This November’s election will almost certainly continue a longtime trend in which young people vote in significantly smaller numbers than their parents and grandparents. The millennials and post-millennials did not originate this trend but they have intensified it, as the rate with which they are withdrawing from most forms of traditional political participation are accelerating.
But these same young people also volunteer their time back into their communities at a higher rate than any other generation in recent American history. So before we condemn them as self-absorbed and entertainment-obsessed children (like most of us were at their age), it’s worth considering why these teens and twenty-somethings have rejected our brand of political involvement so emphatically but have instead decided to channel their civic impulses in such a different direction.
Part of this shift is the predictable result of the growing levels of impatience for those who have grown up in a smart-phone era. Political change takes time. An election unfolds over several months, and sometimes your preferred candidates don’t win. Even if the politicians we backed do get elected, they are often unable to fulfill the inspiring yet often outlandish promises they made on the campaign trail. And even those most committed public servants must compromise in order to achieve their goals, leading to an unavoidable emotional letdown from their big-dream supporters.
By contrast, volunteering provides immediate gratification. If we devote our Saturday morning to cleaning a beach or a park, we might not be changing the world. But by the time we leave for lunch, at least we have a clean, public open space.
But blaming young people for their social media addiction smacks of generational hypocrisy. I may have grown up in an era of 8-track tapes and cassette players, but my compulsion to check email an unhealthy number of times each day is just as profound as my students’ texting obsession. Because I keep a storehouse of all the world’s knowledge in my pocket (along with all my favorite songs), I am a lot less patient than I used to be too.
But I still vote.
Another source of disengagement for those young people is the poisonous impact of unlimited and undisclosed money on our political process. Very few of my students have their own super PACs and they are very aware that lavishly-funded interests on both sides of the aisle spend tens of millions of dollars buying access and influence that even the most politically engaged teenager cannot. When a CEO or union chief effectively gets millions of votes in November, and a young person only gets one, the disincentive to cast a ballot cannot be overestimated.
But most Gen Xers and Baby Boomers do not contribute large amounts of money to political candidates and causes. Yet we still vote. So why doesn’t the Snapchat Generation?
In order to understand why these young people have opted out of electoral politics in such large numbers, it is helpful to go back to their earliest exposure to civic engagement. Let’s take a look at what they are taught—and, more to the point, not taught—in our public schools.
Most California high schools require their students to take one single semester of civics education to receive a diploma. More often than not those fifteen weeks are crammed with civics, American government, and even geography, almost always offered in eleventh or twelfth grade.
As a result, the unintentional but unmistakable message that we are sending our next generation of leaders is this:
“We are not going to bother teaching you the basic principles of political involvement in your first ten years of formal schooling. Yet we expect you to magically transform yourself eighteen months later into regular voters and responsible citizens.”
Given a crash course of that nature and duration in democratic principles, it’s not hard to see why the message often fails to stick.
The most significant challenge is in the most economically disadvantaged communities. The single most reliable indicator as to whether a young person will vote upon turning eighteen years old is whether they were raised in a household that contained at least one adult who votes on a regular basis.
However, in upper-middle class and wealthy families, the importance of voting can be passed on by generational osmosis. But for a teen who lives in a home with no adult voters—or even no adult who is eligible to vote—those lessons are much less likely to be transmitted. Which leaves that responsibility for the schools to meet.
Except when they don’t.
By contrast, most California public schools require their students to devote large amounts of time to volunteering their time to a community organization beginning in ninth grade—and, often, years before high school (here’s a fifty-state comparison). Like you, I scoff at the oxymoron of “mandatory volunteerism,” until I watch my students continuing to volunteer long after it is no longer required, not only in college but many years after they have moved on to jobs and homes and families of their own. We convince them through years of message repetition and learned example that responsible citizens must give of themselves and their time to help the less fortunate. Then almost as an afterthought, we hurriedly remind them that they should also vote. Small wonder that the long-term message penetrates much deeper and lasts much longer.
There are plenty of other changes that can and should be made to fix our broken and balkanized political system. Sensible campaign finance reform, nationwide changes to the way legislative and congressional districts are drawn, and the emergence of either a formal third party or a less tangible centrist movement that can help recreate a common ground for policy discussion are all critical steps to be discussed another day.
But first things first. All the structural and logistical changes in the world will make little difference unless we first help our young people understand that this democracy belongs to them too. Like any other learned behavior, the fundamental principles of democracy have to be taught.
Volunteering is noble, but voting is necessary. If we remind them regularly of both these ideals, perhaps they’ll be less likely to view them as an either/or choice.
Dan Schnur is a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications and the University of California–Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and a past chairman of California’s watchdog Fair Political Practices Commission. He was also the national communications director for the 2000 presidential campaign of the late Arizona senator John McCain.