Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Young don't even see smoke of city hall fire

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I was enjoying lunch at my favourite diner the other day when the owner served something I hadn't ordered.

A glob of distasteful news.

He mentioned that a member of the broadcast media had been in earlier, asking people for their opinion on the fire-hall land-swap issue that's been the burning topic in the city for weeks.

But all his staff of 20-something servers could come up with was a collective one-word response: "Huh?"

To prove the point, he summoned one of The Young and the Politically Disengaged to the table. When I asked, she still didn't know anything about the fire-hall land swap. Of course, Canadian young people are notorious for not voting, so I suppose nobody should be surprised they aren't even aware of a city hall political fire-in-progress story.

But you'd think one of the servers might have accidentally heard the news in the course of pouring coffee to the clusters of older people at the diner.

Or they might have spotted a newspaper headline about it while clearing a table. Still, I thought, maybe I could find someone out there under 30 who had heard of the fire-hall land swap, even if they didn't know what it meant. So later, while picking up some milk at Safeway, I decided to do a little survey.

"Have you heard about the fire-hall land-swap story at city hall?" I asked the young woman behind the checkout counter.

She smiled pleasantly.

"No," she said.

Later, in the parking lot, I posed the same question to a grocery-carrying 25-year-old woman.

She smiled pleasantly, too.

"No."

I asked her what it would take to get her to be more engaged with things outside her own world. She responded by allowing she probably should be more engaged.

Then she said this:

"It's almost like I'm not interested."

Almost?

But it wasn't just the young people in my Safeway survey who hadn't heard of the fire-hall land-swap story. An 82-year-old man and a middle-aged woman were just as out of touch. Then there was the one man and one woman who had heard about it. Both were seniors and one of them, the man, was not only well-versed on the issue, he was clearly angry about it.

A lot of Free Press readers are both engaged in and enraged by the story.

But it's the lack of overall caring by the young that bothers local pollster Scott MacKay of Probe Research.

"The young people have sort of defaulted to this Twittersphere," MacKay observed this week. "And I don't think that's an adequate method of getting news on a multifaceted story."

I'd put it another way.

Never mind distracted driving, what we have here is a generation addicted to distracted living. And it would seem that, among other things, we as a society are to blame because we have neglected our duty to teach the importance of individual participation in a democracy.

But what MacKay is most concerned about is what he calls the generational divide, where the young are not only tuning out, they're leaving themselves out of the political discussion and decision-making.

So what do young people see and want in their future? Besides the next and newest smartphone?

MacKay doesn't know, because not only don't they vote in the numbers they should, they don't participate in polls in the numbers needed to find out.

"But whatever it is," MacKay said, "they're going to be left out. If they have particular needs that speak to their generation, the level of dropping out that they've done means that their views are not going to be reflected in public policy and legislation. They don't partake in it. They're going to have laws that are going to be made by older people... "

What it all means is The Young and the Politically Disengaged could become The Old and the Politically Disenfranchised.

"There was a time," MacKay lamented, "when young people set the agenda in the '60s. It was all about that. It was almost like the youth had disproportionate power, because they could stop a war or do whatever they wanted. There's nothing like that anymore."

Actually, there is. But not here.

We've seen how the power of youth and social media changed the Arab world.

No one is asking the youth in Winnipeg to start a revolution here.

All I want is for them to be able to answer a simple current-events question and maybe lend us some of their youthful fire.

Especially when there's all that smoke billowing out of city hall.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 27, 2012 B1

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