Thursday, March 22, 2007

Civic Life in the Information Age

Background: Civic Life in the Information Age, by Stefanie Sanford, Ph.D., Deputy Director for National Initiatives for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Civic Life in the Information Age is a striking new book that questions much of the conventional wisdom about Generation X. The book describes the results of Sanford's recent study involving in-depth interviews with 40 individuals aged 22-41, all of them tech-savvy residents of Austin, Texas. The interviews focused on the respondents' views about citizenship and politics. Sanford divides her respondents into four subgroups: cyberdemocrats (working in the policy and government sphere), wireheads (programmers, web designers, and other members of a new middle class), high-tech elites (entrepreneurs, rebounding failed entrepreneurs), and "trailing Xers" (22-26 year olds, many in college). The differences between these groups are the concern of most of the book, but by the end Sanford brings the strands together to paint a picture of Generation X with respect to the ideals of citizenship.

A key finding in the book is that instead of failing to meet the challenges of citizenship (as Boomer Generation academics would have it), Generation X has actually reprioritized the classical duties of citizenship in its own way. For example, while traditional theory states that voting is the defining act of citizenship, the respondents in Sanford's study were likely to view voting as meaningless or irresponsible without a sound knowledge of the issues; likely to view the media as standing in the way of their gaining that knowledge; likely to view politicians as inefficient ways to get things done anyway; and likely to see voting itself as altogether less important than the need to respond to crises and challenges in specific cases (Hurricane Katrina, local neighborhood cleanups).

This "just-in-time citizenship" was to me one of the most interesting aspects of the respondents' take on civic life. And while we probably should castigate Generation X for not voting, we should also figure out a way to take advantage of their "just-in-time" responsiveness by combining it with what Sanford characterizes as a strong work ethic and a pragmatic obsession with results. But maybe that's just my pragmatic obsession with results talking.

Indeed, speaking as one member of Generation X, I at least can say that Sanford has arrestingly captured the mindset of my own social and work circles. "We" GenXers emerge from the interviews as a prickly group with an intense work ethic, a mania for effectiveness and efficiency, a hatred of talk and meetings, a pragmatic wish to find out what works, a corresponding impatience with ideology, and a risk-taking and entrepreneurial spirit. Though originally Sanford may have set out to write a fairly academic book about society's changing definitions of citizenship, I think she has actually ended up with something much bigger: a book that just might help an entire generation to understand both itself and its potential.

Sanford ends by making a number of detailed recommendations, and by considering the implications of her work for Education, Entitlements, and Health Care. I was particularly interested in the implications for education, because I have noticed that while many of my friends in Generation X have gone for advanced degrees, they have finally eschewed academia in favor of writing and consulting; and many have passed on advanced degrees altogether so that they could become entrepreneurs or start new organizations. In my own case, I chose a college without a tenure system so that I, and not a committee of my elders, could direct my scholarship and teaching. The days of climbing the ladder at work and paying one's dues seem to be over. Will my generation's risk-takers, who value effectiveness and efficiency, and who want to be rewarded for their performance, ever find a home in the seniority-based teachers' unions or the gasifying tenured faculties of the colleges? Or will my generation remake those institutions as soon as we get the chance?

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