A Generation to Be Proud Of: Young Americans Volunteer to Make a Difference

Young people today are getting a bad rap. If you ask the typical 40- or 50-year-old what he or she thinks of today’s young Americans, you’ll hear descriptions ranging from amoral and cynical to self-indulgent and money-grubbing. But several surveys focusing exclusively on young people have been released this year, and all paint a portrait of a generation that is both striking and encouraging. The surveys find that young Americans are in fact among the most optimistic, least cynical adults; they are actively engaged in helping to make their communities better places; and they are tolerant and civically engaged.

In April we conducted a major survey among 814 Americans aged 18 to 30 for Public Allies, a national service organization based in Milwaukee, to commemorate its 10th anniversary. The organization, an AmeriCorps program, identifies talented young adults from diverse backgrounds and advances their leadership through full-time paid apprenticeships in nonprofit organizations, weekly leadership training, and team service projects. Another poll on this topic, released in March, was conducted last January for the Center for Information and Research in Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) among 1,500 young people aged 15 to 25.

Instead of finding young Americans downcast about the implications of the nation’s recently declared war on terrorism and their seemingly diminished employment prospects in the poorly performing economy, these surveys suggest that young Americans remain positive and quite optimistic about the future. By a two-to-one margin, youth aged 18 to 30 say they think this is a good time in America’s history for people their age, with lots of opportunities to get ahead and achieve their goals.

This may come as a surprise because over the past couple of generations, American pollsters have recorded diminished levels of optimism and found that the trust many Americans place in their most important institutions has waned. Looking closely at results from recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal national surveys, however, we see that young people display more trust in certain American institutions-Congress, the FBI, the CIA, and the national news media-than other adults (table 1).

More important than how they look at institutions is how invested they are in making a difference. While their parents were activists in social protest and worked to make society more open and accepting, this generation’s call to action is social issues and human rights. They are especially impressive because, unlike their parents, they are not protesters and marchers, but participators and doers. They want to be involved one-to-one, and they want to make a difference. Their volunteerism is up close and personal.

Just as important, this generation displays a strong sense of self-confidence, believing they personally can make a difference. Almost half of young Americans aged 15 to 25 say they believe they personally have the power to make at least “some”difference in solving the problems they see in their communities. And the problems they are most interested in fixing tend to be those that allow them to have a direct impact on improving the everyday lives of the less fortunate in their local communities. Eighty-five percent of those aged 18 to 30 across the nation say that volunteering to help individuals in a direct way is a “very”(58 percent) or “fairly”(27 percent) effective way for them personally to bring about needed changes in our country. Half (49 percent) of respondents in the CIRCLE survey say volunteering in local community activities to address local problems is the most important kind of activity in which a citizen can engage, and 23 percent say the same about participating in national organizations trying to change our society.

More important, they translate their words into deeds. The Public Allies survey finds two-thirds saying they have helped their communities within the past three years through activities like volunteering their time, belonging to an organization, or advocating on a public issue.

This generation is not volunteering to pad resumes or look good on college applications. Almost half of those aged 15 to 25 say they volunteer because it makes a difference (21 percent) or makes them feel good (24 percent), while more than a third of those aged 18 to 30 indicate their impetus is a personal experience or issue they care about (22 percent) or that their spiritual or religious faith is the single greatest influence on their desire to improve their communities (14 percent).

Although their preferred mode of service is one-to-one, their service has broad residual effects. Almost three-quarters (74 percent) of Public Allies respondents say their service increased their interest in following news about a public issue or area of the community in which they had not previously been interested. Just as large a share of young adults-72 percent-say their service has enhanced their understanding of public issues, politics, government, or civics.

Significantly, a majority (55 percent) of all young adults say their activities have increased their tolerance or changed their views on people of different racial, ethnic, or religious backgrounds. A majority also indicate that their volunteering has changed their view on a public issue. Service, these results suggest, not only helps transform those being served, but also helps turn those doing the serving into engaged, enlightened, and tolerant members of our civic society.

The types of service opportunities and organizations in which young adults express most interest explain some of these personal changes. Beyond tutoring and mentoring youth (75 percent), Public Allies finds young adults displaying a “great deal”or “fair amount”of interest in volunteering to help build affordable housing for low-income families (65 percent), helping community residents gain access to health care and other social services (60 percent), educating people about environmental conservation (53 percent), and assisting with homeland security by helping communities prepare for threats of terrorism (53 percent).

These independent surveys show that young people are not simply paying lip service to civic engagement-they take their role in our larger national community quite seriously.

The cry of the 1960s youth was “Never trust anyone over age 30.”Ironically, the challenge to that now-aging generation is to begin to trust and believe in this new under-30 generation. Although less than 10 percent of under-30 Americans now know even a “fair amount”about the Bush administration’s Freedom Corps, they are eager to participate in their communities on the most important issues of the day. It is time to salute them and provide them more avenues for participation.