Generation Y gets involved

Generation Y gets involved

By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY
10/24/2006 7:09 AM ET

Echo Boomer

Alex Wells, 18, may be pretty typical of Generation Y. Research
suggests she and other millennials — those in their mid-20s and younger
— are civic-minded and socially conscious.   Ideals incubate on the Internet

— Alex Wells switched shampoos over animal testing. She won’t buy clothes produced by child labor. She yells at those who don’t recycle. She spent a month in India this summer teaching English to preschoolers. Last year in high school, she helped organize a protest over genocide in the Sudan that raised $13,000 for Darfur relief.

Alex Wells explains to Jonathan Chehanske, left, and  Lauren Whiteman, both of Brigantine, N.J., which vegetables are highest in pesticides while staffing the Environmental Working Group's booth at the Green Festival.
By Lisa Nipp for USA TODAY
Alex Wells explains to Jonathan Chehanske, left, and Lauren Whiteman, both of Brigantine, N.J., which vegetables are highest in pesticides while staffing the Environmental Working Group’s booth at the Green Festival.

Wells, 18, of Los Gatos, Calif., may be pretty typical of her generation. A growing body of academic and market research suggests millennials — who are in their mid-20s and younger — are civic-minded and socially conscious as individuals, consumers and employees. This generation, also known as Generation Y and Echo Boomers, has been pressed for its vote, sought for its purchasing power and watched closely by sociologists and historians for insight into the way its members will shape the future.

INTERNET IDEALS: Students use Web to make noise, bring change

They may be less radical than baby boom activists in the 1960s and 1970s, whose demonstrations for civil rights, women’s equality and protecting the environment and protests against the Vietnam War became flashpoints for their times. But thanks in large part to the Internet, this generation is much more aware of the world. And because national tragedies such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina have scarred their youth and adolescence, experts see signs these young people are creating their own brand of social consciousness.

Among the indicators:

•61% of 13- to 25-year-olds feel personally responsible for making a difference in the world, suggests a survey of 1,800 young people to be released today. It says 81% have volunteered in the past year; 69% consider a company’s social and environmental commitment when deciding where to shop, and 83% will trust a company more if it is socially/environmentally responsible. The online study — by two Boston-based companies, Cone Inc. and AMP Insights — suggests these millennials are "the most socially conscious consumers to date."

•Young people want to help their country by working for the government, suggests another study, also to be released today by the international consulting firm Universum Communications. Based on responses of 10,847 undergraduates at 115 U.S. colleges and universities, it found that among ethnic groups in particular, federal jobs hold great allure. Among Hispanics, the CIA, the State Department and the FBI rank only below Walt Disney (the No. 1 choice) as an ideal employer. Among blacks, the FBI ranked second, the State Department fourth. The CIA rounded out the top 10.

•Two-thirds of college freshmen (66%) believe it’s essential or very important to help others in difficulty, suggests a survey of 263,710 students at 385 U.S. colleges and universities. The 2005 report, by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, found feelings of social and civic responsibility among entering freshmen at the highest level in 25 years.

•Volunteerism by college students increased by 20% from 2002 to 2005, says a study released last week by the federal Corporation for National and Community Service.

Some note, though, that many high schools require volunteering, and it has become a must-do for the college résumé.

"Most research on volunteering doesn’t translate to political involvement," says Curtis Gans of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate. Many of their parents don’t vote or are "civically illiterate," he says. He adds that measurable declines in civic education, newspaper reading and knowledge of current events are other signs of a devaluing of civic involvement.

Harvard public policy professor Robert Putnam, whose 2000 book Bowling Alone is about the decline of civic engagement and social connection, says volunteering is class-driven. "This whole recent spurt is largely concentrated among kids of the upper middle class. … The have-nots are actually more detached than before. I am hopeful that we may be on the cusp of a new more civically engaged America, but if that is all defined very sharply in terms of social class, then the news is not so good."

A September report by the National Conference on Citizenship, and based on nationally representative data from 1975 to 2004, echoes Putnam’s concerns. It suggests a "large and growing civic divide between those with a college education and those without one."

Voting is another concern. A survey of 650 young people ages 18-30 released last month by the non-partisan Young Voter Strategies, a non-profit project at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., found that 69% said they were likely to vote in November, and 80% said they were registered to vote. But another survey of 1,804 adults released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, in collaboration with the Associated Press, found that 40% of 18- to 29-year-olds are not registered to vote. That’s double the percentage of 30- to 49-year-olds who aren’t registered, and nearly three times greater than those 50 or older. Also, only 22% of young voters are regular voters compared with 42% of older voters and 35% of those 30 to 49.

Still, Putnam believes the terrorist attacks appear to have had a much more lasting effect on this generation’s attitudes toward service. Though the surge in community-mindedness quickly evaporated for others, "for kids caught in their impressionable years by the events of 9/11, it has not yet gone away. They seem to have been permanently influenced."

Such students are those who come to Washington, D.C., for a semester at American University — dubbed the most politically active school in the Princeton Review‘s 2006 student survey.

Senior Kirsten Reed, 20, a political science major at the University of Oregon in Eugene, wants to work for the federal government in national security. "I want to do something for the defense of the country," says Reed, of Pleasanton, Calif.

Brant Garda, a senior majoring in political science at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., wants to work with his state’s struggling steel mining towns. "I want to be around to rejuvenate the area politically, economically or whatever," says Garda, 21, of Washington, Pa.

But not everyone in this generation shares such feelings, says a report released this month by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, based at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. The study of 1,658 young people, ages 15-25, measured their participation in 19 activities considered civic or political, such as being an active member of at least one group; raising money for charity; signing a paper petition or boycotting.

The study found that 58% of young people were considered "disengaged" because they participated in two or fewer of those 19 activities; 17% did none.

Elise Cochrane, 20, a junior majoring in psychology at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, says she voted in the presidential election, but she is conflicted about voting in November. "The advertisements have been bashing each other so bad, none of the candidates seem to fit for me," she says. "I kind of wish I was more interested so I would know more of what was going on, but I’m not seriously interested in being a Republican or Democrat."

Because many millennials say they’re not interested in politics, efforts are underway to encourage civic and political involvement.

A 2-year-old group called GenerationEngage is a non-partisan, youth civic engagement initiative aimed at college-age people who aren’t students. It organizes events so that hundreds of young people can meet face-to-face and online with leaders and politicians, such as Al Gore and Newt Gingrich.

Those who aren’t in school "don’t suffer from a lack of interest; they suffer from a lack of access," says co-founder Adrian Talbot, 26.

A voter registration drive for 18- to 30-year-olds just wrapped up, and more than 400,000 young people registered.

The Cone study also found that young people are extending their social consciousness to the workplace. Of the 28% of ages 13 to 25 who are employed full time, 79% said they want to work for a company that cares about how it affects or contributes to society.

"If they’re going to work many, many hours, they need to work in a place where they’re doing some good," adds Claudia Tattanelli, CEO of Universum, which helps companies attract workers.

Although Wells is just a freshman, she is thinking ahead to her career. She hasn’t yet selected a major, but she knows she wants her work to be meaningful.

"I want to major in something in international or humanitarian aid or in the environmental sciences," she says. "I want to do something that helps in a positive way."

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