Civic Participation On The Decline With Young People

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A newspaper publishing colleague recently commented that he has been noticing a trend that is critical for the future of his publication and his hometown in general -- a developing decline in civic involvement.

Clearly, if citizens are not interested or focused on what is going on in their communities, they are not as likely to read about local events.

While this trend seems to be a factor throughout all age groups in many of our communities, it appears to be especially common with our younger adults.

That brings to mind a meeting I attended not so long ago in a nearby community. It was an event sponsored by a regional economic coalition and young adult leaders from throughout the area were invited.

At one point the discussion turned to why younger people are not interested in civic clubs and organizations. One of the participants said the answer is clear -- "we have job responsibilities and we are focused on raising our children; we don't have time for civic organizations."

One of the mayors in attendance, barely able to contain his indignation, pointed out that the older people in attendance were in that same situation at an earlier age but somehow found time to take steps to help grow their communities. In essence, they sacrificed their time to help create better hometowns for everybody.

I wasn't certain the young people in attendance got his point.

Look around in our smaller communities in Northeast Arkansas and you'll see that most of the civic clubs and organizations feature a lot of gray hair. It has been our experience that convincing younger citizens to get involved is quite a challenge indeed. And it's a shame.

Bill Russell, who served as national president of the Jaycees in the mid-1990s, noted his organization declined from some 140,000 members at that point to less than 50,000 today.

He also has witnessed the decline in interest and commitment by young people toward civic organizational involvement.

"I was taught by my parents that civic service was not a hobby but a responsibility we had and the debt we repay to those countless individuals who paved the way for the freedom and livelihood we enjoy today," Russell said. Unfortunately, that is not a concept that is clearly understood and accepted in our current society.

These observations are not to say young adults have given up on their communities and responsibilities, but there clearly is much work to be done in educating them on the need to participate and lead into the future. We must find ways to get them more involved and excited about civic work and involvement. It is critical to the long-term well-being of the hometowns we love so much.