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A civics lesson for 20-somethings

Many young people drop out of civic life because we set them up to fail. In the Obama era, we talk about social change in such grandiose terms that anything after is bound to feel insignificant in comparison. I've learned that civic engagement, above all else, requires resilience.

By Courtney E. Martin / February 19, 2013

Demonstraters protest against a potential war on Iraq outside the Seaport Hotel in Boston on Oct. 4, 2002. Op-ed contributor Courtney E. Martin says of civic engagement in America: 'We rarely highlight the community organizers and teachers and social workers. We rarely talk about the little, daily joys that make the lack of recognition or glacial pace of systemic change worth it.'

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/file


Brooklyn, N.Y.

I have a distinct memory of that cold Saturday morning in February 2003. The invasion of Iraq was imminent. I jostled lead-heavy arms and legs throughout the apartment to get my best friends up and out to the antiwar march. They were none too happy with my political enthusiasms the morning after a late-night dance session, but they appeased me nonetheless.

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We 20-somethings marched in a near endless parade of humanity in Manhattan. The protest was coordinated with other demonstrations around the world, but it didn’t appear to matter. President George W. Bush likened the size of the protest to a “focus group” and said he wouldn’t make policy based on it. The war went on.

My friends didn’t say “I told you so” outright, but I knew that there would be no more such marching mornings with them. They’d tried and it hadn’t worked.

I was reminded of this early defeat when I read an interesting finding of the recently released “Millennials Civic Health Index,” put out by several groups including Harvard University and the National Conference on Citizenship. The report on 18-to-29-year-olds in 2012 finds that while civic engagement typically increases with age, 22-to-25-year-olds have lower levels of social cohesion and volunteerism than their older or younger peers.

Those years of our lives were certainly sobering ones for me and my friends. After being pumped up on “save the world” rhetoric and convinced of our own smarts at nurturing liberal arts colleges, we were kicked out of the dorms and into the doldrums of daily existence.

In the “real world,” I didn’t get A’s for sitting through the wandering rants of enraged people at my neighborhood association meeting. I didn’t receive extra credit for my get-out-the-vote phone calling, waiting as an elderly woman in Ohio left to get a pen and then forgot I was still connected, trying to tell her where she could vote in the upcoming election.

The years from 22 to 25, especially within America’s current economic constraints, are often a time of severe readjustment. What psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness” can develop: When one has grand expectations, and finds them repeatedly unfulfilled, the unavoidable next stop is despair. Young people, already experiencing disequilibrium, find that their efforts to be civically engaged don’t feel as if they add up to much. They stop showing up at the marches. They stop making an effort to go to the meetings. What, after all, does it really amount to?

To some extent, this is a natural aspect of this stage in life. There’s a reason there’s so much awkward sex and soul-searching in Lena Dunham’s HBO show “Girls” but almost no neighborly kindness. People in their early 20s are understandably self-focused. They’re trying to make a life for themselves.


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