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Many commentators have fun with words like “youth,” “Generation Y,” and “Millenials,” using them as a blank canvas on which to paint all sorts of theories about our political system and its future. According to these free associational claims, young people are anything from idealistic to disengaged, tolerant to naive. It’s disheartening for me to read these kinds of stereotypes over and over again, so I was pleased to see some recent concrete data on young people’s political attitudes. What are we like? 

In an effort to help decipher our generation, Harvard’s Institute of Politics, a leading politics and public affairs institute, has recently released, as it does on a regular basis, a poll clarifying some of the leading concerns of young people.

The survey results contain many plots and subplots, but the most interesting theme I took away is that our generation is cynical. For roughly the last 10 years,18-29 year-olds consistently express distrust for political institutions and do not vote in massive numbers (with the Obama election being the one key exception). Our greatest challenge is to reverse the youngest generation of voters’ enduring cynicism about government.

How could that be accomplished? One way would be to try for a politics of hope. And here I don’t (necessarily) mean Obama’s use of that slogan in his 2008 campaign as a way to energize voters. It’s fine if he and other politicians want to try and tap into young people’s hunger for another approach, but what’s more important is the growing cognizance of our generation’s crippling cynicism and an attitude of concern toward it, not the way this or that party tries to make use of that attitude to motivate partisan proposals.

The data speaks to the seriousness of the dissatisfaction that needs to be overcome. Young people don’t fit as neatly into parties as many of their older counterparts, and they do not, increasingly, view politics as a form of public service. Rather, politics is seen as a kind of rough-and-tumble world of vanity and attention-seeking, and worse, as thoroughly corrupt to boot.

As I said though, this isn’t all bad. Young people are cautious about political hucksters and quick fixes, and have questioned rigid party boundaries. They are also doing community service and working with NGOs as a way to give expression to idealism in a “pure” way.

There are other bright spots as well, such as the fact that African-Americans trust the presidency at a rate of 60%, the highest level of trust of any group in any institution. What this suggests to me is that there may be an opportunity for our generation to re-engage in politics, which is viewed with suspicion, and to do so with a desire to “do-good” and improve our country in the process.

All in all, this generation of voters is bound to make foolhardy mistakes as it grows into political maturity - all generations do - but there is canniness to go along with our cynicism, and there is a deep desire for change simmering below the surface. The question is, as always, to what use can it be put.

Photo CreditTrishhhh