Skip Navigation
Report

Rethinking Civic Engagement

Summary: Young adults participate in politics and their communities far more than they are given credit for — and in ways that often go unrecognized.

Published: February 16, 2022
Young people protesting
Barbara Alper/Getty

Civic engagement is a key indicator of adulthood. Young adults respond to the social and political issues of the day in a variety of ways. After the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020, young people demonstrated against racial injustice in more than 10,000 peaceful protests around the country. footnote1_es3w99z 1 Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (hereinafter ACLED), Demonstrations and Political Violence in America: New Data for Summer 2020, September 2020, https://acleddata.com/2020/09/03/demonstrations-political-violence-in-america-new-data-for-summer-2020/. That fall saw record numbers of youth turn out for the presidential election; half of eligible voters ages 18–29 participated, compared with 39 percent in 2016. footnote2_xbrnx2a 2 Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (hereinafter CIRCLE), “Half of Youth Voted in 2020, an 11-Point Increase from 2016,” April 29, 2021, https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/half-youth-voted-2020–11-point-increase-2016. Climate change likewise catalyzed young people, as nearly 30 percent of Generation Z and Millennials made donations, contacted public officials, volunteered, or protested, surpassing Generation X and Baby Boomers. footnote3_0sum6sf 3 Alec Tyson, Brian Kennedy, and Cary Funk, “Gen Z, Millennials Stand Out for Climate Change Activism, Social Media Engagement with Issue,” Pew Research Center, May 26, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2021/05/26/gen-z-millennials-stand-out-for-climate-change-activism-social-media-engagement-with-issue/. Young people are commonly assumed to be disengaged, disillusioned, and uninterested in civic life. These trends challenge that proposition.

Researchers have consistently found that early civic engagement is mutually beneficial to young people and to the communities in which they participate. For example, developmental psychologist Parissa Ballard and colleagues found that early civic engagement is associated with positive health outcomes later in life. Voting, volunteering, and activism in young adulthood were related to improved mental health, greater educational attainment, and higher personal and household incomes. footnote4_jpdj2io 4 Parissa J. Ballard, Lindsay T. Hoyt, and Mark C. Pachucki, “Impacts of Adolescent and Young Adult Civic Engagement on Health and Socioeconomic Status in Adulthood,” Child Development 90, no. 4 (2019): 1138–54, https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12998. Beyond these individual benefits, young adults are important contributors to their local communities. Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) projected that in the 2020 election cycle, young adults would play a particularly important role in the presidential battleground states Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Florida, as well as in Senate races in Colorado, Maine, and Montana and congressional races in Iowa’s 1st District, Maine’s 2nd, and Georgia’s 7th. footnote5_0pqjl14 5 CIRCLE, “Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI),” last updated August 18, 2020, https://circle.tufts.edu/yesi2020. The youth vote proved decisive in several states where the margin of victory was less than 50,000 votes, including Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. footnote6_4ul5dw3 6 CIRCLE, “Election Week 2020: Young People Increase Turnout, Lead Biden to Victory,” November 25, 2020, https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/election-week-2020#young-voters-and-youth-of-color-powered-biden-victory.

National legislation and educational policy reflect the importance of preparing young people to become engaged and participatory members of society. Recognizing the mutual benefits of community service for the advancement of communities and the well-being of young people, Congress passed the National and Community Service Act of 1990 and the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993. The first law created the Commission on National and Community Service to support school-based service-learning programs, volunteer and service programs in higher education, youth corps, and national service models; the second merged the commission with the National Civilian Community Corps to establish the Corporation for National and Community Service, to support volunteer and service opportunities for all Americans. In 2009 Congress passed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, reauthorizing and expanding national and community service legislation to support lifelong volunteerism and community service. Through these acts, Congress has emphasized the need for civic engagement, which helps youth become informed citizens as well as active members of their communities throughout their lifetime.

School curricula reinforce the expectation that young people will become engaged citizens. According to the Center for American Progress, 40 states and the District of Columbia require a civics course for high school graduation, and 16 states require a civics exam to graduate. However, only Maryland and the District of Columbia require community service for all high school graduates. footnote7_33zdn1l 7 Sarah Shapiro and Catherine Brown, “The State of Civics Education,” Center for American Progress, February 21, 2018, https://www.americanprogress.org/article/state-civics-education/.

Recent youth activism and voting have garnered significant attention, but how else are young people contributing to the civic and political life of their communities? And why is civic engagement so important to their development?

Civic engagement is critical to a well-functioning liberal democracy, where citizens elect public officials and those officials are responsive to the views and needs of the people. And yet, democracy in the United States has not been realized equally for all people. The voices and political power of some have been silenced through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other forms of institutional oppression. Constitutional amendments and transformational legislation, from the 15th and 19th Amendments to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, have provided the legal basis to demand equal political access and opportunity for all. More recently, activists have sought to secure those protections, expand on them, and reform government to work for all people, regardless of race, class, or gender.

Even still, young people often seek means of engagement that extend beyond the traditional bounds of organized politics and community service. Civic engagement is an important part of our democratic society, and it is a meaningful part of young people’s healthy development and transition into adulthood. This report explores the concept of civic engagement and the distinctive, and sometimes unaccounted for, ways that young people participate in their communities to improve social conditions, voice their needs and concerns, and uphold democracy.

End Notes