When I first got involved in civic activities in Noblesville in the late ‘80s there were a lot of people my age, fellow 20-somethings participating. Though I served on city committees, Main Street, Benchmarking, the Housing Authorities and other groups, I was most active in the Noblesville Preservation Alliance (NPA).
By the mid ‘90s NPA’s energy was waning. But a new group of young people got involved and reinvigorated the organization, buoying it with fresh energy and ideas.
But since that time I’ve often wondered where all the young people have gone. Yes, NPA has had new people join and become active, but they are disproportionately middle aged or older.
I stopped Noblesville’s volunteer extraordinaire, Nancy Chance one day at Riverview Rehab last year and asked if she noticed a similar lack of young adults helping out at the community projects she’s working on. “This young generation,” she said, “well, they’re not joiners.”
In his book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam documented in excruciating detail the many ways volunteerism and community participation is in decline in America.
I wonder if we’re getting a glimpse of the first generation of latchkey kids to become adults. The 20-somethings and 30-somethings of today are the first generation raised, for the most part in families led by two breadwinners or by a single parent. The media dubbed this age group, “Generation X” (GenXers).
When the Baby-Boomer generation came home from school, they’d often run out to make their own fun – organize their own neighborhood baseball, basketball, football teams. Might as well, there were only 2 or 3 TV channels for most folks. And there was an adult home in most of their houses, so watchful parents kept track of what was going on in the neighborhood, which gave parents the comfort needed to let kids roam. Boomers, like their parents were joiners. They went to all the school activities, joined the school clubs, and sat in pep-club blocks so big they filled entire sides of gymnasiums.
But the world Boomers made for their kids, the Generation GenXers would be very different.
Because both of their Boomer parents were working, GenXers were told to come inside and lock the door when they got home from school, a home that might have 30-100 cable TV channels, VCRs, DVDs, computers and video gaming systems. When they went out and were physically active, most often it was in adult-directed sports and enrichment activities – dance lessons, piano lessons, soccer, T-ball, and on and on. In other words, if the adults didn’t have them sequestered in the house, they were driving them to a seemingly endless array of adult-controlled activities.
In the years I taught GenXers in the ‘90s and early 2000s, a relatively small group of kids joined extra-curricular activities compared with my age group in the 1970s. Few of my students saw football or basketball games as the place everyone would be on the weekend. Their fun was fragmented into often-isolated clicks that didn’t just go to ball games, but rented movies, played video games or hung out at the mall.
Could it be that the waning numbers of young adults active in civic groups is just a reflection of the way they were raised?
I used to be encouraged when young couples moved into my neighborhood, figuring they’d get involved and reenergize things. In the past decade I’ve gotten over that foolishness. GenXers lives out their lives behind closed doors.
And as we Americans always do when there’s a deficit of some sort, we create a program or a class to address it. At the school where I once taught, in the early 2000s they began requiring seniors to do community service before graduation. Noblesville did this recently to a class of seniors to make up snow days.
But it’s doubtful we can change young people this way. Some things, like social norms actually do come to us by osmosis. Whatever takes place routinely around us during our formative years imprints us somehow, forming our expectations, motivations, and notions of what’s reasonable. If you’ve been raised with the feeling that your home is an island apart from the community, rather than a part of the community, if you’ve spent most of your time within the confines of that place rather than free to roam around and interact with your community, and if the adults around you guided all organized activities instead of you having the opportunity to form and referee your own teams in the school yard after school and over weekends, well, you’re probably going to interact with the world differently.
It is perhaps unfair to lay this all on young adults. Main Street director and fellow Realtor, Joe Arrowood has been leading local not-for-profit groups for decades. He told me recently, “It’s harder and harder to find anyone to volunteer.”
I do see the current economic downturn igniting some soul searching in young families. A few of my recent GenXer real estate clients tell me they want to live more simply and pursue less consumption, to live a life less dedicated to chasing a bigger car, a bigger house, and more expensive gear for their kids. But whether the resulting free time can spurs a more community-focused lifestyle, remains to be seen.