The Internet Generation: Engaged Citizens or Political Dropouts
Lebanon, NH: Tufts University Press/University Press of New England, 2010
Citizens Adrift: The Democratic Disengagement of Young Canadians
Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010
Why have young Canadians tuned out of the political process?
Observers could be forgiven for thinking that youth turnout would surge in the May 2011 federal election. News reports about “vote mobs,” the swelling ranks of get-out-the-vote Facebook groups, the development of youth-friendly campaign technologies – all of these measures pointed toward democratic renewal in Canada. Even after the campaign, this feeling was reinforced by a healthy measure of nostalgia, with many Canadians convinced that Jack Layton’s New Democrats had mobilized a new generation of voters as part of the party’s “orange crush.”
However genuine, these sentiments continue to lack empirical support. Turnout among eligible voters rose to just 61.1 per cent in 2011 – a 2.3 point improvement over 2008, but still 3.6 points lower than in the 2006 election. While we await survey data for confirmation, it seems highly unlikely that a surge in youth voting occurred in 2011 (unless, at the same time, older Canadians stayed home in record numbers). The question remains: Why do young Canadians continue to stay home on election day?
Two new books on youth engagement in Canada take us some distance toward solving this dilemma: Henry Milner’s The Internet Generation: Engaged Citizens or Political Dropouts and Paul Howe’s Citizens Adrift: The Democratic Disengagement of Young Canadians. Scholars in the area have long awaited the type of systematic analysis afforded by book-length treatments of the topic. To date, most of our knowledge about youth turnout in Canada has been derived from valuable, but abbreviated, journal articles or book chapters, or has been borrowed from more comprehensive studies conducted in Europe or the United States. Milner and Howe break new ground in this regard, and their works are welcome contributions.
As his title suggests, Milner writes of a generation that is both unprepared and unwilling to take part in the political process. Drawing and expanding on his previous research, Milner connects the lack of civic engagement among today’s youth to the generation’s lack of civic literacy. In Canada, as elsewhere, Milner finds young citizens are not only less likely to participate in political activities like voting; they are also less interested in, less attentive to and less knowledgeable about politics in general – characteristics, he suggests, that have earned them the title of “political dropouts.”
Milner attributes the increase in the political dropout rate to, among other factors, shifting political norms and patterns of socialization. Most significantly, being raised in the Web world has made today’s Internet Generation fundamentally different from its predecessors. Whereas the principles of civic duty had been cultivated through close familial and neighbourhood ties, today’s youth belong to a significantly more complex set of social networks. Electronic communication has allowed today’s youth to bypass the traditional gatekeepers to the world of politics – parents, political parties, the mainstream media – or to avoid the political realm entirely in favour of other pursuits.
Part of Milner’s solution to the decline in youth participation involves significant institutional reform, including fixed election dates and proportional representation. Some of these changes would empower election authorities – like Elections Canada – to actively promote the dissemination of political information to help educate and prepare young citizens to engage meaningfully in the political process. The prime target would be young people still at school. Indeed, the most important reforms, and those Milner considers most likely to be achieved and produce results, would involve Canada’s schools. This revamping of civics education would consist of more than simply adapting course content or reversing the trend toward voluntary community service as a substitute for civics training. These are important, but by no means enough.
Rather, Milner advocates transforming our schools into environments rich in political information. This approach would link youth with political actors using their own generation’s electronic means of communication, rather than leaving the names and faces of political leaders on the pages of a textbook. It would engage youth in regular political simulation exercises, having them “do” or “live” politics rather than passively absorbing it through lectures or readings. In sum, Milner’s prescription would enable youth to experience politics as an element of their everyday lives, rather than as a subject in school. It would cultivate a culture of political attentiveness and the habits of becoming politically informed, rather than treating political knowledge as a subject for rote memory testing. Milner suggests that today’s youth are “wired” for political engagement, but that their participation must be cultivated through direct involvement at an early age.
In Citizens Adrift, Howe also traces the source of youth disengagement to a series of broad changes in Canada’s social and political cultures. Convincingly dismissing arguments that suggest youth are more turned off by politics than their elders, Howe joins Milner in concluding that young Canadians appear to be more “tuned out” of the process. Indeed, young would-be voters are no more cynical, distrustful or pessimistic about democracy than are older Canadians. They simply choose to engage at a much lower rate.
Seeing this, Howe shifts our focus away from disaffection and toward the degree of political attentiveness and societal integration among Canadian youth, revealing that these have declined considerably over time. Young Canadians are far less likely than their elders, and less likely than youth in previous generations, to seek out politics on television or in newspapers. As a consequence, they are far less knowledgeable about political affairs.
But Howe remains unconvinced that a change in media consumption is entirely responsible for low turnout among today’s youth. Just as young Canadians have become less attuned to the political world around them, so too have the social bonds among them, and between them and older Canadians, begun to weaken. In comparison with their elders and relative to older generations at their age, young Canadians feel less connected to the political realm, less tied to one another and less attached to the broader Canadian society. Focused inward on themselves, today’s youth remain fixed in what Howe calls a stage of “adolescence,” the individualistic nature of which discourages them from taking an interest in public affairs, adopting social norms like civic duty or engaging in communal activities like voting.
To address the tendency among youth to remain segregated, Howe recommends encouraging young Canadians to engage meaningfully in the political world at an early age. Moving beyond school curriculum changes, simulation exercises and community service programs, he advocates a renewed process of national “reimagining” as a means of engaging youth – and other traditionally marginalized groups – in the political process.
To cultivate a belief in Canada and its political system and a sense that youth ought to become involved in public affairs, Howe proposes a series of national dialogues on issues like multiculturalism, environmentalism, internationalism or other topics. These discussions would help build a sense of collective identity, shared purpose and affinity among Canadian citizens. This process of reimagining would be led by both government and the grassroots, and generate a sense of public and civic commitment among young Canadians who, at present, remain disengaged from the political system. Howe is quick to note that this reimagining must have a purpose, and must involve its participants meaningfully. He is also careful to note that the success of this agenda for change depends on concomitant support from above and below, and that engaging youth in the political process is “an uphill battle that will not necessarily be won.”
Thus, both Milner and Howe reject the well-intentioned but ineffectual approaches adopted by many advocates of youth engagement. In particular, each dismisses attempts to make voting more convenient (including adding more polling stations, increasing the number of advanced polling days, increasing access to absentee ballots, experimenting with online voting and other measures). Young voters tend to be chronic nonparticipants, whose reasons for staying home on election day have little to do with how inconvenient voting may be.
Moreover, Milner and Howe are skeptical about moral finger-wagging strategies. While a voter education campaign focused on the importance of fulfilling one’s civic duties and responsibilities may be effective for older citizens, it is likely to be much less successful in encouraging voter turnout among youth. In this sense, both books point to a poignant fact that bears further exploration.
At a much deeper level, the voting behaviour of Canadian youth appears grounded in a very different set of democratic values and expectations. In particular, would-be electors in their late teens and early twenties are missing the sense of democratic obligation that older Canadians possess. While many youth consider voting a civic “duty,” very few report “feeling guilty” if they fail to cast a ballot. In the absence of this sense of democratic responsibility, younger members of the electorate lack a key motivator to turn out at the polls. Milner argues that this shift is the result of changing modes of political socialization, while Howe suggests that it is a symptom of a much broader, prolonged period of sociopolitical adolescence.
An equally convincing theory suggests that youth have experienced a much higher level of democratic security than older Canadians. By contrast, the fact that attitudes of baby boomers and their elders reveal a much strong sense of duty and obligation may be due to the scarring effects of the Second World War and Cold War. A certain democratic Zeitgeist surrounded each conflict and its immediate aftermath. When Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia was the point of comparison, the voting rights enjoyed by Canadian citizens appeared to be cherished luxuries.
In the absence of any comparable threat to their democratic rights, those Canadians born over the past three decades may appear to take their democratic security for granted. Considering the fact that Canada’s youth have spent their entire lives under the protection of the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, many of them may treat their “right to vote” as a secure entitlement, rather than perceiving it as a privilege as their parents and grandparents did.
As Milner and Howe reveal, today’s youth appear to approach politics from an entirely different perspective than their elders did. Their high levels of optimism and satisfaction, in this sense, may reflect a different set of democratic standards and values.
At the same time, youth may demand less of government, and demand less of themselves in terms of formal politics. What appears to be a higher level of democratic contentment among youth may be attributed, at least in part, to lowered expectations. Again this is worthy of further examination, considering that today’s youngest generation of voters grew up in a very tumultuous period in Canadian political history. Those under the age of 30 were raised during the contentious period of constitutional development stretching from the patriation debates of the late 1970s to the Meech Lake and Charlottetown rounds of constitutional negotiations. They have also witnessed at least one referendum on the separation of Quebec, which exposed the raw nerve of nationalism and the seemingly insoluble question of biculturalism in Canada.
The democratic value shift is attributable to more than crisis points, however. If their elders were reared in an age where the welfare state was consistently revered and expanded, youth have experienced precisely the opposite in the era of neoliberalism. Whereas seniors and baby boomers were raised to demand more of government, the cumulative effect of more than a decade of retrenchment and protracted restraint may have encouraged youth to expect much less from the formal political process.
In this way, the legacy of neoliberal leaders – of all political parties – may lie less in their structural reforms to the welfare state and more in their restructuring of people’s expectations of government. Moreover, in an era of postmaterialism, when Canadians of all ages are beginning to focus more on quality-of-life as opposed to standard-of-living issues, youth may feel the least interest in engaging government to fulfill their personal goals.
Thus, democratic contentment may have as much to do with lowered expectations of politics as any other factor. Youth may expect less from government, and be satisfied with less than their elders appear willing to accept. All of this, in turn, may have led to a lower sense of duty and obligation toward the formal political process. If a “democratic deficit” exists wherever people’s expectations of democracy are left unfulfilled, it is worth asking just how high these sorts of standards are set.
As Milner and Howe remind us, rather than improving access to the ballot box or invoking the rhetoric of democratic obligation, more effective strategies may focus on developing new democratic habits and values, or cultivating a deeper sense of group identity among Canada’s youth. Their research offers valuable confirmation of much of what we suspected about today’s youngest citizens – they are largely tuned out of politics, and seem ill-prepared to engage in elections. Milner and Howe offer compelling explanations for this generational shift, while stimulating many new theories. Let’s hope a new generation of political scientists and students take up the challenge of testing them.