Kenneth White is a junior at Union College, where he is pursuing a double major in political science and economics.
On my first day at Union College three years ago, I was ecstatic to enter what I thought was the vibrant world of youthful activism. There I was, politically motivated, well-informed, and ready to join legions of my peers in proud, courageous acts of protest and petition.
My expectations were admittedly a bit romanticized, largely informed by visions of Joan Baez singing, “We Shall Overcome,” at UC-Berkeley’s free speech demonstrations in 1964, and powerful images of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights movement.
I came in expecting a vibrant activist spirit, intelligent discussion of current events, and acute political awareness. What I got was a healthy dose of the first, and almost none of the latter two.
Apparently, young people today want nothing to do with politics. Millenials , born between 1980 and 1996, are quickly becoming “The Exasperated Generation.” To anyone born in the past 20 years or so, it’s difficult to recall a time when Americans had faith in government; incomes have stagnated, debts have increased and war has become the norm.
Instead of lawmakers responding swiftly and professionally to national and international issues, young people have grown up with record lows in bipartisan productivity and compromise. For the first time since 1989, over half of voters age 18-29 identify with neither Democrats nor Republicans, the highest levels of disaffiliation for any age group.
So, what’s going on here? Are young people uninterested in political issues, or are we just fed up with government, working to change and shape our worlds through other means?
A little honest self-reflection and observation of my peers’ very apparent reliance on smartphones led me to Markus Prior, associate professor of politics and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.
“As media choice increases,” Prior argues, “the likelihood of ‘chance encounters’ with any political content declines significantly for many people.”
The logic goes that if you want political news, it’s now easier to find than ever before, but “those who prefer nonpolitical content can more easily escape the news and therefore pick up less political information than they used to,” and political news eventually fades almost entirely from their daily lives.
Over time, we may be subjecting ourselves to a process of “cyberbalkanization,” according to John F. Kennedy School of Government Professor Matthew Baum, “in which the media commons is largely replaced by the ‘Daily Me,’ in which consumers encounter only the news and information they want.”
Though I wish I could get more of my peers to the polls, I cannot simply accept the notion that my own generation has essentially become so self-centered that we can’t be bothered with basic civic awareness.
Millenials are 86 million strong and more diverse, more educated and more connected than any generation in history.
In 2011, 75 percent of Millennials donated to charity, and 71 percent raised money for nonprofits. Projected to make up as much as 75 percent of the workforce by 2025, 89 percent of young people said they were more likely to buy from companies that supported solutions to specific social issues.
In reality, I believe that political awareness I was searching for has really been replaced by a new sense of social justice, an obligation to create a society based on our values. What we lack is an understanding of how to make politics work for us.
This is a generation of builders and founders, idealists who envision a more connected, efficient world. But it is not enough to simply “care.” If we are to make our vision a reality, we must be aware of political issues and use politics to solve them. Those great activists of the 1960s and '70s were organized, educated and knew the details of what they were fighting for and why. But also most importantly, they knew who to pressure to create a change.
We must work within government and its existing power structures, as they did, as we reshape them and make them our own.
For now, we can all start with a little research, a little awareness and a vote.