Gen X Is Active Locally, How About Nationally?

Jamie Cooper is associate director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a nonprofit public policy and leadership center. Heather McLeod is a founding editor of Who Cares, a quarterly covering youth issues

Generation gaps are hardly new. In a recent national survey, 18- to 24-year-olds were asked how older generations perceive them: "lazy," "confused" and "apathetic" were their top answers. But when asked how they think of themselves, they responded: "ambitious," "determined," "independent" and "optimistic." Fully 72% believe that Generation X "has an important voice, but no one seems to hear it."

What is more interesting is the insight this cohort can shed on what is wrong with our political system. With its low voter turnout, this generation reflects the current alienation from traditional politics. Yet, contrary to their "slacker" stereotype, they are extremely involved at the community level.

The results of focus groups and a national poll--part of a project run by the Center for Policy Alternatives and Who Cares magazine--underscore our country's need to rethink how candidates, special-interest groups and even businesses are communicating to and involving the next generation. Indeed, they suggest that this generation is already seeking new solutions to old problems, and breaking out of traditional partisan boxes.

To engage young people, older generations must first take the time to understand what they care about. Among the top concerns of Generation X are not such activist rallying points as the environment, but economic and personal security. An overwhelming majority (88%) believe their generation faces more change than their parents--and many of their concerns involve adapting to a changing economy.

Three-fourths of these young people already have jobs; 61% have debts of some kind (including education), and 36% are working and attending school. Among their top immediate worries: having a job that pays well and provides decent benefits, like health care.

Longer-term economic concerns include being able to afford a house, have children and send them to school, and pay for retirement. When this cohort talked about education, it was in terms of its rising costs and worries that a college degree no longer guarantees economic security. They overwhelmingly favor increasing the amount of student loans.

Aside from pocketbook issues, these 18- to 24-year-olds expressed strong opinions about the disintegration of family and community, and rising levels of violence. Crime is their single strongest concern. But their discussions about it were closely intertwined with a sense that "community is disappearing and it is harder and harder to have a stable family life"--a statement 78% agreed with.

Young people see local communities as the place where these problems must first be addressed. An overwhelming 95% believe, "when people get involved, they can really make a difference." They believe this to be far more true at the local, rather than national, level. Two-thirds say, "the best way to make a difference is to get involved in your local community, because that's where you can solve the problems that really affect people."

This belief is reflected in their rates of volunteerism: nearly two-thirds have been involved in activities through religious organizations, while 50% have volunteered to help children by tutoring or coaching. More than 25% volunteer frequently. Yet, when it comes to politics, only a minuscule 9% haved worked for a political candidate or party. This apparent distaste for politics was reflected in their belief (61%) that "politicians and political leaders have failed my generation."

Such a view helps explain, in part, why this cohort has had, on average, a 36% turnout rate at the polls in the last 25 years. 1992 was a record year, with a 42% turnout rate--a number that groups such as Rock the Vote and Youth Vote '96 are trying to surpass this November, when newly registered "motor-voters" will go to the polls.

These and other efforts to engage young people, however, will only be successful if they meaningfully connect the issues of this generation to what happens in Washington. That is no small challenge. Clearly, discontent is not unique to young voters; it is merely more pronounced among those whose politics are forming.

But there are other indications from this cohort that the country must rethink what politics means. For young people, TV sound-bite wars leave them more confused and alienated. For them, politics means local involvement, not who is in the White House. This is not to say that volunteering should replace voting as a civic activity. Rather, it says that local involvement can be the starting point for assuming the responsibilities of citizenship.

Politicians and candidates who want the youth vote should meet with young people and listen to them. They must make a greater effort to include young people in discussions about policy and the country's future. Seventy-three percent of youth said they'd be more likely to get involved "if people my age were involved in making the decisions that affect us."

Beyond that, youth organizers and the host of established nonprofit interest groups seeking to engage young people must reexamine their agendas. Too many youth groups are spinoffs from the social movements of the '70s, which focused on the environment, feminism, labor or civil rights. While these issues are important, they were not highly ranked in the survey.

It is also clear that young people are less interested in confrontation than in collaboration. They don't want protest; they want more partnership across the sectors to solve social problems.

This group thinks government can be part of the solution--if "made to work for average working families." But they also say business has an important role to play in providing job training, child care, benefits and being more responsive to workers (86%) and communities (79%). They strongly favor giving businesses incentives to adopt such policies. Not surprisingly, given the recent trends in corporate America, a majority of young people say they'd like to own their own business.

This generation's involvement at the local level and its emphasis on personal responsibility suggest that creating local partnerships of businesses, government and nonprofits may be one "new way" of engaging them. Its lack of partisan loyalty (more than 22% consider themselves undecided, compared with 6% of the general population) and tendency to "vote the candidate," rather than the party, indicate a group seeking to get beyond traditional "left/right" political divides.

Highly pragmatic, these young people are more interested in what works. If political leaders took the time to listen, they might learn a lot from the next generation.*

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