Millennial Values, Involvement, and Social Capital


“American history carefully examined,” argued political scientist Robert Putnam in his notable book Bowling Alone, “is a story of ups and downs in civic engagement . . . a story of collapse and of renewal.” According to Putnam, the passage of the civic-minded World War II generation from American society has led to deterioration in social capital.

Putnam defines social capital as “connections among individuals,” and the “social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” According to Putnam, the last several decades of the twentieth century, largely coinciding with the rise to preeminence of the Baby Boomers and Generation X, were marked by a huge decline in community involvement and social engagement, which led, by the end of the twentieth century to a “sense of civic malaise,” throughout the nation.

Since the publication of Putnam’s book in 2000, there has been increased focus on (and criticism of) the concept of social capital in American society. During this period, there has also been a new interest in the latest generation – the Millennials. Born in the last two decades of the 20th century, this new generation has the potential to challenge the previously sacrosanct view of young people as uninvolved and disinterested in civic life, which has become part of the conventional wisdom over the past several decades. This new impulse, when shaped by and combined with their set of unique values, may give the Millennial generation the opportunity to be the force for renewal and change in American society.

According to research published in 2007 by the National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC), the Millennial generation is showing signs of potentially emerging as a “new civic generation.” Rates of volunteerism have “rose substantially for young Americans over the last generation and remain at historically high levels.” In addition, the NCoC reports, the Millennial generation has the lowest levels of distrust in government, and while they are still the least enthusiastic age group about voting, they “are more favorable toward citizen-centered politics than Gen Xers or Matures.”

However, it should be noted that youth voting rates have been going up recently. Millennials are interested in getting involved, however, perhaps not in the same ways as previous generations. Shaped by their vast exposure to technology, and a different set of values inculcated during their childhoods, Millennials are looking for new ways to become active participants in their communities, that transcend simply voting or joining a local organization. According to the NCoC Millennials “lack – but want – venues for citizen-centered politics.” They’re in search of “more opportunities for discussion and civic action.” As a generation, Millennials are in search of a way to make their voice and values heard, in a way that suits their particular sense of what it means to be involved.

Born in 1981, I am considered a “cusp” Millennial. Born on the demarcation line between the allegedly more skeptical, less involved Generation-X, and the supposedly more civic, upbeat Millennial generation, I had the chance during my college years to observe the entry of the Millennials into the environment of higher education. While there is always some danger in placing too much stock in anecdotal evidence, there was some sense, to steal the lyrics of a song familiar to baby boomers, that “something is happening here, but what it is, ain’t exactly clear.”

As one Millennial once put it to me recently, we seem to be a “backwards generation.” Echoing those who point to a renaissance in civic culture among Millennials, she noted that our generation seems to embracing older values, and recognizing their importance in a balanced life. However, according to her, Millennials were doing this in their own way, complementing these “old” values with our own, increasingly globalized, green, earth-friendly outlook, while also embracing the use of technology as a major part of our everyday life.

One thing that is clear is the major influence technology has had upon our values, involvement, and interaction. In 1993, as a seventh grade student, I was introduced to the internet. Soon, much to the amazement of our baby-boomer librarians, I was exchanging e-mails with students from all over the world. They found the concept of instantaneous communication between a student in North Dakota and one in Germany novel enough to merit a write up in the school newsletter!

To Millennials, use of electronic mediums of communication for political and social interaction has become second nature. It is, to echo Putnam, our means of building social capital.

However, with this embrace of new technology, has come an acceptance of less privacy in our lives. For example, the amount of information that some are willing to share on social networking sites is often shocking. While it may be a force for opening minds and expanding our boundaries, technology also opens us to others in ways that other generations might find unacceptable.

Another area reflecting our generation’s need to find new ways to become engaged and involved is our view towards work. There is a belief that work should reflect your values, but at the same time, one must be about more than “just work.” Jobs aren’t seen as a life commitment. The value of a job is measured in what it can contribute to our development as an individual, how it helps us meet our personal goals, and what quality of life it allows us to pursue. Work is not viewed as an end in itself, but as an enabler.

During my time at university, professors remarked to me on more than one occasion that enrollment in political science classes was up by leaps and bounds. One professor felt that the war in Iraq was the driving force behind this. While this might be important, and may be serving to shape the values of my generation, there seems to be more at play. Trying to stick our involvement in the same frame as that of the Vietnam era boomers seems shortsighted. To my generation, the battles of the culture wars seem to have receded, with a more pragmatic, live and let-live attitude being adopted by many Millenials, who approach problems by looking for consensus. The rise of a politician such as Barack Obama, calling for change based on collective action, has been driven in large part by young people across the country, inspired by such a message.

Robert Putnam, reflecting on the slow wane in American social culture, prior to the rise of the Millennials, argued that above all else, “Americans need to reconnect with one another.” In its own way, the Millennial Generation is going about this process, expressing its unique values, seeking to develop an identity, and becoming engaged in our communities. Some may view this as constructive renewal and others as destructive change to the status quo. As a member of my generation, let me simply assure you, in language that boomers might appreciate, that while Millennials may have their own way of doing things, the kids are alright.

Matthew is a Research and Development Analyst for Praxis Strategy Group. A native of Crary, ND, Matthew graduated from the University of North Dakota in 2007 with a master’s degree in public administration. As a student, Matthew’s research focuses included community and economic development, intergovernmental relationships, and public policy development and implementation. He has also collaborated on research studying small business start-ups and challenges facing new entrepreneurs.

In addition to his graduate degree, Matthew also holds a B.A. in political science and history from the University of North Dakota. Prior to joining Praxis Strategy Group, he served as an intern for the North Dakota Legislative Council, in Bismarck, ND, conducting policy research and support work for legislators.

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