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The Millennial Generation—Is There a Challenge to Civic Engagement?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Stephen G. Harding
June 7, 2016

Each generation is born into an environment comprised of its own unique circumstances. Each inherits myriad practices and understandings, requiring a re-assessment and a probable re-ordering of previously held beliefs and protocols. Consequently, each has its own sociological, economic, political, cultural and biologically based “ecology.”

Through inheritance and its own volition, each passing generation not only develops a generalized sense of self and reality, it creates its own needs based agenda; its own generational profile. Regardless of age, understanding the millennial cameo, those born between 1981 and 1997, is extremely important now that they comprise the nation’s largest generation.

In his straightforward text, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown, Paul Taylor states:

“In the decades since boomers first came bounding onto the national stage, no generation of young adults had made nearly as loud an entrance— until now. Meet the millennials: liberal, diverse, tolerant, narcissistic, coddled, respectful, confident and broke.” 

Continuing within the framework of generalizations, millennials are of the digital age. Technology and social media are a part of their DNA. They are more tolerant, educated and racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation. Due to their place in time, they also face the possibility of experiencing a lower standard of living than their parents. Paul Taylor underlines their condition by further stating:

“America is in the throes of a demographic overhaul. Huge generation gaps have opened up in our political and social values, our economic well-being, our family structure, our racial and ethnic identity, our gender norms, our religious affiliation and our technology use.” 

Hurdles to Civic Engagement

Olympics: Track and Field-Women's 100m Hurdles-SemifinalsWith so many living at home while trying to succeed in the socio-economic conditions of the times, millennials display varying levels of interest when it comes to governance and democracy. Back when some of their oldest were turning 18, William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their book Millennials Rising in 2000, asked, “Are they on track to become America’s next great civic generation?” According to subsequent analyses, maybe yes, maybe no.

In their 2014 report, “15 Economic Facts About Millennials,” The President’s Council of Economic Advisors stated:

“Millennials are not just virtually connected via social networks; they value the role that they play in their communities. For instance, high school seniors today are more likely than previous generations to state that making a contribution to society is very important to them and that they want to be leaders in their communities.“ 

As the Pew Research Center suggests, they are detached from institutions yet networked with friends. This is underscored in a separate study conducted by Pew researchers, Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried and Katerina Eva Matsa positing:

“Millennials lag behind older generations in their interest in government and politics. When asked to choose among a list of nine topics, only about a quarter (26 percent) of millennials name government and politics as one of the three topics they are most interested in. By comparison, politics ranks among the top three interests for roughly a third (34 percent) of Gen Xers and 45 percent of baby boomers.” 

It certainly can be argued that the reality of income inequality and changing employment opportunities preoccupies the attention of millennials. Combined with a focus of securing an education that produces employable skill sets, obtaining a comprehensive knowledge of governance, democracy and the political economy seems to be low on millennials priority list. This is underscored by the scholarship of Jean M. Twenge. She states in her text, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement,

“In 1976, 16 percent of American high school seniors said that ‘having a lot of money’ was ‘extremely important.’ This ballooned to 26 percent in 2006. High school students name ‘getting a good-paying job’ as more important than ‘being ethical and honorable.’ When the Pew Center for Research recently asked 18-to 25-year-olds about the most important goals of their generation, 81 percent named becoming rich, more than twice as many as named helping people who need help, four times more than named becoming a leader in the community, and eight times as many as named becoming more spiritual.” 

Houston—We (May) Have a Problem 

As observed by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic of the University College London, “Older generations have always complained about young people and they always will, despite the fact that they were once remarkably similar. Even generalizations based on scientific evidence are unlikely to help, because they undermine important individual differences within a generation.”

These internal generational differences are evidenced by the number of civically minded millennials already occupying responsible positions in governmental and nonprofit institutions. This is depicted by such professional organizations as Engaging Local Government Leaders. Their members, and those of similar bastions of emerging civically minded young leaders, are the conduits to their peers.

In spite of their documented self-interest and individualistic tendencies, they are socially engaged and involved in their communities. In partial contrast to the inferences of data, civic engagement is happening. It just is not as evident to those of us stuck in our own generational “ecologies.” One way or another, a millennial civic imprint will become indelible.


Author: Stephen G. Harding is a retired city manager and corporate vice president. He is an adjunct professor and a policy, management, and economic development adviser to local government. Over his 40-year career, he has served nearly 60 public, private, nonprofit and academic organizations. He teaches in the master of public policy & administration program at Northwestern University.

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One Response to The Millennial Generation—Is There a Challenge to Civic Engagement?

  1. Norm Sims Reply

    June 8, 2016 at 9:04 am

    Aside from their being socially engaged in ways different than previous generations, a great deal is known about Millennials attitudes toward government and its role, many of which are quite positive. They can be found in the Pew research as well as other places.

    The problem is, of course, reasoning from generalizations about a group without taking into account, first, that the “Millennial generation” is more a term of art than any classification with an empirical basis (there is even debate as to which age group should be considered ‘Millennials’), and second, that there are large and palpable differences within the group itself by education, gender, race and age. Certainly not homogeneous; but neither were the Boomers.

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