Kids These Days, Same as the Old Days?

A while ago, there was a snappy little exchange between Lawrence Martin and Alison Loat in the op-ed pages of the Globe, over the political engagement of kids these days. Martin called them lazy and ignorant, Loat said well, we all need to take responsibility for our lousy political culture. David Eaves chimed in saying that kids are certainly engaged, just not in the way old fogeys like L Martin want them to be.

My last column for the mag was sort of a meta-comment on the debate. My general point was that it isn’t necessarily helpful to frame these debates in terms of generational turnover, generational values, and so on, because I’m skeptical that talk about “generations” as identifiable cohorts with a distinctive worldview and set of values is useful.

In the Mark today, Don Lenihan and Vinod Rajasekaran of the Public Policy Forum posted what I think is intended as a reply to my column, setting it up as so:

In replying to it, we want to deal with three quite different questions that are entangled in the discussion: Are young people really disengaged? Is the fall in voter turnout a sign of their overall disengagement? Are young people really somehow different from earlier generations? Let’s take these one at a time.

On the first question, they go on to largely repeat Eaves’ argument, that kids sure are engaged, just in “non-conventional ways.” On the second, they largely repeat Loat’s argument, that in refusing to vote in any great numbers, youth are basically the canaries in the coalmine of a poisoned political culture.

Neither of these bears on anything I wrote. My argument was not that kids are disengaged; it was that regardless of what they are up to now, they’ll become more conventionally engaged once their lives become more, well, conventional. As for voting, we could talk all night about voter turnout (and I’ll try to blog on it soon). But for what it is worth, I don’t buy the Loat/Lenihan line — the trend is too widespread across the developed democracies to pin it on our particular political culture.

So what are we debating? Essentially, the question is whether kids these days — Gen Y, millennials, whatev — constitute a distinct cohort that has a unique set of values that will remain so across life stages, or whether the current trends are just highly visible stage traits. Don and Vinod (and Eaves) think that huge recent changes in technology is the catalyst for a genuine Gen Y worldview:

As a result, you can’t change the society without changing its members. If so, isn’t it reasonable to assume that a generation shaped by this new world somehow will be different from those who have gone before it?

Perhaps. But I personally haven’t read anything that supports this. I’ve read a great deal of stuff that amounts to hand-waving and speculative thinking, but no serious studies, surveys, and so on. In fact, the limited reading I have done on the subject suggests that “generations” are highly over-rated as sociological categories, or, at least, extremely difficult entities to pin down with any rigour.

I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise. (In fact I’d like to be persuaded otherwise, and please send me any readings or data you have on this.) But given the fact that old people have been saying the exact same things about kids these days for literally millennia, the burden is on those who want to argue that this generation really is different. At any rate, while it’s something that might arrive as a conclusion from our inquiries, I don’t see how we can justify using it as a premise.

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