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A quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute, edited by Brian C. Anderson.

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More Than Zero
Often derided as cynical and disengaged, Generation Xers have plenty of public spirit.
13 November 2009

Pity Generation X, the Americans born between 1965 and 1981 who have been described for years as “apathetic,” “cynical,” and “disengaged.” The greatness of the Greatest Generation is clear in its very name. Much laudatory ink has been spilled on the Baby Boomers—usually by Boomers themselves. As for the “Millennials,” those born between 1982 and 1998, the quantity of reportage lauding their public-spiritedness has quickly become tiresome. But a new report casts doubt on the widely accepted stereotype of Gen Xers as inferior to these other groups.

Sociologists Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics, offer a good example of the usual attitude. “Millennials are sharply distinctive from the divided, moralistic Baby Boomers (born 1946–1964) and the cynical, individualistic Gen-Xers (born 1965–1981), the two generations that preceded them and who are their parents,” they write. “Millennials have a deep commitment to community and helping others, putting this belief into action with community service activities.” In a Boston Globe op-ed prior to last year’s presidential election, Harvard’s Robert Putnam took things a step further, comparing Millennials to the earlier cohort that survived the Depression and fought World War II: “The 2008 elections are thus the coming-out party of this new Greatest Generation. Their grandparents of the original Greatest Generation were the civic pillars of American democracy for more than a half-century, and at long last, just as that generation is leaving the scene, reinforcements are arriving.” Would it be unseemly at this point to groan, “Gag me with a spoon”?

All of this stereotyping might be more bearable if it were true, but the latest Civic Health Index study from the congressionally chartered National Conference on Citizenship (NCOC) puts both the Millennials and Generation X in a different light. The report, entitled Civic Health in Hard Times, focuses on the impact of the economic downturn on nationwide civic participation. From the NCOC’s survey results, organized by generational cohort, it appears that much of the derision heaped on Generation X’s withdrawal from the public square has been misplaced.

While Gen Xers fall slightly behind Millennials in volunteering (42.6 percent to 43 percent), the narrowness of the gap is surprising, given the vastly greater number of volunteering opportunities available to (and sometimes mandated for) Millennials in high school and college. Gen Xers far outdistance Baby Boomers (35 percent) in volunteering and even outperform the real “Greatest Generation” of retired seniors (42 percent). And when asked whether they had increased their participation in the past year, Gen-X respondents scored highest, with 39 percent answering yes. This far surpassed Millennials (29 percent), Boomers (26), and seniors (25).

Certainly this outcome might partly reflect small changes in already low engagement levels among Gen Xers, but a deeper look reveals that they flex considerable civic muscle. Boomer respondents took the top spot when asked whether they “had given food or money to someone who isn’t a relative” in the last year, with 52.9 percent responding affirmatively, but Gen Xers finished second (51.2 percent), followed by seniors, with Millennials placing last. When asked about a range of civic involvement activities, from “giving money, food, shelter” to more direct “volunteering,” Gen Xers finished second to seniors in stating that they had done “all of the above”—ahead of both Boomers and Millennials.

As for more general political participation, recently released data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that while Millennials had a statistically significant uptick in voter participation in the November 2008 elections, they still trailed every other generation in percentage turnout. In fact, 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds voted at the lowest percentages of any age surveyed—39.8 percent, 40.1 percent, and 43 percent, respectively. Gen Xers far surpassed Millennials in percentage voting in 2008, 52.1 percent to 44.5. And the voter turnout for Millennials in 2008 was less than 1 percentage point higher than Gen-Xer turnout figures for 1992—the comparable election, age-wise, for the older cohort. These are hardly numbers befitting a “new Greatest Generation.”

Moving from participation to trust in our largest governing institutions, the NCOC survey shows that there is some truth to the characterization of Gen Xers as cynical. When asked, “Do you trust the government in Washington to do what is right?,” Gen Xers were the most dubious of all generations, with only 20.7 percent responding that they trusted the feds either “most of the time” or “just about always.” Compare this with Millennials (27.9 percent), Boomers (27.8), and seniors (26.2). The same trends pertain to questions about state government, though Gen Xers’ level of trust in their local government was higher. Thirty-six percent of Gen Xers viewed these governments positively—exactly the same fraction as Millennials, and just a percentage point behind seniors.

This divergence between trust and participation makes sense when understood as a rational civic reaction to what are perceived as broken or distant political institutions. Gen Xers, cautious about whether our politics can ameliorate significant societal ills, are nonetheless “voting” with their money and time to address these challenges. We may be skeptical, but we’re not apathetic.

So why all the gushing about the Millennials? Part of the reason is the necessary examination of a new (and very large) generation’s coming of age and of its participation in a democratic society. But it’s also difficult not to see a partisan element. In 2007, as researchers Winograd and Hais point out, Millennials self-identified as Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 52 percent to 30 percent. But Winograd—a former adviser to Vice President Al Gore—uses this snapshot to forecast a Democratic “historic opportunity to become the majority party for at least four more decades.” Michael Connery, author of the recent Youth to Power: How Today’s Young Voters Are Building Tomorrow’s Progressive Majority, recently suggested: “If a ‘post-partisan’ politics is going to be ushered in on a wave of Millennial support, it will have a distinctly progressive character.” Connery concludes that it is “this optimism and belief in their own power to make positive change in country—reflected in many polls and surveys of Millennials taken in the past few years—more than anything that accounts for the incredible surge in youth participation that we are seeing today.” These pundits should be careful, though, for while Millennials have registered predominantly Democratic, they’ve also shown a libertarian streak, expressing significant support for fiscally conservative policies.

Winograd, Connery, and others (like the Center for American Progress’s Ruy Teixeira) seem less interested in touting the Millennials’ civic engagement than in celebrating their political leanings and what these might mean for the Democratic Party. In contrast, Gen Xers began to participate politically as the youngest members of the Reagan Revolution, with most research finding us (to this day) more politically conservative than our Boomer parents. One wonders how much applause we would hear for Millennials if their current affiliation were reversed.

As this year’s Civic Health Index demonstrates, Gen Xers are proving deeply involved in civil society, even as they continue to be suspicious of big government. So while pundits keep handing out participation trophies to the Millennials, maybe this year they should save a few for the enlightened skeptics of Generation X.

Pete Peterson is executive director of Common Sense California, a multipartisan organization that supports citizen participation in policymaking (his views do not necessarily represent those of CSC). He also lectures on State and Local Governance at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy.

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