11/23/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Forget Generation Y. We're Looking at Generation Engaged

Think Obama's the one driving high youth turnout at the voter polls? Think again.

There's no doubt about it -- young voters are making their presence felt in record numbers. Since 2000, national youth voter turnout has increased in each election cycle; from the primaries to the general to the midterms. This is the first time since the voting age was lowered to 18 that turnout among the under-30 set has improved three straight election cycles in a row. Most encouraging, a whopping 86% of young people say they are likely to vote in November, compared to 69% who said that in September of 2006 according to Rock the Vote.

Most pundits have attributed this increase to Democratic candidate Senator Barack Obama's youthful, suave intelligence. Yet, while he's clearly struck a chord with new voters, let's not confuse cause with effect. The rise of the youth vote is part of what makes an Obama candidacy possible. And 2008 is not a phenomenon.

Young voters recognize that the issues at stake will directly impact their lives. The credit crunch will raise the cost of their student loans and a spiraling economy will reduce their employment opportunities and savings -- if they have any to speak of. Young people worry about climate change and what the world could look like when they hit middle-age, and don't know how they will pay for health bills as their parents' begin to grow elderly. Those under 30 feel the pinch of $4 gas gallons too, especially when their economic opportunities are dwindling. And it's the young soldiers who are shouldering the bulk of the sacrifice in our ongoing military campaigns.

Campaigns are also reaching young voters more effectively than ever before. Information is becoming increasingly decentralized. More people are getting their news from the Daily Show, Saturday Night Live, YouTube and bloggers than from traditional outlets. Young political innovators have made new technology -- viral, videos, social networking and text messaging, to name a few -- into the backbone of modern political campaigns. While these tactics reach all of the American public, they hit the youth the hardest. Whether it's through text messages or Facebook groups, campaigns are, more so than ever before, meeting young voters exactly where they're at. And let's not forget good old word of mouth. The latest Rock the Vote poll dated September 23 found that peer-to-peer conversations are still the primary source of election information for youth.

This current generation of youth has been called many things -- narcissistic, apathetic, addicted to technology and perpetually immature, to name a few. Yet one thing you can't deny is that they are a generation engaged. The young voting bloc is single-handedly redefining the way we play politics, and candidates would be wise to build on this youth momentum -- through a call to national service and the programs to enable it; increased investment in civics education; and a program to distribute voter cards with high school diplomas.

Young voters today want an honest debate about solutions to the nation's problems, especially economic security, climate change, student loans, healthcare, and immigration. The historic youth turnout we've seen has increased each election -- whether Obama was in the running or not. We owe it to our youth to give them the credit they deserve. From where I'm standing this doesn't look like "generation me": they are plugged in, and they are engaged.