When walking to any class on the University of Oregon campus I can almost promise that you will be asked to sign some petition, support some group, or register to vote in your current county. In fact, the University of Oregon campus makes political involvement look alive and well amongst Generation Xers. Does the U of O reflect what most of Generation X feel about American politics, or if you were to go to a different university would you see another side of Generation X’s political involvement? If political activism is alive in all of “Gen Xers” then why is it that during the 1992 elections, exit-poll data revealed that only 25 percent of people between the ages of 18-24 voted, the lowest voting rate of any age group. Unfortunately, most students could care less. This “I don’t care” attitude is rooted in the “I have my opinion, you have your opinion, and that’s all” principle that is so common among students.
When truth is relative to your own tastes, there’s no reason to try to find the right policy that is objectively best for all of us. The first thing that pops into my mind when I think of Generation X is the omnipresent negative descriptions of Gen X as superficial, stupid, lazy, and amoral presented throughout the popular media (as documented by Howe and Strauss 1993; Holtz 1995; Rushkoff 1994). How do these descriptions of our “generation with a PR problem” (Howe an Strauss 1993: 9) impact our individual experiences and how do our experiences/interactions with these ideas about Gen X help form social/political rules, roles, and structures? As someone born in 1979, I can’t help but consider, when reading about Generation X, whether or not these descriptions, evaluations and statistics about my generation resemble my experiences and those of my peers. In situating myself in terms of these analyses I cannot simply accept or reject this label. Even if I completely distance myself from, for instance, the slacker ethic, the utter materialism, or political apathy associated with Gen X, my interactions with others—and as a result my identity—are shaped by the assumptions others may make about me because of my status as a member of this cohort.
The truth remains that our generation’s political apathy hurts us all. When an entire age group fails to exercise its political power by not voting, politicians will take note and ignore issues that affect us. In 1997 not a single one of the eleven states that called their citizens to the polls managed to get a majority vote. The best turnout occurred right here in Oregon, when the heated campaign debate had taken place on the question of whether to repeal the state’s “right to die” law. The worst turn out last year was a shockingly low five- percent, for a special election in Texas (The Atlantic Monthly; December 1997).
Turnout is now greatly related to experience in life. Turnout rates have always been lowest among young people; perhaps this is why there was relatively little opposition in the early 1970s to lowering the voting age to eighteen. But not even the most pessimistic analysts could have foreseen the record-low participation rates of Generation X, as shown in the following census findings on the age turnout (The Atlantic Monthly; November 1998):After looking at this graph, it’s no surprise to me that in the 1994 congressional election turnout was 37 percent. As the statistics are usually presented, this rate averages from 10 to 40 points lower than in the democratic nations of Western Europe, Scandinavia, and the British Commonwealth (Ranney1998; 64)The low turnout among young voters today is paradoxical given that they are one of the best-educated generations in American history.
Even those who have made it to college are expressing remarkably little concern for politics (Ray, Axtell, and Mickelson 1993).The class of 2001 recently set a new record for political apathy among college freshmen: only 27 percent said that keeping up with politics was an important priority for them, as opposed to 58 percent of the class of 1970, with whom some of our parents attended college.Of course, the class of 2001 has not seen government encroach on their .