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Why Youth Are Less Civically Minded, Active on the Environment

March 16, 2012, 8:36 AM

A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that in comparison to young Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, today's high school seniors and college freshmen are less interested in government, spend less time thinking about social problems, and are less likely to be involved in efforts to help the environment. [USA Today, AP coverage]

Community volunteerism among today's youth is greater than past generations, but concern for others and their community is down.  The higher volunteerism of today's youth, conclude the authors, is likely due to increased school requirements.

The findings on the environment cut against conventional wisdom about today's young people, but they are in line with findings from an analysis that I conducted in 2010 with Lauren Feldman, Ed Maibach, and Tony Leiserowitz.  An Executive Summary of the analysis is at the end of this post.  

Trends related to political engagement and participation need to be compared to other measures and studies. A book length study by Cliff Zukin and colleagues tracks approximately similar trends.  Young people are less politically interested, attentive and involved than older generations.  Instead they view political participation as a matter of consumer purchasing power -- rewarding and punishing companies -- and in terms of community volunteering.

Why this might be the case and the implications for civic culture are the subject of debate among scholars.  Briefly, in my view, there are a number of likely factors contributing to the decline in interest and participation in civic affairs generally and the environment specifically. These include:

1. Time Displacement

Young people are spending more time with social media and online entertainment content which displaces time spent doing other more civically oriented activities including news reading, time spent outdoors, and time spent interacting across community settings.  

2. The Gossip Girl Factor

Youth oriented media inundates young people with narratives and messages that reinforce materialistic, consumerist, and narcissistic values. Past research has also shown that entertainment portrayals tend to reduce social trust and promote distrust of government. This last finding also likely applies to news programming such as The Daily Show and Colbert Report.

3. Political Polarization

Today's world of polarized politics and opinionated media likely reinforces disengagement among young people and moderates more generally.  In a forthcoming paper reviewing a large body of studies on forms of media use, selectivity, and their effects in the context of politics, Wolfgang Donsbach and Cornelia Mothes suggest that media enable a spiral of political polarization and mobilization among the most politically engaged.

Over the course of an election or policy debate in Congress, partisans consume like-minded media and information, which intensifies their opinions and commitments, which in turn increases their attention and consumption of like-minded media, which further intensifies their commitment to a candidate or policy outcome.

Yet Donsbach and Mothes also suggest that for moderates and those who lack a strong interest in politics such as young people, there is a parallel spiral of political disengagement and demobilization.  For these groups, it is increasingly easy for them to avoid public affairs media and to pay only close attention to entertainment and soft news.  

If young people are to be recruited into politics, it is most likely to be through strategic use of entertainment media, celebrities, Facebook, Twitter, and mobile technology with forms of participation limited in their duration, sophistication, and intensity. Note for example the increased turn out and involvement among young people in 2008 and the relative disengagement in the years since including the 2010 election.


The Climate Change Generation?

Survey Analysis of the Perceptions and Beliefs of Young Americans

American adults under the age of 35 have come of age in the decades since the “discovery” of man-made climate change as a major societal problem. The oldest of this cohort was twelve in 1988, when NASA climate scientist James Hansen testified at a Senate Energy Committee hearing that global temperature rise was underway and that human-produced greenhouse gases were almost certainly responsible. For this reason, the conventional wisdom holds that young Americans, growing up in a world of ever more certain scientific evidence, increasing news attention, alarming entertainment portrayals, and school-based curricula, should be more engaged with and concerned about the issue of climate change than older Americans.

However, contrary to this conventional wisdom, new nationally representative survey data analyzed by American University researchers and collected by the Yale Project on Climate Change and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication reveal that Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 are, for the most part, split on the issue of global warming and, on some indicators, relatively disengaged when compared to older generations.

Overall, the survey data, collected between December 24, 2009 and January 3, 2010, offer no predictable portrait of young people when it comes to global warming: While less concerned about and preoccupied with global warming than older generations, they are slightly more likely to believe that global warming is caused by human factors and that there is scientific consensus that it is occurring. They are also somewhat more optimistic than their elders about the effectiveness of taking action to reduce global warming. And, while they are less open to new information about global warming than older generations, they are much more trusting of scientists and President Obama on the issue. However, they also share older generations’ distrust of the mainstream news media.

Of note, young evangelicals, an increasingly important group politically, place strong levels of trust in religious leaders as sources of information about global warming, though they are also trusting of scientists and President Obama.

Nationwide, liberals and conservatives exhibit wide differences in their beliefs about global warming, with conservatives more skeptical and less engaged than liberals, and this ideological divide is no different among young Americans.

Members of the current college-age generation (18-22 year-olds), who have grown up with even less scientific uncertainty about climate change, are somewhat more concerned and engaged than their slightly older 23-34 year-old counterparts; however, this does not hold across the board.

Still, the data suggest untapped potential to engage young Americans on the issue of global warming, particularly relative to shifting the perceptions of those who currently hold moderately skeptical or uncertain views.


See Also:

Breaking the Big Sort: The Merits of a National Service Program for Youth

Online News and the End of Political Disagreement



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