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America's Politically Inert Youth

SURVEY data indicate that, even more than in previous election years, the same young Americans who show an unparalleled ability to "pump up the volume" in other venues will be virtually silent amid the clamor of the 1992 campaigns. Yet 18- to 24-year-olds expect more from government than does any other age group.

In the University of Michigan's 1990 survey of 2,000 Americans, only 44 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they were registered to vote, and fewer than one in five reported having voted in that November's elections. These figures compare with reported registration and turnout rates of 79 percent and 57 percent, respectively, for respondents aged 35 and older. Forty-five percent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they "never" discuss politics with their friends or family, as compared with just 30 percent of old er respondents. Only one in eight claimed to follow news about government and public affairs "very closely," in contrast with one in three Americans over the age of 34.

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Not only do most young Americans have little to do with government, they want government to have little to do with them - at least in terms of imposing obligations or responsibilities. More than three-quarters of 18- to 24-year-olds said they would oppose enactment of "a law requiring all young adults to serve their country by spending some time in the military, the Peace Corps, or in some other kind of national service." In contrast, 53 percent of citizens beyond age 34 favored such a proposal.

It seems safe to conclude, then, that as far as the young are concerned, "the less government the better," right? No. In the survey, only 12 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds agreed with that proposition, while 80 percent (by far the largest proportion of any age group) endorsed the alternative that "there are more things that government should be doing."

In particular, the young were significantly more likely than their elders to favor increased spending for such things as environmental protection (65 percent), fighting AIDS (74 percent), child care (65 percent), and improving public schools (74 percent). In contrast to other age groups, a plurality of young adults (46 percent) favored the idea that "the government in Washington should see to it that every person has a job and a good standard of living."

How to account for the seeming contradiction between young Americans' powerful attraction to big government and their simultaneous apathy toward politics? I believe that many young Americans regard themselves solely as the clientele of government, unencumbered by any sense of civic duty or societal obligation. In their conception of citizen as customer, citizenship comprises obeying laws and paying taxes, period. In return, the government provides programs and services demanded by the "customer."

THIS latest crop of young Americans bears the imprint of the political era in which it has come of age - a time in which, as Harper's magazine editor Lewis Lapham put it, politicians "conceive of and advertise the republic as if it were a resort hotel." He continued: "The government (a.k.a. the hotel management) preserves its measure of trust in the exact degree that it satisfies the whims of its patrons and meets the public expectation of convenience and style at a fair price."

Young Americans' conception of politics is bound to disappoint them, for two reasons. The first is that, for the enterprise to endure, a democracy (unlike a resort hotel) requires the active participation, involvement, and collaboration of its citizens.

Second, in politics the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and when older citizens vote while younger ones do not, the results are predictable. Thus, two of the largest items in the national budget - Social Security and Medicare - are programs whose primary beneficiaries are the elderly. At the same time, home ownership is a rapidly receding prospect for many young families, we have no national policy regarding child care or parental leave, and schools hold bake sales in an effort to compensate for stagnant public funding.

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To be sure, even if young Americans started voting in greater numbers, governmental priorities would not change overnight. It is a virtual certainty, however, that unless the young take a more active role in determining who gets what, they will get only what's left.

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