CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)
conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

Special Report: The 2002 Civic and Political Health of the Nation

September 19th, 2002
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by Scott Keeter, Cliff Zukin, Molly Andolina, and Krista Jenkins

September 2002

This study analyzes two comprehensive surveys of the nation’s civic and political behavior — from voting to volunteering — and chronicles the differences among four separate generations (“DotNets”, “Generation X”, “Baby Boomers”, and “Matures”).

Download Special Report: The 2002 Civic and Political Health of the Nation.

Some highlights of the study: Young people are much more likely to support government action and are just as engaged in apolitical civic activities as are older generations, but are less likely to trust others and participate in electoral politics. “Generation DotNet” (15-25 year-olds) has a strong and distinct generational identity, while joining older citizens in using consumer activism as a vehicle for expressing their political and policy views. Younger Americans don’t share older generations’ views about the responsibilities of citizenship, but they do say that civic education makes a big difference in fueling their interest in public affairs.

Some of the key findings about DotNets Nearly six-in-ten DotNets are completely disengaged from civic life. Nearly half say civic education increases their interest in public affairs. Less than four-in-ten believe citizenship entails certain responsibilities. More than a third have used boycotting, and a similar share have used “buycotting”, to express their social views. The Distinct DotNets – A Paradox “This research reveals a real paradox in the civic attitudes of the DotNets,” said William Galston, Director of CIRCLE. “The youngest generation is more favorable toward government action and more socially tolerant than older generations, yet they are also less attentive to public affairs, less involved in politics, and less trustful of others.”

Factors that set 15-25 year-olds apart include:

  • Unique: A full 69% of DotNets claim their age group is unique, significantly more than GenXers (42%), Baby Boomers (50%), and Matures (51%).
  • Disengaged: More than half of the DotNets (57%) are completely disengaged from civic life according to the study’s criteria.
  • Fifteen percent are involved in electoral politics only (compared to 20% overall), and 17% limit their participation to civic activities.
  • Just one-in-ten (11%) qualify as “dual activists,” individuals who engage in both electoral and civic activities.
  • Social Tolerance: Sixty percent of DotNets agree with both the statements “Homosexuality should be accepted,” and “Immigrants strengthen the country,” compared to GenX (54% accepting homosexuality, 51% pro-immigrant), Baby Boomers (50%, 49%), and Matures (39%, 42%).
  • Pro-Government: Large majorities of DotNets agree with the statements “Government should do more to solve problems” (64%), “Government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest” (65%), and “Government often does a better job than people give it credit for” (65%). These responses are significantly higher than the responses given by GenX (51%, 60%, 49% respectively), Boomers (43%, 54%, 50%), and Matures (38%, 53%, 44%).
  • Volunteering: DotNets are more likely to have engaged in at least some volunteer activity in the past year (40%) than GenXers (32%), Boomers (32%), and Matures (22%) and are comparable in regular volunteering.
  • Consumer Activists: More than a third (38%) of the Dot Nets have reported not buying something from a company they do not like in order to punish them, and a similar number (35%) say they have purchased a product from a particular company to reward them for some corporate behavior. The DotNets’ rate is surprisingly almost equal to that of the Baby Boomers (41%, 37% respectively) and the GenXers (43%, 42%).
  • Inattentive: Only 24% of DotNets claim to follow government and public affairs “very often,” compared to 60% of Matures, 50% of Baby Boomers, and 37% of GenXers.
  • Low News Consumers: Only about one-third of DotNets regularly follow the news through newspapers (30%), the radio (33%), or television (38%).
  • Distrust People: Seventy percent of DotNets agree that “Most people look out for themselves,” and 56% agree that “Most people would take advantage of you.” The DotNets respond far more affirmatively to these statements than GenX (59%, 41% respectively), Boomers (49%, 36%), and Matures (40%, 29%).
  • Citizen Responsibility: Only 38% of DotNets say that citizenship entails special obligations while 58% say simply being a good person is enough. This is markedly different than the responses provided by GenXers (48% special obligations, 48% being a good person enough), Baby Boomers (60%, 34 %) and Matures (59%, 32%).

What Works -Parents and Schools

The evidence also shows that the presence of pathways to engagement – both institutions and intermediaries — can make a significant difference in civic activity. School-based initiatives, discussions about current affairs in school and at home, the presence of a role model volunteer in the home, and being asked all make a big difference in the civic outlook and behavior of youth: More than one-third (35%) of young adults who often heard public affairs talk while growing up say they regularly volunteer, compared to 13% of those raised in homes where political talk never occurred. Thirty-eight percent of eligible young voters from homes with frequent political discussions say they always vote compared to 20% of those without regular political discussion. Nearly half of high school students (48%) and college students (47%) who received civic instruction said it increased their interest in public affairs. Forty-five percent of students at schools that arrange service work volunteer, compared to 33% of students who attend schools that don’t provide such assistance. Forty-six percent of young volunteers said that they became involved with a group because “someone put us together.” The study also shows definitively that students who participate in open discussions in class and who learn to communicate their opinions through letter writing and debate are much more active than those who don’t have these experiences. The researchers note in the report: “Youth engagement won’t be boosted in a single stroke. There is no simple solution to apply, no magic tonic to administer, no engagement gene to alter. The pathways to participation are too wide and too varied, and they are influenced by too many factors – families, schools, clubs, groups, churches, and even friends. But if this means civic involvement is unlikely to be spurred by a lone stroke, it also suggests that there are multiple prods to encourage participation.”

For the study, a national telephone survey of 3,246 adults, 15 years and older, was conducted by Schulman, Ronca and Bucavalas, Inc. The study also analyzes the results of an Internet-based survey of 15 to 25-year olds conducted by Knowledge Networks.

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