As someone who studies young Americans, I keep on my shelf the book Generation We: How Millennial Youth are Taking Over America and Changing Our World Forever by Eric Greenberg and Karl Weber (2008). Norman Lear provides one of many enthusiastic endorsements on the back cover: "The Bible tells us, 'a little child shall lead them.' ... Greenberg and Weber chronicle today's wonderful young people as they push, pull, and propel us toward global salvation."
But I also own The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or Don't Trust Anyone Under 30) by Mark Bauerlein (2008). The back cover, with sober endorsements by elders like Harold Bloom, warns: "If they don't change, they will be remembered as fortunate ones who were unworthy of the privileges they inherited. They may even be the generation that lost that great American heritage, forever."
What is the true story about this generation? In 2008, they turned out in near-record numbers to elect a president who inspired them. In 2010, relatively few of them voted at all. They are camped out in "Occupy" tents, yet they spend all their time inside, staring at screens.
A record number, almost 12 million, are working on college degrees, yet nearly one third drop out before they even attain a high school diploma. They commit homicide at less than half the rate of their parents' generation, yet more than 780,000 of them are in prison. They face an obesity epidemic, yet they are conscious of nutrition and exercise. They are tech-savvy, but they struggle in a high-tech economy. They are idealists, yet cynics; overachievers, yet slackers; coddled, yet managing on their own.
Come to think of it, why would we assume that any stereotype accurately describes the most racially, ethnically and culturally diverse generation in American history? Maybe they all have access to Facebook, but in most other respects, their circumstances are far from uniform. Economic inequality (measured as the gap between the top fifth and the bottom fifth of families) is greater than at any time since 1929. Schools are more segregated than they were a quarter of a century ago.
With the election season heating up and much speculation about whether "youth" will vote, we should be focused on enormous disparities in civic engagement. Census data from 2010 reveal that about one in five young Americans is broadly engaged. They work with neighbors, attend community meetings, take leadership roles in community organizations, and volunteer on a regular basis. White, college-educated, high-income youth are overrepresented in this cluster. Almost three quarters of young people in this group have attended college, and more than 30% have already completed a four-year degree. Women are also overrepresented in this group.
A different one in five young adults are civically alienated, reporting almost no forms of engagement -- from voting to community service. Latino, non-college-educated, and low-income youth are overrepresented in this cluster. Because they are disconnected from organizations and community networks, they miss the chance to influence society, and they lose opportunities to develop skills and positive relationships.
Several other groups are also worth attention. Fourteen percent of young adults in 2010 were registered to vote but did not vote or do much of anything else. The fact that they registered suggests some concern and knowledge, but they evidently need a push to participate. Another group of 13 percent reported discussing political issues and were avid communicators with their friends and family, especially online. But they took very little action in the world. Again, they display interest and concern, but civic organizations must recruit them to participate.
Americans are obsessed with trends over time. We stare at graphs showing test scores and voter turnout rising or falling from year to year. But the gaps among people of the same age are much bigger than any of these changes. No one knows how many young adults will vote in 2012. But we can be virtually certain that college students will vote at twice the rate of their peers who have no college experience, because that has been the case in every election for decades.
I anticipate that many reactions to this article will be generalizations about "young people today" -- appreciative or disparaging. Any comments that lump all young people together are bound to be wrong. If you care about engaging the next generation, I would urge you to drop the stereotypes and focus on important differences. Recognize that some young people are remarkably active and responsible leaders; include them in your work. But also find ways to engage the young people who are left out.
Follow Peter Levine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/peterlevine