Generation Me

More political than you thought,

May 4, 2015

I recently listened to an episode of “Decodedc,” a popular podcast by Andrea Seabrook. “Generation Me,” (Episode 78) focuses on the work of San Diego State University psychologist, Jean Twenge.  About 10 minutes into the podcast the host, Dick Meyer, recounts a depressing anecdote from a Texas Tech University Study which was designed to measure how tuned in millennials are to politics? If you’ve ever had a chance to watch Jay Leno’s Jaywalking on the Tonight Show, the results won’t surprise you:

“So who is our Vice President?” asks the interviewer.

(Giggle) “… don’t know,” respondent one.

“I have no idea…” respondent two.

“Uh, Right now? I don’t know… (giggle),” respondent three.

“Ummmm… what’s his name, oh my gosh!” respondent four.

And well, you get the point, it only gets worse from there.

Meyer, admits that this little tidbit is “more spook than science” something they “threw in for some laughs.”

It’s not particularly funny, but it is in keeping with the stereotype we hear so often about millennials. They are intimately connected to each other via their iPhones, iPads, Instagram accounts, twitter feeds, Facebook, Snapchat, etc… and completely disengaged from politics and civic society.

But a pair of studies from opposite sides of the world challenge this widespread notion. One, by the Media Insight Project, focuses on U.S. millennials as news consumers. The other measures political engagement among young people in Indonesia. Together they suggest that while young people don’t consume news the same way we did (assuming you are not a millennial!) and don’t necessarily participate in politics for the same reasons we might have, a large percentage are more engaged than we often give them credit for; certainly more than the media often suggests.

The Media Insight Project – an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research - finds that far from disengaged and uninterested, U.S. millennials consume news, albeit in a more nuanced way, than previously thought. Among the studies key findings to be presented at the annual convention of the Newspaper Association of America in Nashville this week:

  • 69% (or 2/3) of millennials get news at least once a day; 40% several times a day

  • Nearly three-quarters of millennials seek out the news for civic reasons (74%)

  • 70% report that their news feeds contain views that are different than their own; almost a quarter of respondents say they look further into these different opinions at least some of the time

  • Millennials tend to get “hard news” from traditional news sites and “softer news” from social networks, most prominently Facebook.

The Media Insight Project surveyed 1,046 millennials (18-34) from Jan. 5- Feb 2, 2015 and has a sampling error of 3.8 percent.

The massive student demonstrations in Indonesia that occurred in the late 1990s stand in sharp contrast to what is going on today. Unlike the previous cohort, the current generation is often described as both disengaged from and disenchanted with politics.

A survey by the Communications Research Centre of the University of Indonesia conducted from April to June of last year, however, calls this conclusion into question. The study focused on Pantau Pemilu, an initiative by the People’s Voter Education Network (JPPR). The goal of the initiative was to create an election monitoring system. Among the study’s findings was that almost half (46%) of the election monitoring volunteers were 17-25 years old, 38% were 26-35 years old.

As Levriana Yustriani writes, “they were willing to come out of their cyber-habitats into the real world. They went down to the neighbourhoods, local electoral commissions, or any place to ensure the entire process of the election… This contradicts the sceptical view that young people are mostly too lazy to engage in political activism beyond their online activities.”

While these studies are by no means conclusive, they suggest that we should be cautious in how we approach our students and young people in general. In particular we should be mindful of the fact that they may have been unfairly stereotyped as at once the most interconnected generation and at the same time the least civically, socially, and politically minded. At least as far as these two studies suggest, the data doesn’t necessarily support that conclusion.

Jeanne Zaino, Ph.D., is professor of political science at Iona College. You can follow her on twitter @jeannezaino


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