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Mark Kubisch: ‘Millennial’ Citizenship

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

The Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution declares that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” If one were to ask the typical “Millennial,” as my generation is known, to explain citizenship, I doubt the first word used would be “privilege.” Yet, this word perfectly captures the principle of reciprocity inherent in a proper understanding of citizenship. As the Fourteenth Amendment implies, being a citizen involves more than simply exercising one’s rights, it also entails fulfilling certain responsibilities to one’s country.

If a key element of citizenship involves meeting certain civic and political obligations, how patriotic is my own generation? Despite ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military service is in decline. Only two percent of Millennial males are military veterans while, at comparable stages of their life cycle, so were 6 percent of males from the “X” generation. Furthermore, according to a recent Pew survey, 58 percent of young Americans don’t engage in civic or political activities regularly (e.g., active membership in a group or volunteering for a campaign). Millennials thus tend to enjoy the liberties associated with citizenship while neglecting its concomitant duties to community and country.

Defenders of Millennials might point to the unprecedented youth participation in President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign as evidence that Millennials are finally recognizing their civic duties. They might add that social networking sites (favored by many Millennials) are encouraging greater civic engagement. Finally, they might argue, as Neil Howe and William Strauss do, that Millennials are “more idealistic, more civic-minded, and more engaged with the world” (a claim which New York Times columnist Ross Douthat throws some cold water on here).

Yet it’s clear that my generation’s understanding of the relationship between the citizen and his government has changed. Increasingly, government, instead of private initiative, is seen as the answer to social and economic problems. Pew research polls find that nearly 70 percent of young American voters—in sharp contrast to older generations—favor an expanded role for government, agreeing that government “should do more to solve problems.” We may become a very different 70/30 nation than the one AEI President Arthur Brooks describes in The Battle. It’s up to Millennials to prove themselves as citizens and ask not what their country can do for them, but what we can do for our country.

Mark Kubisch is an intern for the AEI Program on American Citizenship.

Image by Felipe Bachomo.

Cross-posted at the Enterprise Blog.

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