We made a new friend in her late-forties and, as we typed her contact information into our cellphones, she said: "What's with your generation? Can't any of you use a pencil?" To our surprise and discomfort, she launched into a tirade about the ills suffered by young people today due to our upbringing with the Internet and computer gadgets.
"Young people are forever on their phones texting, playing video games or chatting online," she went on. "You guys don't know how to have a normal conversation and are just sitting at home in front of computer monitors getting fat. You don't write, spell or read! Your generation is so spoiled. You don't care about what's going on in the world around you because all you care about are your friends or whatever shenanigans Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are up to!" She asked, "What's going to happen to the world when your generation takes over? You guys don't even vote!"
In a nutshell, our friend captured the critique many social commentators have made about today's youth, who are often disparagingly called the "Me Generation". We are the children of Baby Boomers, the largest age cohort worldwide at 81 million, and are beginning to enter the so-called "real world" of work, families, and (perhaps) politics. Everything from our consumption habits to our disturbing lack of political participation are being noticed because we are beginning to make our mark on the world around us. While some of these charges leveled at us are empirically false, there is no denying that youth today are turning away from traditional politics to a greater extent than their elders, and this will have a big impact on our democratic institutions.
There is no shortage of opinions as to why youth are not voting. One of the more convincing arguments comes from Don Tapscott, the bestselling Canadian author of Wikinomics and Grown Up Digital. Tapscott's research suggests that today's youth are quite distinct from previous generations because they are the first generation to grow up with interactive technology. Despite troubling issues like cyber bullying and privacy concerns, new tools like the Internet and social networking sites have great potential in terms of engaging them in a new form of politics.
Tapscott argues that even though today's youth are not participating in traditional politics, they do care about the world's issues. Today's youth are the most educated generation in history and have the highest rates of volunteerism and participation in grassroots organizations. In fact, their involvement in public protest demonstrations even surpasses that of their elders who came of age in the 1960s. Even though they do not vote, further research shows that this is not a generation that is cynical about politics or the increased role of government. Young citizens surveyed believed that the growing gap in socio-economic conditions is a problem that governments should address. When surveyed, young peoples' top "dream jobs" included working for an NGO (non-governmental organization), working for the government, or otherwise making a difference in the world around them.
The question remains: if young people care about the world around them and are not cynical about government, why are they not voting? Tapscott suggests that it has to do with a communications barrier, of sorts. Traditional political messages are lost, almost completely, when being presented to the younger members of society. Canadians get most of their political information through newspapers and television, but today's young people do not consume the same types of media as older generations. Also, young people are less likely to respond to broadcasted political messages -- soundbytes or negative ads that have been massaged or rehearsed by political marketers.
Instead, Tapscott's research shows that today's youth best respond to a format more like a conversation. Youth tend to engage in interactive political discussions that are fast, have a sense of fun or playfulness, and are ethical. These values that are important to today's youth -- a sense of fun, a need for speed, respect for accountability -- can, in part, be traced to growing up in the information age.
Today's youth grew up using interactive communication tools that allow them to participate in conversations, add to existing knowledge, and quickly research or verify information. Instead of using the encyclopedia, this generation grew up looking things up on Wikipedia, learning to evaluate and discard some of that information and even adding to that body of knowledge. While Baby Boomers grew up watching the Mickey Mouse Club, this generation grew up watching American Idols they themselves voted to keep on stage every week. This generation has grown up with technology where speed, interaction, customizability and accountability are the norm and, currently, these values are lacking in models of democracy that appears based more on the consumer culture of the 20th century than the information age of the 21st.
In short, if we want to engage the new generation, our political discourse needs to be changed from broadcasting messages to being presented in a conversational style -- in a way that engages young people on their own level and in their own way.
That is precisely the purpose of the University of Manitoba's "U2011: Understanding the Manitoba Election" series. By hosting interactive town hall meetings, and webcasting these sessions on our Facebook page (facebook.com/u2011) and YouTube channel (youtube.com/ManitobaU2011), U2011 is a prime example of how the message can be presented as a conversation for the new technology generation. Join us at the Millennium Library at noon on Sept. 8, as Free Press columnist Dan Lett, Royce Koop, and Rob Ermel discuss the many myths surrounding campaign strategies in Manitoba.
In addition to the café series, U2011 is organizing a public service announcement contest. The theme focuses on why Manitobans should, "VoteAnyWay" in the upcoming provincial election. The contest is open to all Manitoba residents between the ages of 14-25. For more details and full contest rules visit our website at www.umanitoba.ca/u2011 and Facebook page www.facebook.com/voteanyway.