Academic journal article Social Education

Habits from Home, Lessons from School: Influences on Youth Civic Engagement

Academic journal article Social Education

Habits from Home, Lessons from School: Influences on Youth Civic Engagement

Article excerpt

Civic engagement among America's youth is a hot topic--and not solely in the world of academia. Government officials, non-profit agencies, and grassroots organizations have spent considerable time and energy trying to spur participation among the post-Generation X cohort of youth. Candidates have created websites promoting youth understanding of political issues. State governments have established volunteer requirements for high school graduation. Activist organizations have targeted young adults for voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives. Others have asked youth to sign e-mail petitions or participate in boycotts.

While many of these efforts are designed to engage young people today, much of this work is undertaken in the hope that these early experiences will lead individuals to a richer political life in adulthood. There is much to support this hope. Studies of youth socialization provide evidence that families, schools, peers and religious institutions lay the groundwork for civic and political habits that persist into adulthood. Young people who volunteer in high school and college are more likely than their non-volunteering counterparts to engage in volunteering, community activities, and other forms of civic life as adults. Involvement in after-school activities also plays a role. Individuals who were active in school organizations (except athletics) as teenagers are disproportionately more involved as adults, even when the impact of later influences such as marriage, children, and advanced education are taken into account. (1) Finally, scholars have documented that the connection between high school activities and later civic involvement is not linear--activists in high school are more likely than their less active counterparts to be involved as adults, but only after a "sleeper" period in which they are relatively disconnected from civic life. (2)

Our recent research explored both the overall state of civic and political engagement nationwide, and the distinct paths to participation among young adults. We used two data sources. The first is a telephone survey of 1,001 people, aged 15-25, which is a subset of the total sample of 3,246 respondents ages 15 and older, interviewed in April and May 2002. The second is a survey of 1,166 randomly selected young people, also aged 15-25, administered by Knowledge Networks via WebTV in February 2002. (3) Both data sets were weighted so that the sample reflects the national population in terms of gender, race, education, and region. (4)

What Are Youth Doing?

The two surveys reveal a mixed image of the political and civic activism of today's young adults, who we have termed the DotNet generation to distinguish them from their Generation X predecessors. (5) While the DotNet generation is not as active as older Americans in some realms, they are equally or more active in other areas. For example, as other surveys have indicated, youth today are active volunteers, but not habitual voters. They score lower on tests of political knowledge and are less attentive to news about politics and government, but they are at least as likely as the rest of the population to report boycotting a product or signing an email petition. (6)

Not all DotNets are equally engaged. For example, within the past 12 months, 40 percent have volunteered for a non-electoral group or organization, 38 percent have boycotted, and 20 percent say that they generally wear a campaign button, display a yard sign, or post a bumper sticker on their car during election campaigns. But just 6 percent have done all three things. What distinguishes youths engaged in one or multiple activities from their less active counterparts? This research begins to answer that question.

Home Influences

Previous research has established the positive link between political participation and such factors as higher income, advanced education, and strong religiosity. …

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