication that suggests that the decline in youth turnout is attributable to something Andrew mentions, which is our collectively lengthening adolescence.

    However, there is another unanswered question in all this. The same research mentioned above (see http://tinyurl.com/pyc3k6) also suggests people who engage in "non-conventional" activities (such as those that researchers purport young people engage in today) are more likely to vote that those who aren't.

    So if it's true that young people are more engaged in NGOs or other forms of engagement, shouldn't that be reflected in higher turnout? Perhaps the G&M's Lawrence Martin is right and the young aren't as involved as we think they are. Perhaps we're plagued, young and old, with an growing case of "why bother?" (this is probably my major worry). Perhaps there are more important factors, like the later maturation thesis. Or perhaps something more fundamental is going on, as David Eaves and Don Lenihan discuss.

    Thoughts?

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