April 19, 2012 | BY Julia Michaels
Journalists and members of older generations have skewered Generation Y recently in the media for being disengaged, apathetic and narcissistic. Young people these days are too busy checking Facebook and texting their friends, they claim. A longitudinal study (pdf) of American youth was released last month indicating that compared to Baby Boomers and Generation X, Millenials valued money, image and fame far more than community or charity towards others. Political participation, interest in social problems, and desire to take action to solve dilemmas such as the environment and poverty declined significantly between the older generations and Gen Y. Popular news sources have jumped on the bandwagon; a recent New York Times article even went so far as to re-label Generation Y as “Generation ‘Why Bother’.”
Is there hope for our generation? Are we really just a pack of lackluster, self-absorbed individualists who care nothing for the rest of the world? Scientific studies aside, there are a few indications that we aren’t as degenerate as our elders make us out to be. Recently, more than 150 young people between the ages of 16 and 30 gathered in Austin, Texas, for an evening of civic brainstorming. The event, co-hosted by the White House Office of Public Engagement and the Annette Strauss Institute of Civic Participation, was one of 17 youth town hall events in the White House’s “Young America” series.
After listening to a series of “TED”-style talks performed by a number of their peers, attendees were invited to approach the stage and propose an issue for discussion in small groups. Twenty-six people accepted the challenge and pitched problems that they would like to see solved.
Which issues were most important to these particular members of Gen Y? Although the list of topics ranged from airport security screenings to nuclear arms reduction, some common themes emerged. Several participants were interested in entrepreneurship and creating jobs for the future. Another significant segment of the proposed issues dealt with reproductive health and sexual education. The largest category was education, encompassing both access (especially for low-income youth) and aspects of educational quality (such as scientific literacy). Finally, a group of participants clustered around issues of apathy, polarized partisan discourse, and ways in which young people could be “tricked into liking things.”
Once the topics of conversation were established, participants broke into small groups to present their ideas and discuss solutions. A process called “Open Spaces” was used to organize the breakout session. Participants were encouraged to view all of their fellow group members as “the right people” for the conversation and respect differences in opinion. If they did not like the discussion or felt that they had contributed everything they could, they could employ the “Rule of 2 Feet” and move to another conversation at their discretion. Each group was directed to identify specific challenges or obstacles related to their chosen issue, develop potential solutions, and propose a series of next steps or action items that would help move America forward towards resolution of the problem.
Despite the controversy surrounding some of the issues, the discussions were predominantly civil. In one group dedicated to reducing political polarization, participants determined that encouraging exposure to alternative perspectives and opposing points of view would help Americans move away from the fringes of the political spectrum and compromise with one another. A second group, which aimed to confront apathy among youth, speculated that poor education, a negative media environment, and the absence of community spaces that people could occupy and utilize to engage with others were the root causes of apathy. They proposed to use social media to make important issues more personal and therefore more relevant to youth, as well as reaching out to schools and investing in community buildings.
Education group members focused on ways in which they could shift the preoccupation with outcomes in the American educational system to the process of learning in order to engage K-12 students more effectively. In the scientific literacy group, they argued that the paucity of scientists in politics, sensationalism in the media, and a pervasive confirmation bias among the public has contributed to widespread misperceptions of scientific topics in America. Both groups began to draft action items to address these problems, including shifting funding priorities and providing additional support to families and communities to take the burden off schools.
By putting their heads together, participants were able to generate some potential solutions to problems that they care deeply about. Even if only a percentage of their ideas eventually became reality, the attendees were able to initiate a more forward-thinking conversation. Far from being disengaged and apathetic, the participants actively imagined a better world for themselves and others.
For more information and to watch streaming video from the event, visit the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation’s website.
About the Author
Julia Michaels: Julia Michaels is the Director of Legislative Research in the Austin, Texas, office of Project Vote Smart, an online resource for information about presidential, congressional, and state races. Julia holds a Master of Public Policy degree from Oregon State University and is also a graduate of Saint Olaf College in Minnesota. Prior to joining Project Vote Smart in January 2011, Julia interned with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and with the City of Corvallis, Ore., where she worked primarily with transportation policy.