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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_bi270m1 1 Armed Conflict Loca­tion & Event Data Project (here­in­after ACLED), Demon­stra­tions and Polit­ical Viol­ence in Amer­ica: New Data for Summer 2020, Septem­ber 2020, https://acled­­stra­tions-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_hwujhys 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,–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_hq3lxy0 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.pewre­­ni­als-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_fd5k­pe9 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, 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_3q8x­h38 5 CIRCLE, “Youth Elect­oral Signi­fic­ance Index (YESI),” last updated August 18, 2020, 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_ixeh6hm 6 CIRCLE, “Elec­tion Week 2020: Young People Increase Turnout, Lead Biden to Victory,” Novem­ber 25, 2020,­tion-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_5y31­bid 7 Sarah Shapiro and Cath­er­ine Brown, “The State of Civics Educa­tion,” Center for Amer­ican Progress, Febru­ary 21, 2018, https://www.amer­ic­an­pro­­tion/.

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.

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