Civic Life in the Information Age: Policy, Technology and Generational Change


Civic Life in the Information Age: Policy, Technology and Generational Change

Theme: Global Citizenship

Stephanie Sanford
Deputy Director, Education
Gates Foundation, WA
Constituent Group:

In today’s rapidly changing world, the skills and sensibilities of “citizenship” are evolving along with technological and economic advance. Communication technologies enable communication across the globe at the speed of light. This reality means that ideas of democracy, theocracy, compassion, and hate can all find instant audiences. This profound freedom and speed of information dramatically increases the demands associated with contemporary citizenship and raises the stakes for the schools and institutions that prepare young people to effectively take advantage of this new freedom and responsibility. What it means to be a good citizen in America and in the world today is very much in flux — in some circles, there is a sense that American civic life is in decline. Whereas a large part of the academic discussion regarding civic participation and social capital focuses on the younger generation’s rejection of traditional institutions, this work examines new means of participation and association, fostered by technology and animated by a younger generation currently assuming new leadership positions. As Millennials (those born after 1981) rise and Baby Boomers retire, the frequently maligned generation in between — Generation X (born 1960 — 1980) is beginning to leave its unique stamp on our social, political and economic spheres. That stamp, this work argues, has implications for civic life and social policy over the coming decades, particularly for areas as critical as public education.

These ideas are drawn from a study I conducted with 40 young people in Austin, TX from 2000-2003 to look beyond the typical characterizations of Generation X and Robert Putnam’s well-known definitions of social capital described extensively in his book, Bowling Alone. To bring a fresh view to the generational perspective, rather than casting all Generation X actors into a single group, I parsed them based on the nature of their involvement in the technology sector, yielding four distinct groups: Tech Elites, Cyber-democrats, Wireheads and Trailing Xers. Elites lead technology companies; Cyber democrats work at the intersection of politics and technology; Wireheads are cubicle dwelling functionaries; and Trailers are college students. Rather than accepting the singularly quantitative and generally pejorative descriptions of Generation X and Putnam’s argument that social capital is in decline because younger generations were not joining old institutions, this study asked: Are new citizenship values driving the participation, involvement, and philanthropy of this generation and thereby changing how they live, what they value and how they govern themselves?. Perhaps Putnam and other scholars have developed such a bleak interpretation because they attempted to judge civic life through the lens of “old lifestyle + new technology”, rather than adopting the insight that techno-skeptic and educator Neil Postman provided, which posits that when revolutionary technologies are introduced into a culture they ultimately yield something fundamentally new.

Through written surveys and oral interviews drawn from a range of well-known civic and political instruments, I found that these young respondents generally thought quite deeply about public life and civic involvement when given the opportunity. They reflected many of the attributes and sensibilities advanced by democratic and social capital theorists. Affirming Postman’s insight, my respondents re-arranged and recast many of their behaviors and sensibilities in ways that reflect more contemporary values, lifestyles and norms. This is not to say that all is right with American civic life. Instead, it is to argue that America is in a time of significant economic and generational change. As a result, measuring societal health with traditional measures overlooks the creative evolution of civic relationships and institutions underway among young people, especially those between ages 20 and 40.

Respondents did not see themselves as revolutionaries, but rather as separate from the old social structure. Contrary to some popular treatises, these actors are generally not particularly cynical, ill-informed, or disengaged, and they certainly do not see themselves as such. Instead, they have a distinct set of values about citizenship and civic virtue that can, perhaps, provide insight into prospects for civic life and progress on social issues in the coming years. Some of these values include the following:

  • They engage in similar activities but have different priorities. The citizenship activities of high tech, Gen Xers are similar to classic understandings of civic duties, but the virtues and behaviors they champion fall in a different order of priority. Where classic notions of democratic citizenship posit the primacy of the vote, these actors place greater value on the work ethic and on being politically informed and active.
  • They reject formality and structure in favor of greater responsiveness. The institutional arrangements of this age group are less formal, ritualistic, and hierarchical than were civic institutions in the past. Instead, they are more project/task/need-based and tend to organize and disband depending on local conditions, all of which reflects both Gen X’s “creative” sensibilities and the changing norms of the contemporary workplace, where workdays are long and varied and productivity is tied to the creative impulse.
  • They see technology as a powerful tool but not as revolutionary. Technology provides an organizing and informational tool to make these organic associations agile and effective — an update of the telephone more than a tool of revolution or a virtual destination that replaces real communities. This is not to say that they see technology as insignificant. Quite the contrary, technology has enabled them to be more successful and effective in their work and in their communities of interest.
  • They are creators rather than joiners. High tech Generation X actors are entrepreneurs, creating new businesses, new policies and new means of association. This creative process has greater urgency than joining old institutions for this cohort. There are likely both structural and rhetorical reasons for this. In the same way that women avoid the glass ceiling of large corporations by starting their own companies, Gen Xers start their own community efforts to bypass what they view as mindless hierarchies and barriers to entry of old-line institutions. This dynamic may have significant implications for the survival of seniority-based institutions from civil service occupations to labor unions. Even among Tech Elites, those most concerned with “pleasing their parents’ institutions,” there is greater energy spent considering new means of service and participation in old institutions as opposed to maintaining their current ways of operating.
  • They privilege personal choice over transcendent obligation. Activities for Gen X’ers are increasingly based on choice rather than duty, affirming Wolfe’s findings about both the American middle class (1998) and moral freedom (2000). As higher levels of education and changing economic norms have resulted in increased mobility, Gen Xers have come to expect increased choice in where they work, how they live, and how they participate in civic life. Respondents across all categories rejected the notion of transcendent or external obligations. However, they felt a strong tug to respond to requests for community help, both large and small.
  • They turn traditional reciprocity norms inside out. Respondents affirmed Putnam’s view on the critical role that reciprocity norms play in the creation of social capital. However, among this group, reciprocity operates differently from Putnam’s description, which assumed that social capital is animated in a general way— i.e. do good in the world and others will as well. Respondents, in contrast, embraced a more personal sort of reciprocity somewhat akin to Cialdini’s (1984) reciprocity of concession: Ask for help to animate a personal cycle rather than do something nice and animate an abstract social cycle.
  • They embrace weak ties over strong ties. In this high tech era, Generation X lives with high levels of professional mobility and therefore looks for low social barriers to entry and exit, but also looks to technology to maintain weak social/professional ties active — those ties that are not tended to every day or week or in person, but rather a broad web of contacts to be tapped for episodic social, civic or professional activities. The dynamics that foster the maintenance of weak ties — technology and mobility — are actually drivers of contemporary social cohesion, which counters Putnam’s definition, which asserts those traits deplete social capital.
  • They enjoy creative work, easily blurring the lines between job and community. A strong work ethic was a common theme heard throughout most of my interviews, but hard work is also a concept whose definition is evolving. As Florida illustrated in his “thought experiment,” work does not take place only in the workplace between the hours of 9:00 am and 5:00 pm. As a matter of fact, a number of my respondents claimed that such demarcation (or “clock-watching” in their lexicon) was actually bad citizenship. For them, lines are blurred between work time, social time, personal time, and community time.
  • They want to make a difference but they think work is the place to do it. These Generation X actors want their ideas to have an effect on the world, affirming Florida’s understandings. But rather than engage in traditional social activism, they see change happening as a result of “working hard on cool stuff with great technology” rather than in the political world. Obviously, the Cyber-democrats are a unique case, but even they have chosen to be political technology professionals rather than social activists. More simply, this generation tends to give at the office rather than take to the streets.

Far from being disengaged, nomadic losers or Cyber-selfish narcissists, these respondents are actively involved in their work and, often unconsciously, use their creative impulses to stimulate a new civic life that is more consistent with their values and the changes that lie in the wake of technological and social advancement. These means of association are still very much in flux, consistently evolving as technologies and related enterprises advance. Further, as a new younger generation moves into the adult ranks, these distinctions among Boomers, both Xers and Millennials may keep these changes in civic values and related behaviors in play for many years ahead. Indeed, Putnam’s lament about the passing of standing associations and mid-century socialization patterns will only grow more acute if the respondents prove at all representative. These new generational norms demand a fresh look and conceptualization of what constitutes civic strength. What kinds of organizations have developed to meet the needs of this cohort? Do they have the capability to provide the sinew that holds humanity together, whether in Putnam’s terms or de Toqueville’s? Must ongoing, official organizations exist to constitute civic strength or can something more organic better serve communities and capture the desire of young people to be engaged? Have the excesses of contemporary activist groups, whether animal rights or anti-WTO soured thoughtful people on the very idea of “activism” as practiced by the retiring Baby Boomers?

Moving beyond these abstract academic questions of definitions, what might we do with these insights about the evolving nature of economic and civic life? My observations and recommendations fall into two broad categories: things that we can we do as individuals, writers, civic actors and policy makers to reduce cynicism while increasing the production of new social capital that resonates more clearly with young people today; and secondly, observations for what these insights might mean for contemporary social policy issues.

Promote the real efficacy of young people. Studies of political efficacy show that low levels of efficacy promote disengagement and cynicism. Respondents in this study affirm those findings. The less efficacious and informed respondents were, the more cynical and disengaged they were. To promote real efficacy among young people, it is necessary older adults and institutions to be authentic in their interactions with them. This insight was recently affirmed by Washington Post columnist David Broder in a panel discussion where he predicted that partisan rancor in the nation’s capital could not be solved by those who came of age in the 1960’s, but would instead require an infusion of a younger generation of leaders more authentic and candid and less ideological, a posture typified by prominent Generation X leader Barak Obama.

Be authentic. As generational marketers, Harwood (2002) and others have found, Americans are starving for authenticity, and that is especially true among young people. Throughout my interviews, respondents repeatedly remarked how much they enjoyed having a meaningful conversation about important things and how seldom they had the opportunity to do so. Research in secondary education underscores the power of this simple recommendation. In smaller, thematic learning communities, such as the Minnesota School of Environmental Science, High Tech High or the MET school in Providence, young people are given a “seriousness of purpose” (the quality most credited with the collegiate success of GI Bill recipients) by embedding their academic learning with real work opportunities in the adult world. As a result, young people in these schools show lower levels of cynicism, higher levels of community engagement and eschew the ersatz clique drama, bullying and other pathologies of the traditional American high school.

Break down rigid barriers between young people and adults. Closely related to the arguments for authenticity outlined above, there could be a range of venues for such meaningful conversations, both formal and informal. But perhaps the key component is to try to break down the physical and bureaucratic barriers between young people and the adult world they will be entering. There are a range of ways to make the barriers between schools and the community more porous, including internships, externships, mentoring programs, service learning, and alternative certification that allow professionals from a range of adult pursuits the opportunity to interact with students and to help students draw connections between their studies and adult life as they exist in their communities and nation. There are signs that Right has met Left in this realization in recent days. Forty-six year old Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, whom Neil Howe has called the “first Gen X cabinet secretary” (although she is technically slightly older than the typical marker for the beginning of that generation) has called for an Adjunct Teacher Corps, where literally tens of thousands of math and science professionals to teach their craft in our nation’s high schools. Instead of corralling young people on campuses removed from authentic adult experiences, perhaps accelerating the sense of efficacy and optimism found in older respondents in this study would help inculcate a meaningful civic ownership in younger people.

Help young people learn to be citizens. While immigrants to America receive a citizenship handbook to help them understand the nation they are joining, native-born young people do not. Just as typical education removes experience from learning (and young people from the larger community), we often expect young people to know how to be citizens without ever teaching them. The landscape of civics education is often typified by insular disciplinary arguments within the education establishment that tend to be ideological or discipline-based rather than focused on the larger goal of imbuing young people with the knowledge and sensibilities needed to be an engaged and productive citizen. Further, much general education has been reduced to mere “workforce development”- the narrow teaching of skills designed to prepare someone for a particular job. Job skills are important, but what contemporary enterprises are demanding of young employees today looks more like the skills and sensibilities of citizens than cogs in the corporate machine. Respondents understood this implicitly and characterized it explicitly — their workplace has become their community and their notions of good citizenship manifest themselves there.

Consider the traits Oblinger & Verville (1998) found in her survey of senior business people regarding what they looked for in prospective employees: critical thinking skills; the ability to work in teams; excellent oral and written communication skills; and multi-cultural sensitivity. That description (or prescription) sounds much more like the Jeffersonian ideal of public education — the creation of a polity capable of self-governance — rather than the current construction of schooling as a collection of disconnected academic disciplines.

This dynamic of current isolated approaches to secondary schooling may help explain the decline in cynicism I found in my sample as they got older. The most cynical were the youngest, those still in school and subject to these conflicting cultural and educational messages and removed from authentic and efficacious opportunities to engage in the activities of citizenship and work. Once these Generation X actors arrived in their late 20’s and 30’s, their sense of efficacy improved and their levels of cynicism were considerably lower in both the classical survey questions and the more open-ended interviews.

As adults, animate reciprocity — interpersonal and societal. Respondents in this study affirmed Putnam’s argument about the centrality of reciprocity to notions of social capital. What this group also showed is that reciprocity can cut both ways, creating a vicious cycle as well as a virtuous one. Further, this group turned Putnam’s notion of societal reciprocity inside out. Rather than doing good and awaiting a generalized social benefit, this group reflected Chris Matthews’ fundamentally political insight — if you want someone to be loyal, ask them for a favor.

As civic actors, ask for help. High-tech Generation X actors feel little transcendent civic obligation and further, resent the idea that such a thing even exists. However, they feel a strong duty to respond to a societal need and are often quick to organize and mobilize in order to provide an effective response. Where Putnam and others argued that people should go out and do good to animate social capital, my study suggests that people should go out and ask for help with something. Instead of just volunteering on one’s own, perhaps asking friends to join in to help on a project is the more compelling service impulse for young people today. This posture toward organizing is consistent with the entrepreneurial nature of Gen X found by Florida, who argued that this cohort is more likely to start something than to join an organization that already exists.

As policymakers, seek out innovation in the civic sphere (as we do in the economic arena). Putnam’s measures of social capital focused heavily on joining existing institutions or socializing in ways common to the 1950’s. The social institutions and practices of those days obviously reflected the norms and values of the times, factors that are now dissipating due to a range of social, economic and technological changes. In the wake of that change, new skills and people are being privileged and new means of social cohesion are coming to the fore. We need to capitalize on these shifts in emphasis, and scholars should seek to identify them and test their effectiveness in the civic sphere. Putnam’s Bowling Alone follow up took him to communities to look at community activities today, but he still privileged those things that looked most like what he chronicled from mid century — traditional forms of activism — unions, church groups. This study indicates that the vibrancy of American civic life may be in the creation of new forms and mechanisms of association not “renewal” of old ones, particularly because those old types assume a less mobile population.

As civic and economic thinkers, embrace mobility. In the contemporary economy, increased mobility is a fact of life. Increasing educational levels have long been associated with higher levels of social involvement but also with higher levels of mobility, all of which create a drag on Putnam’s conception of social capital. With many communities working to become the next Seattle or Austin, (and not the next Peoria or Detroit), more “creative class” or “just-in-time” social capital activities will become the norm. Embracing those means and considering ways to encourage, reward and (from a scholarly point of view), measure those types of social capital activities will help us move from tired laments about the dying past to more productive discussions about the communities of the future. Such relentless negativism about the current state of communities and sensibilities of Generation X would seem to stoke cynicism rather than reduce it. Putnam clearly identified important social trends and nicely captured the unease people felt as a result of the upheavals occurring in a time of technological advance. But we need to move beyond these concerns by identifying the kinds of social capital suitable to a new age and new people.

Implications for Research and Social Policy.

Certainly this group of 40 young people in Austin is not a representative sample of a generation. However, the civic insights that they provide should be fodder for additional research as well as new approaches for political and civic engagement and the resonance of ongoing policy debates:

Systemically investigate the effects of mobility on civic involvement.

As noted earlier, mobility is only going to increase with higher levels of education, the decline of fixed benefit pensions and increasing globalization. Social capital definitions that rely on more stable residency patterns put them at variance with individual realities and engines of economic growth. In addition to mobility, a key issue uncovered in this study is the ephemeral nature of many community activities — they begin with email trees to organize participants, execute a task in response to a community need, then disband until the next need arises. Research should consider ways to study and quantify such things — new ways of defining and measuring civic/social activity— and to develop techniques that do not privilege rigid delineations of time and place.

Study new civic organizations, large and small.

This study found that young adults are often creating their own non-profits while the wealthier ones were creating their own philanthropies, bringing a more outcome-focus and problem solving sensibility to philanthropy and non profit efforts. In essence, this generation does not embrace the fixed hierarchies of traditional civic organizations nor the cause or protest based activism that had its roots in the anti-war movement in the late 1960’s.

Consider the implications of this generation’s focus on personal choice and accountability as key elements of good citizenship.

There are implications for making progress in thorny social policy debates in these values. For example, this generation and the one behind it believe in the primacy of personal choice — and see both a right to have choices and the ability to make them well as cornerstones of contemporary citizenship. While school vouchers have rabidly ideological supporters and critics, the idea of being able to choose the school that is right for your child is an idea that would appear to be highly resonant to Generation X parents. Further, this generation’s preoccupation with accountability, self reliance and work ethic, national efforts to improve transparency of school results would also be expected to gain traction. These sentiments pose interesting political challenges for unions and other seniority-based occupations, such as federal and state civil service. Already the federal government is making moves towards performance and incentive based pay to try and recruit and retain younger staff. It is important to note that these respondents did not eschew these dynamics (seniority, union protections, work restrictions, absence of performance reward) as uninteresting or unappealing — they view them fundamentally as bad citizenship.

Finally, the post-ideological bent of these respondents could also have implications for political parties. The popularity of “mavericks” such as John McCain and the excitement of young people for the unsuccessful (some would argue because of his excessive candor and authenticity) candidacy of Howard Dean reflect the findings from this study — a considerable segment of this generation believes in independence, the primacy of the individual, the importance of choices, hard work and merit. This curious mix of liberalism and libertarianism across all political identifications, provides a wealth of areas for additional academic and political research as well as the possibility of transcending some of the day’s most persistent ideological stalemates.


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