Academic journal article Generations

Civic Engagement, Older Adults, and Inclusion

Academic journal article Generations

Civic Engagement, Older Adults, and Inclusion

Article excerpt

What about those for whom civic engagement is inaccessible?

One pillar of American democracy is citizen action, the ability of the masses to organize, care for, and govern themselves. From Thomas Jefferson's assertion that all power is inherent in the people to Alexis de Tocqueville's reflection on the number and diversity of citizen associations to President George H. W Bush's Thousand Points of Light," America's greatness rests on the voluntary, civic action of the people. But not all people have equal opportunities to engage in civic action. This article is about them- specifically, about the older adults for whom civic engagement may be inaccessible.

As a term, avie connotes public consequence, so the term civic engagement refers to citizen action that has public consequence for communities and the polity (Christiano, 1996). Using the word engagement, rather than referring to "civic participation," for example, implies that one is connected (engaged) through the behavior with people and structures. Engagement connotes that the individual has actively applied her- or himself- physically or economically, through time, money, and resources. Rarely is civic engagement about individual action alone; structures commonly facilitate and target the action for public good. These structures include volunteer programs sponsored by nonprofit voluntary organizations or democratic rights for voting. It is important to acknowledge that not all actions that have public consequence should be considered civic engagement, for example, employment. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to further address conceptual and operational issues, it is of note that civic action includes those behaviors in the realm of civil society that express the voluntary, collective spirit of the people and, thus, may include actions that many consider abhorrent- Ru Klux Klan, for example. This is the nature of freedom and democracy.

We can identify two distinct spheres of civic action, social and political (McBride, Sherraden, and Prirzker, 2006). Social engagement is characterized by actions that connect individuals to others and that relate to care or development (Wuthnow, 1991)· Behaviors in the social sphere include acting as a member of, donating or contributing to, and volunteering for an individual, group, association, or nonprofit organization. Political engagement refers to those behaviors that influence the legislative, electoral, or judicial process, including decision making and resource distribution at the local, state, and national levels. In this article, two common civic behaviors are used for illustrative purposes, volunteering and voting.

These concepts allow review of a range of behavioral indicators regarding engagement. Older adults have been the nation's civic legs, and with the coming onslaught of baby boomers comes potential for older adults to become the backbone. In 2005, approximately 25 percent of all people over 65 years of age volunteered, and approximately 30 percent of those 55 to 64 years of age volunteered (U.S. Department of Labor, 2005). Across any age group, those 65 and over volunteered the most median hours annually, at 96 hours. However, low-income older people of color are less likely to be represented (Tang, 2005). According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2006), in the November 2004 election, 79 percent of citizens 55 years of age and older were registered to vote, and 72 percent of them voted, which was the largest percentage of any group. However, among those registered voters who did not vote, people age 65 and older were more likely than other age groups to agree that voting was inaccessible to them because of illness or disability (46 percent), transportation problems (5 percent), and bad weather conditions (1 percent).

As the "Greatest Generation" is replaced by the baby boomers, more older adults could be engaged. It remains unclear if these patterns of engagement will continue, and whether the current barriers to engagement will remain, though amplified across a larger population and perhaps accompanied by new ones. …

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