Conversations about service are extremely important, yet they often miss one of the most important outlets for change, government. This is a significant oversight, as my generation, while remaining actively involved in our communities, is growing increasingly pessimistic about government. The service community needs to start a new conversation about how to inspire young people to serve in government
Young people bring new ideas and a fresh perspective to policymaking. Generally, we look at the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. Having the best and brightest ready, willing, and able to serve at the highest levels of government is the key to a strong democracy in the future.
Right now there is a disconnect. Young people are ready, willing, and able to serve their communities, but not government. A poll conducted by DoSomething.org of 4,000 young people ages 13-22 found that over half of young people (54.2%) volunteer. This enthusiasm can be seen in the work of DoSomething.org and Youth Service America -- the nation's two largest youth service organizations.
For Global Youth Service Day this year, Youth Service America had 1,623 service projects registered in all fifty states. Last year DoSomething.org, through 25 different cause campaigns, helped 2.4 million young people take action. Young people don't have the same enthusiasm about government -- in fact they are becoming more pessimistic.
The Harvard Institute of Politics Spring 2013 survey offers an opportunity for comparison. 34 percent of young people ages 18-29 volunteered for community service within the last year while 53 percent of young people enrolled in a four-year college reported volunteering.
Yet, when asked about their participation within the last year in a "government, political, or issue-related organization" the numbers drop dramatically. Only 8 percent of young people report participating in such an organization. There was only a 3-point improvement for those attending four-year colleges or universities.
Why is there an incredible gap between community service and government service? My hypothesis is perceived impact. DoSomething.org's survey found that 70.7 percent who strongly believed they could make a difference in their community volunteered within the last 12 months. However, of those who strongly disagreed that they could make a difference in their community only 24.4 percent volunteered.
This got me thinking -- is the same true with government service? 41 percent of those surveyed by the Harvard IOP who disagreed that politics "rarely has any tangible results" considered themselves politically engaged and active. This is a 17-point difference from the 24 percent of people who agreed that politics "rarely has any tangible results" but still considered themselves politically engaged and active.
These numbers lead me to conclude young people are not serving in politics and government because they don't have meaningful opportunities to do so. This is where a national service conversation needs to happen: What can we do to inspire a new generation to serve in government? That conversation must start now.
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