The Apathetic New Generation

Teenagers and young adults are less likely than older adults to value voting or the way government works, and the reason is that the nation is failing to teach the basics for taking part in a democracy, according to a new report.

Though mostly dire, the report, released Monday, found a bit of good news - that young people who have taken a class in civics place more value on engaging in public life.

"We can't let apathy and ignorance become the status quo," said Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens, president of the National Conference of State Legislatures, one of the groups that helped produce the report.

The report, based on an Internet survey, focused on what it called "DotNets" - people ages 15 to 26. It was produced by the Representative Democracy in America Project, a collaboration of legislative, academic and civics education groups.

Among the findings:

  • Fifty-four percent of the under-26 group said it is important to pay attention to government and politics; 78 percent of the over-26 group felt that way.
  • Forty-seven percent of the younger group eligible to vote said they cast ballots in all or most elections, compared with 77 percent of the older group.
  • 48 percent of the younger group knew their governor's party, and 40 percent knew which party controlled Congress; in the older group, that rose to 72 percent and 61 percent.

    The report found that younger people "do not understand the ideals of citizenship, they are disengaged from the political process, they lack the knowledge necessary for effective self-government, and their appreciation and support of American democracy is limited."

    In one example, the survey ranked how young respondents viewed a career in politics: Only farming ranked worse than the prospect of a career as a state lawmaker, member of Congress or president.

    Most - 53 percent - looked favorably on a career in business, while 44 percent chose music or theater. President? That only drew 16 percent. (Respondents could pick more than one career).

    "The generational gaps in civic knowledge, attitudes and participation are greater than they have ever been," said Karl Kurtz of the NCSL and a report co-author. "The baby boomers, the World War II generation and our schools have failed to teach the ideals of citizenship to young people."

    The report found, however, that more of the young people took a significantly more active role in democracy - voting, following the news about government, and believing they were personally responsible for making the world better - if they had taken a civics class.

    In 39 states, a course in civics or government is required to get a high school diploma.

    The survey-takers interviewed 632 respondents ages 15 to 26, and 654 respondents over 26. It had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

    The project is a collaboration of the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Center on Congress at Indiana University, and the Center on Civic Education.

    By Robert Tanner