Academic journal article The Future of Children

Civic Engagement and the Transition to Adulthood

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Civic Engagement and the Transition to Adulthood

Article excerpt

The civic engagement of young adults--whether in the form of joining community groups, volunteering to help neighbors, or leading grassroots efforts to gain civil rights--is important to the health and performance of democracy. It is also important for personal growth and identity formation during the transition to adulthood.

When younger Americans have a voice in community affairs, they can contribute their insights to public debates and their energies to addressing public problems. Issues that centrally involve adolescents and young adults--such as the high-school dropout crisis, the costs of higher education, or youth violence--especially benefit from youth input. Young adults who identify with, have a stake in, and want to contribute to their communities can help to stabilize democratic societies by directing their discontent into constructive channels. They can also be a force for political change, by bringing new perspectives on political issues and offering fresh solutions.

The personal and psychological benefits of civic engagement for young adults include fulfillment of the human need to belong and to feel that life has a purpose beyond the pursuit of individual gain. Whether through voting, working in community-based organizations to address local problems, or volunteering time or money to a social cause, civic activities raise issues involving connection to others, public goods and values, and the collective nature of solving problems. Engaging with fellow members of a community-based group also helps youth form social networks, build social capital, and connect to educational and occupational opportunities.

Civic Engagement and the Changing Transition to Adulthood

Like other markers of adulthood such as finishing school and starting a family, civic engagement is a key part of the transition between adolescence and mature adulthood. During childhood and adolescence people become aware of political institutions, social issues, and larger communities; learn facts and concepts related to politics; and begin to practice active citizenship by volunteering, belonging to groups, consuming news media, and discussing issues. The opportunities and choices of these years shape interests and pathways. (1) During late adolescence and young adulthood, people chart a course for their future and "take stock" of the values they live by and the kind of world they want to be part of. Moral and political issues become salient concerns. Exploring alternative political perspectives, working with people from different social backgrounds, and wrestling with a range of perspectives on social issues provide opportunities to reflect on one's own views and decide where one stands.

According to life-cycle theories, stable patterns of civic engagement take hold once individuals have settled into adult roles, such as steady jobs, marriage, and parenting, that build up their stake in community affairs. These adult roles give a predictable structure to life that makes regular engagement in community affairs more likely and increases the probability of being recruited into civic affairs. (2) By contrast, the lives of young adults are unsettled and in flux as they move into and out of institutional settings such as school or work. Although they are more likely to take part in civic life when they are in such settings, their involvement tends to be episodic. Nonetheless, opportunities to explore civic issues and to wrangle with others who have different perspectives help young adults to crystallize their values and political stands. Political identities formed in the early-adult years are highly predictive of the positions individuals will hold in middle and even late adulthood. Political views as well as levels and forms of engagement will vary within every generation, but the politics of a generation takes shape in the context of the political climate, issues, and range of tenable solutions circulating when a cohort comes of age. …

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