We don’t care? Maybe you don’t care

“You kids just don’t care about anything but fun!” Of course we don’t care, right? We’re Generation Apathy. The iPod Generation. The Facebook Generation. We want our lattes and our Converse–that’s all we want, and we want them now.

“You kids just don’t care about anything but fun!”

Of course we don’t care, right? We’re Generation Apathy. The iPod Generation. The Facebook Generation. We want our lattes and our Converse–that’s all we want, and we want them now.

The accusation that young people are selfish and uncaring is not new. Kurt Cobain, the closest thing Generation X had to a spokesperson, famously declared, “My generation is apathy,” a charge that is loudly resonating 15 years later.

Unflattering contrasts are often drawn between our generation and the Baby Boomers, who sometimes protested by the tens of thousands and marched outside the White House chanting, “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” They clashed with police. They were willing to get clubbed and firebombed for civil rights. Our generation signs online petitions between bites of a pizza bagel.

But it’s really not that simple. Voter registration rates among 18- to 29-year-olds, measured every presidential election, have not decreased since 1988. At 70 percent, it’s at its highest level in 30 years, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. That demographic now makes up 20 percent of the electorate, according to the Census Bureau. Youth turnout increased by 25 percent in the New Hampshire primary over 2004, and it tripled among the Democrats in Iowa, according to CBS News. According to a Pew Poll, 58 percent of young people say they are closely following the presidential election, in contrast to 53 percent of adults.

Generation Apathy? I’m not completely convinced.

It’s hard to attempt such comparisons to the Baby Boomers when we live in such a different world than they did. While it’s easy to draw parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, don’t forget that Vietnam came with a draft that helped kill over 50,000 Americans in a five-year period. Those aged 18 to 20 could not vote to dictate who the politicians were that were sending them off to die. The fight was much more personal for them.

Some have tried to draw similar parallels between civil rights issues for African Americans and gays. Blacks made up approximately 11 percent of the country in the 1960s, and while the homosexual population is difficult to measure, reasonable estimates are around 2 to 4 percent.

Some of this is simple numbers: When more people are personally affected, there are more people to raise a stink.

It’s also not too far off to suggest that the Boomers lived in a more tumultuous world than we do. The 2008 political atmosphere may have some parallels to 1968, but 1968 not only had Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement, it also featured an incumbent president bowing out of the election and the assassinations of two national figures: Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. As Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach said on this subject, “The difference between 2008 and 1968 is the difference between needing psychotherapy and requiring a brain transplant.”

Still, few would argue that the forecast today is rosy. According to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 75 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

So what is affecting us? A Pew Poll of 18- to 29-year-old voters suggests that health care, the economy and education are the top three issues that Generation Apathy cares most about, with a whopping 78 to 84 percent of young’uns polled citing each of those issues as “very important.”

As such, it is no surprise that this year’s election has been increasingly about those topics, as savvy candidates are warming up to younger voters. The CNN/YouTube debates last July and November are further evidence of this, with the use of the Internet reflecting the communication habits of a new world and a new generation.

While there are plenty of detractors who rail against this new online activism, those who do so are missing the boat. Digital action is no longer limited to “slacktivist” online petitions. MoveOn.org is now 3.3 million members strong, and their Political Action Committee spent $27 million on pro-Democrat political advocacy in the 2006 election cycle (the NRA spent $11 million in comparison). Barack Obama’s success as a candidate is in no small part due to his grassroots support from social networking sites, credited by his campaign for increased fundraising, volunteers and event turnout. Ron Paul, a candidate who has received virtually no mainstream media coverage, has raised millions through online support and has proven himself no small fry, with double-digit returns in Nevada’s and Iowa’s primaries.

There is still some merit to the accusation that young people are apathetic. It is impossible to refute the consumerist culture we were brought up in as children of the 1980s and 1990s, and the number of people around us we see tuning out. Some of this apathy may be a reflection of our on-the-go culture, which discourages taking the time to slow down, be selfless and help out.

As Robert Putnam documented in his book Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, civic engagement and community groups are on the decline, being replaced by nonprofits and mass-membership organizations (like MoveOn.org) that don’t require much of our time. In a certain light, it’s not that our generation is not as active as the last, it’s that today’s culture is not as active as the last. This does not make things okay, but it does suggest that the apathy problem is not limited to a generation. The problem might be bigger than that.

So do we care less? Who’s to say? It’s a different world now, and measuring such an intangible is just about impossible. The coming years will be a test and trial for us vaunted 18- to 29-year-old citizens, as we grow into the world we’re about to inherit. Our caring and our action will take different forms than they did for those before us, as will our apathy and our inaction. Time is still in the middle of telling.

As for Generation Apathy, I prefer the increasingly used term “The Millennial Generation.” It’s not only appropriate, it’s a title to live up to.