Our Changing Culture

Exploring how Americans think, work, love, play, vote, and learn today.

Does Anyone Care About Politics Anymore?

Why apathy explains what’s going wrong.

The 2008 election was a shining moment. Not only did the country elect our first black President, but young people were participating in the political process like never before.

Or so we thought. It turns out that youth voter turnout increased only a small amount in 2008. Any increase is great, of course – the more people participate in our political system the more politicians will respond to what people want. For young people, facing high unemployment rates and crippling amounts of college debt, this is especially important. If no one cares, government gets stalled. Sound familiar?

In analyzing the data for our large study on generational differences in life goals, concern for others, and civic engagement, voter turnout started to factor into the debate. The study, based on 9 million young people from two nationally representative samples, found that Millennials/Generation Me -- those born after 1982 – said they cared less about politics and social issues than GenX’ers and Boomers did at the same age.

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This challenged the view of some commentators, who’d said for years that Millennials were the most civically oriented generation since those who fought World War II. These folks tried to dismiss the surveys by saying it’s better to look at behaviors than attitudes. That didn’t really work, though, because the surveys had plenty about behaviors – charity donation, writing to public officials, and specific actions to save energy, for example. These items showed the same declines.

But, they said, what about voting? The common view is that Millennials are voting at a much higher rate than GenX’ers did when they were young.

It’s always fun to analyze data, so I was happy to find this website with an Excel file with the exact numbers for youth turnout in both presidential and midterm election years.

Those who write about Millennials being civically oriented like to use birth year cutoffs (1946-1961 for Boomers; 1962-1981 for GenX; and 1982-1999 for Millennials). (Note: I’m not a big fan of the cutoffs, because most generational change is linear and happens gradually. But for voter turnout the cutoffs are admittedly useful because they can give a view of the average changes. And it’s their theory we’re testing, anyway.)

The statistics are reported for turnout for 18-24-year olds and 18-to-29-year olds, so the election years of 1972-1982 are Boomer years; 1984-2002 GenX; and 2004-2010 Millennials.

For 18-to-29-year olds, voter turnout in presidential election years was 50.8% for Boomers, 46.1% for GenX, and 50.0% for Millennials. So that’s good – turnout ticked up about 4 percentage points recently, which means 8% more Millennials were voting than GenX’ers had. Not a big change, but still good.

For midterm election years, 30.2% of Boomers voted, compared to 25.3% of GenX’ers and 24.8% of Millennials. So Millennial voter turnout actually decreased a little for midterm elections.

In presidential election years, 18-t0-24-year-old voter turnout was 46.6% for Boomers, 42.1% for GenX, and 47.6% for Millennials, 6 percentage points and a 13% increase. For midterm elections, the figures are 25.7% of Boomers, 21.4% of GenX, and 21.7% of Millennials – so the very slightest of increases.

There’s encouraging news here, especially for presidential election years, but these are certainly not huge gains, and they’re still lower than the figures for Boomers.

Compare the size of the voting effects (at most, 13%) to some of the results from the large surveys:

32% of Millennials (vs. 19% of Boomers) said they “probably won’t” write to a public official (a 68% increase)

35% of Millennials (vs. 50% of Boomers) said it was important to keep up to date with political affairs (a 30% decrease)

15% of Millennials (vs. 5% of Boomers) said they do nothing to help the environment (a 200% increase)

22% of Millennials (vs. 73% of Boomers) said they had voted in a student election (a 70% decrease)

58% of Millennials (vs. 44% of Boomers) said they did not expect to ever work for a political campaign (a 32% increase)

There are a few exceptions to the general trend of political disengagement. “Influencing the political structure” was more important to Millennials (21%) than Boomers (17%, a 24% increase), though the meaning of this item is unclear (it did not correlate with a standard measure of community feeling). Discussing politics increased between GenX (20%) and Millennials (26%) but was still lower than it had been for Boomers (30%).

Of course, older people haven’t exactly been all that politically active lately either. That might be why Congress continues to do very little.

You get what you pay for.

So many people seem unwilling to look outside the circle of what concerns them – or at most, concerns their Facebook friends. Admittedly many of us (myself often included) are so busy with work and family it’s tough to do much else.

So what can we do to get young people – and everyone else – more interested and involved in politics and larger social issues?

The idea of writing to public officials might be a place to start. It’s odd that this has declined, since it’s so much easier now – you can just send an e-mail to your representative. Most have forms on their website.

The apathy seems so ingrained in our current culture that I wonder what can be done.

What do you think – how do we get people to take action?

Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, the author of Generation Me, and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic.

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