06/17/2005 12:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Tuned Out

In the latest Wilson Quarterly there's a featured article on the lack of news consumption among America's youth. Although the title leaves something to be desired ("The Young and the Restless" strikes me as unusually bromitic for the WQ), the piece is worth mentioning for two reasons.

The first is that it's uniquely well-researched. In 2002 the article's author, David Mindich, spoke extensively with young people in order to prepare a book on the subject. The results speak for themselves: Mindich knows well enough to steer clear of the stock explanation that young people are too distracted by other media, and to focus instead on more specific issues like geriatric advertising or the decline in "cohort replacement" (a shorthand term for fewer parents reading papers in front of their kids).

Yet the second reason is that as astute as even Mindich is, he still misses perhaps the biggest point. When it comes down to it, there are only two general motives for someone to consume the news: financial or political incentive, where incentive encompasses both opportunity and risk. In each case, a young person in America today has less incentive to consume the news than at any point in the last fifty years.

To illustrate this, consider the situation in the 1950s and 1960s. Those decades were at the heart of the "miracle years" of 1948-1973, when both the economy and real wages grew at an unprecedented rate, economic mobility was at its highest, and political polarization meant communism versus democracy rather than status quo solvency versus progressive price indexing. Call me crazy (or just plain young), but is it really a coincidence that those years also happen to be the glory days of the news media?

If that isn't enough, the past thirty years have also seen a correlation between news consumption and both economic and political expediency. This latest period can be divided into two distinct eras: 1974-1991, at which point the Soviet Union irrevocably collapsed and the U.S. was in the last throes of a recession, and 1992-present, a period in which global trade has proliferated to levels not seen since the heyday of imperial enterprise prior to WWI. The salient feature of each era is that despite continued economic growth, real median wages stagnated while political polarities converged.

The end result is that today, as the New York Times noted a few weeks ago, Americans "are arguably more likely than they were 30 years ago to end up in the class into which they were born." Further, they're not going to find much in the way of political mobility either: despite all the blustering, the core differences between Democrats and Republicans are not directly appulsive issues like Social Security so much as marginalized ideological concerns like gay marriage.

Consequently, my advice to all the pundits out there is to calm down on this one. America's youth aren't tuning out because they're disinterested, disengaged, or incompetent. They're tuning out because tuning in simply doesn't pay, either economically or politically. Restore economic and political mobility, and we'll come right back.

Until then, I'd advise ditching those Cialis ads, too.

(Ed. note: unfortunately, there is no direct web link to the Mindich article I mentioned. For those interested, I'd recommend visiting the WQ's general webpage and soliciting its editors for a copy.)