Commentary
5:30 am
Wed June 12, 2013

Commentary: Today’s Young Adults: Cynics, Activists Or A Little Of Both?

Earlier this year, the Institute of Politics at Harvard University noted a decline in the trust young voters have in public institutions. New York Times’ columnist David Brooks offered perspective on this trend. He summarized a paper by one of his students, who argued that some members of her generation have grown so cynical that they question all promises of change unless those promises can be “tested, substantiated, and … replicated.” In other words, they have what Missourians might call a show-me attitude.

Curious what young adults who actually live in the Show Me State thought about all of this, I turned to my students and others with local ties.

Several of them agreed with David Brooks’ student and one cited many of the same reasons. She recalled voting for President Obama in 2008, believing things would soon improve. But then, she wrote, “the war kept going and the financial crisis got worse; and the hope for change … was lost.”

Others agreed that their generation’s cynicism is real, but they offered different reasons for it. One suggested the current pace of technological change – plus the drive for more students to consider careers in science and mathematics – have combined to place a premium on skeptical, analytical thought. Another student argued that his own cynicism is rooted in a culture where the Internet is the source of too much false information. To illustrate, he cited the incident from April, when the Associated Press’ Twitter feed was hacked, reporting explosions at the White House and injuries to the President. These fictions were promptly corrected, but not before the Dow took a nose dive.

A fourth and somewhat older student acknowledged that her younger peers are “jaded.” But she challenged them to still fight for change. She wrote: “it takes cynics to believe there has to be a better way, but it takes activists to do something about it.” And at least some of her younger peers seemed to agree.

One wrote that she was taught in college to “think critically” and rely on “proven facts and data” – a mindset she pledged to carry forward into her post-college life. In other words, she viewed skepticism not as an end unto itself, but as a starting point. Another student thought optimists actually outnumbered skeptics in her generation, but the optimists were more “realistic” than in prior generations. They “still believe they can bring about change,” she wrote, but they also know change will not be accomplished quickly or easily.

In short, these young adults seemed to be saying: Yes, we’re cynical, and we have good reasons to be that way. But not all of us are stopping there. We’re going to use our cynicism to our advantage and seek to shape the world in the ways we think are best.

If that’s an accurate reflection of their mindset, then I think the only appropriate response would be: Prove it. Show me. Show all of us what you can do.  

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