Constance Flanagan and Peter Levine survey research on civic engagement among U.S. adolescents and young adults. Civic engagement, they say, is important both for the functioning of democracies and for the growth and maturation it encourages in young adults, but opportunities for civic engagement are not evenly distributed by social class or race and ethnicity.
Today's young adults, note the authors, are less likely than those in earlier generations to exhibit many important characteristics of citizenship, raising the question of whether these differences represent a decline or simply a delay in traditional adult patterns of civic engagement. Flanagan and Levine also briefly discuss the civic and political lives of immigrant youth in the United States, noting that because these youth make up a significant share of the current generation of young adults, their civic engagement is an important barometer of the future of democracy.
The authors next survey differences in civic participation for youth from different social, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. They explore two sets of factors that contribute to a lower rate of civic engagement among low-income and minority young adults. The first is cumulative disadvantage—unequal opportunities and influences before adulthood, especially parental education. The second is different institutional opportunities for civic engagement among college and non-college youth during the young-adult years. Flanagan and Levine survey various settings where young adults spend time—schools and colleges, community organizations, faith-based institutions, community organizing and activism projects, and military and other voluntary service programs—and examine the opportunities for civic engagement that each affords.
As the transition to adulthood has lengthened, say the authors, colleges have become perhaps the central institution for civic incorporation of younger generations. But no comparable institution exists for young adults who do not attend college. Opportunities for sustained civic engagement by year-long programs such as City Year could provide an alternative opportunity for civic engagement for young adults from disadvantaged families, allowing them to stay connected to mainstream opportunities and to adults who could mentor and guide their way.