KU News Release

April 13, 2012
Contact: Mary Jane Dunlap, KU News Service, 785-864-8853

KU professor: Decline in young adult voters not democracy's death knell

Jay P. Childers

LAWRENCE — Statistics may clearly track a decline in political participation among 18- to 24-year-olds in the United States, but a University of Kansas professor argues that the decline reflects changes in American society, not youthful apathy.

“We need to quit complaining about apathetic youth. Today's young people are still politically and civically engaged,” says Jay P. Childers, KU assistant professor of communication studies, who has researched 50 years of high school newspapers to examine what young adults have been saying about political and civic issues from 1965 to 2010.

In his new book to be published in August, “The Evolving Citizen: American Youth and the Changing Norms of Democratic Engagement,” Childers disputes a popular political science theory that every generation in the past 40 to 50 years has shown less and less political involvement.

“If we continue to measure youth involvement today based on an understanding of participation from a half-century ago, of course it looks like things have declined. But if we pay attention to what youth have to say for themselves, we find they are still very much democratic citizens,” Childers explains.

Comparing changes that have occurred in the nation and the world in 50 years, Childers says it is logical that young adults’ political engagement has changed also.

While less than half of young adults voted in the 2008 election, 48.5 percent compared to the modern high of 52.1 percent in 1972, Childers counters that “democracy happens outside institutional politics.”

Contrary to political science and sociology reports predicting the decline of democracy due to low voter turnout among today’s youth or the lack of interest in joining organizations and associations, Childers points out, “Young people are not as involved in local politics, but they are more aware of global issues. They do not join groups as much as youth used to, but they do volunteer and donate money to political and civic causes a great deal.”

They vote with their dollars. They see boycotting products such as those produced by sweatshop labor, for example, as an act of politics. They may not join a bowling league, but they are more likely than older Americans to take part in a local walk for charity.

“They also no longer make distinctions between popular culture and politics; the line dividing those two worlds has vanished. Things are different, not better or worse.”

As a teacher, Childers listens for those differences to help him prepare lectures for introductory level courses. “If I mention a musician or a movie – about half my freshman students will know what I’m talking about. But if I mention a politician, about 90 percent will not know who I am talking about.”

At the beginning of the 2012 spring term, Childers discovered that only three out of 40 students in an introductory level class recognized the name Rick Santorum. “If I had mentioned Mitt Romney maybe half would have known who I was talking about because he had run in the 2008 presidential primary.”

Childers speculated that few freshmen would have recognized Joe Biden’s name in January. After a month of class discussions, they probably know Biden is vice president, he says. Yet Childers wagers that if he put Biden in a lineup with other men of his age in business suits, few students could identify the vice president.

“Obama is recognizable to them because students know pop culture. Obama has been lampooned on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and was on ‘Oprah.’”

Childers read student newspapers from seven suburban high schools in Phoenix; Boston; North Kansas City, Mo.; Portland, Ore.; Pittsburgh; Houston; and Washington, D.C. He chose schools that had continuously published a student newspaper from 1965 to 2010 and had an accessible archive. Beginning in 2005 or 2006 most high school papers were online.

“I didn’t look at rural or inner-city schools because 85 percent of today’s high school students are enrolled in a suburban/urban environment,” he said. One more example of the changes in U.S. demographics in the past 50 years — in 1965 only one-third of American youth were living in suburbs.

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. University Relations is the central public relations office for KU's Lawrence campus.

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