I’ve been reading a book by several well-known scholars of civic engagement, “A New Engagement? Political Participation, Civic Life, and the Changing America Citizen.” It has been interesting for a number of reasons: the authors compare and contrast four cohorts—the generation prior to the Baby Boomers, which they call “the Dutifuls,” the Boomers, GenX and the youngest cohort—the one we tend to refer to as Millennials, but they dubbed the DotComs.
There is a lot of interesting material about the differences in civic and political attitudes and skills among the four cohorts. The researchers note one in particular that I have noticed in my own students—unlike the Dutifuls and Boomers, the DotComs are far more likely to participate in civic life than in political activities. They haven’t opted out, as so many of the GenX generation has, but they have directed their energies to volunteerism and nonprofit activities rather than politics and government.
The authors attribute this political “opting out” in part to the fact that the DotCom generation was socialized at a time when anti-government rhetoric was ubiquitous—when Reagan’s “government is not the solution, government is the problem” had become an accepted axiom. Other attributes of the DotCom generation, however, fly in the face of this tidy conclusion. DotComs are far more supportive of government activities and programs than the generations that preceded them, for example. They are more likely to label themselves “liberal,” and not just on social issues. They are more likely to support affirmative action and other government efforts to ameliorate inequality, and more likely to support government-provided healthcare and other social safety-net programs.
The researchers cautioned that it is difficult to know what portion of the differences they saw are generational attributes that are likely to persist, and what portion are “life cycle;” that is, attitudes that will change as they grow older, establish households, have children, etc.
We have an advantage over the authors. The book was written in 2003, and the research was conducted in the two or three year period prior to that. In 2013, some of the open questions can be answered, at least tentatively. The authors worried, for example, that youth voting turnout would continue to decline; as we saw in 2008 and 20012, it has increased. The inclusive attitudes of the DotCom cohort are largely responsible for the profound changes in the politics of same-sex marriage, and the increasing pressure for immigration reform.
It is still the case that DotComs disproportionately invest their energies in civic rather than political causes, however. If that changes—if this generation ever devotes as much energy to the political system as it does to organizations working to save the environment, address community problems, and help the less fortunate—look out! Things will change, and in my opinion, those changes will be for the better.