Kids these days: Quick to click, but engagement lags

My first serious disagreement with my husband was on our second date. It was about John Mayer. My guitarist husband said John Mayer was the best; I said he was the worst. It was a conclusion I reached after hearing the singer/songwriter’s “Waiting on the World to Change,” in which he proudly proclaims that while young Americans aren't happy with the way the world is, we're content to just wait for it to sort itself out before we start getting involved.

What? We're going wait it out?

What really made me react so passionately to a silly pop song is that if you read the headlines, it would seem like this is an accurate description of the millennial generation's attitude. Despite being the largest in American history at 95 million strong, we're constantly portrayed in the media as lazy, narcissistic, entitled, and, in the words of Time’s Joel Stein, possessing, “less civic engagement and lower political participation than any previous group.”

And perhaps, regrettably, John and Joel have a point. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 3.8 percent of legislators are between 20 and 34 years of age. On the other hand, here in Michigan, that number jumps to 6 percent. Go, us.

On the other other hand, since there are more millennials than there are baby boomers, who make up 53 percent of our Legislature, it looks like we could be doing better. What's more, the Michigan Suburbs Alliance reports that we're solidly under-represented in local government.

How many hands do you have? Because, on the other other other hand, in 2012, both voter registration and turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds was higher than the figures for the general population. Reports show that millennials, regardless of political activities, have very strong feelings about government and politics.

So … what does that all mean? Are we apathetic narcissists waiting for other people to change the world, or are we beginning to flex our power as the largest voting bloc in American history?

No study I could find neatly answers this question, but I have a theory. While the Supreme Court was hearing arguments regarding marriage equality in March, Facebook officials reported that more users in Washtenaw County changed their profile pictures to the Human Rights Campaign's red and pink equality logo than in any other county in the nation. No one would be surprised to learn that Washtenaw led the state in this metric, but read that again. Of the entire United States, it wasn't a New York or California county, but a Michigan county that led the nation in social-media support for marriage equality.

So why hasn't that groundswell of support helped to put us among the 12 states that have legalized same-sex marriage? Why is it still OK under state law to fire someone for being gay? Maybe because changing a profile photo on Facebook is a less-than-effective means to create social change. (They don’t call it “slacktivism” for nothing.) Displaying our political beliefs to our pre-screened circle of social media followers is something we millennials love to do, but unless we happen to be friends with any Supreme Court justices or state legislators, this perhaps meaningful gesture to our own circle, is still a small gesture, politically.

As the first generation to come of age online, it should be no surprise that our political activism takes place there. Just like in the analog world, there are effective and ineffective ways to be politically engaged via the internet. The White House and are legitimate online petition platforms, while others are the equivalent of virtual chain letters. Millennials' perceived apathy is likely a blend of this distinction still emerging, and the established means of measuring political engagement failing to take legitimate online activities into account.

Are Michigan millennials politically active? Yes. Are we active enough? Not even close. And we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back for doing than we get credit for without recognizing just how far we have to go.

Telling each other how we feel politically via social media is fine, but we have to be telling our legislators too. We should be showing up at campaign offices and lending a hand. We should be running for office ourselves. As the largest, most diverse and most progressive generation of Americans ever, we millennials should seek to tear ourselves away from our LOLcats and hashtags and do a little better.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Chuck Jordan
Sun, 06/23/2013 - 10:18am
Looking at current government and its dysfunction makes it easy to understand why young folks want no part of it.
Tue, 06/25/2013 - 5:55pm
I wonder if Ms. Burg is asking a rhetorical queston or she really thinks this is something that hass just happened since the electonic age began. I wonder if Ms. Burg really cares why anyone (at any age) does or doesn't get involved in the political process or is she simply this because those that she feels are most likely to support her view on issues aren't involved. Is this a whine for her politics or is Ms. Burg truly interested in getting more people involved in the political process?