A Generation Without Public Passion

Clinton's chief legacy to the young was to drain politics of idealism

Has Bill Clinton inspired idealism in the young, as he himself was inspired by John F. Kennedy? Or has he actually reduced their idealism? Surely part of the answer lies in Clinton's personal moral lapse with Monica Lewinsky. But more important was his sin of omission—his failure to embrace a moral cause beyond popularity. The main story was not too much private passion but insufficient public passion.

Even if Clinton had offered a better human example and a more compelling political agenda, young people might have remained civically inert, because larger social forces have atomized their political will. The Clinton years have sharpened a great paradox: The surface of American life looks smooth, prosperous, peaceful. But underneath, fault-line shifts in family and work life have led us into what some have called "advanced insecurity." Replacing an old society based on marriage and employment, the philosopher Jerald Wallulis argues, is a new society based on marriageability and employability. Many of the young aspire to happy marriages and dot-com fortunes but end up in guarded love and okay-for-now jobs.

That young people's commitment to improving society has faded may turn out to be the most significant fact about the Clinton years. In his The Cycles of American History (1986) Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that the alternation between periods of reform and periods of conservatism in American history has a generational pattern: "In basic respects it is the generational experience that serves as the mainspring of the political cycle ... Each new generation, when it attains power, tends to repudiate the work of the generation it has displaced and to reenact the ideals of its own formative days thirty years before." Schlesinger had in mind the children of the 1930s who embraced the liberalism of the 1960s, among other examples. But the cycle of reform and activism was frustrated by the politics of the 1990s. Bill Clinton and Al Gore are sixties men, and could have inspired the young to draw on a sixties tradition of progressive activism. Clinton did establish AmeriCorps, a Peace Corps for the nineties, and he did pass the Family and Medical Leave Act, and he did try for universal health care. But it was hard for the young to get excited about welfare reform that took money from poor mothers, or about the Freedom to Farm Act, which withdrew support for small and medium family farms, or about increases in the military budget when the Cold War was over. All else was gridlock, compromise, spin, and cynicism. Will that be Clinton's legacy—that he drained politics of idealism and discouraged generational renewal? The combination of Clinton's stay-in-power agenda and our privatizing times has frustrated what Schlesinger saw as the "systole" and "diastole" of politics. And current evidence on civic disengagement should give one pause as to how that cycle will play out in the future.

In Bowling Alone (2000) the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam reported a decline in trust among people in their twenties and a rise in malaise and unhappiness. In fact, Putnam noted, "surveys in the 1940s and 1950s had found that younger people were happier than older people ... By 1999, however, younger people were unhappier than older people." In The Ambitious Generation (1999) the sociologists Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson showed that American teenagers are now spending more time alone (three and a half hours a day) than teenagers used to, and spending more time alone than they spend with family and friends. All this has set the stage for a decline in civic engagement among the young. Putnam noted that 49 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds in 1972-1975 said they read the newspaper daily; in the Clinton years 21 percent of that age group did so. Forty-two percent of young people reported signing a petition in 1972-1975; 23 percent did so in the 1990s. Fifteen percent of young people in the 1970s reported joining a union; five percent so reported in the 1990s. Nineteen percent of young people in the 1970s reported attending a public meeting; eight percent did so in the 1990s. Thirteen percent of seventies young people but only seven percent of nineties young people reported writing a congressman. Thirteen percent of seventies young people but only six percent of nineties young people reported serving as an officer or a committee member of a local organization. According to a survey of freshmen at the University of California at Los Angeles, even participation in student elections declined, from 75 percent for high school students in the late 1960s to 20 percent in the late 1990s. An early-1970s survey of UCLA freshmen revealed that about 45 percent of the young considered cleaning up the environment to be an important personal goal. Today only 19 percent feel that way. It would seem that as global warming has grown worse, the response to it among the young has grown weaker.

In truth, the twentysomethings of today, whether bowling alone or not, are part of a cohort, not a generation. As the German sociologist Karl Mannheim pointed out in a classic 1928 essay, "The Problem of Generations," a generation consists of people of the same age confronted with some powerful historic event. Not all members of a generation see the event in the same way, Mannheim wrote, but what makes a cohort into a generation is its connection to that event—in the twentieth century it might be the Depression, World War II, civil rights, Vietnam, the Cold War. For today's cohort, the slow, deadly advance of global warming is such an event. But the vision to stop it, and the model of a government devoted to high public purpose, have been largely absent. Spared by history, and—to quote Senator John McCain—with no cause to believe in "bigger than themselves," today's young have faced only personal events—a lost job here, a divorce there. Many members of Gen X and Gen Y, as we call them, seem to be trying to sort out a version of the insecurity paradox. On the one hand, they feel luckier than previous generations, because they enjoy a bigger cultural menu from which to chose a lifestyle, an identity, an authentic self. In the 1950s most women could hold their heads high only as married homemakers and mothers of two. In the 1990s a woman could be a doctor, a professor, a pilot, a single mom, a lesbian, a surrogate mom. On the other hand, this new freedom comes with a new sense of insecurity—especially with regard to the two main anchors of identity: marriage and work. You can marry, but will you stay married? You can work at a job, but will you be able to stay in that job? If in previous decades large historic events drew people together and oriented them toward collective action, the recent double trend toward greater choice but less security leads the young to see their lives in more-individual terms. Big events collectivize. Little events atomize.

Putnam pointed out the link between social engagement and national emergencies. Civic engagement increases before, during, and after wars. The challenge of the post-Clinton years, then, may be twofold. The first will be to reduce the conditions of advanced insecurity—by aiding the labor movement's attempt to reverse the trend toward contingent workers (to take one example of the politics of economic security in an era of globalization) and by implementing family-friendly policies at work. The second will be to mobilize ourselves for war—not a war of one nation against another but a war of the foresighted against the smokestacks, tailpipes, and fossil-fuel-heavy lifestyle "choices" that nature can no longer bear. The Cold War is over. But the potentially more deadly Warm War is not. The United States makes up five percent of the world's population but consumes 30 percent of the world's resources and generates 25 percent of the world's pollution. So for Americans this is no easy war. The commercial culture in which we all live is on the other side. In his otherwise discouraging picture of the disengaged young, Putnam noted in passing one hopeful finding—an increase in volunteerism among high school students over the past ten years. Does this merely reflect students' efforts to look good for colleges that are increasingly hard to get into?

Or is it a sign that despite missing leadership from the top, the young are beginning to engage the pressing issues of the day, presaging more activism such as that in Seattle and The Hague, where demonstrators recently built a sand dike in front of a conference hall housing negotiators on global warming to show how high the water will come when the world warms. Time will tell. The young have much to overcome, and they will have to bring their elders along. But the stakes are high. There's open water at the North Pole.

Arlie Russell Hochschild is a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work (1997).