a growing class gap and the transition to adulthood

(Milwaukee) Life has changed substantially since 1975 for middle-class young people. Life has changed much less–and in less favorable ways–for working-class kids. The result is a growing class gap that influences the way that people become citizens.

For children of the middle class, the first two and a half decades of life are now devoted to “concerted cultivation” (Annette Lareau’s phrase). People are spending more years in college and graduate school. Their non-school hours are heavily programmed, from nursery school on, with soccer camps, music classes, internships, and travel. The age of marriage and first pregnancy is much delayed, and many 20-somethings are still living at home. Rates of drug and alcohol abuse have fallen. Parents and other institutions are making intensive investments in these young people’s human capital–their capacity to compete in a global marketplace. It makes sense to me that activities such as voting and joining community organizations are simply being delayed, along with home-ownership, fertility, and graduation from the final stage of education.

On several occasions, I have heard marketing experts describe all of today’s young people in these terms. The Millennials are said to be sophisticated, savvy, but also verging on spoiled–unsatisfied with courses and jobs that aren’t highly stimulating and educational. The Millennials are also depicted as tolerant and comfortable with diversity.

There is a large element of class bias in these descriptions. One third of American adolesents do not complete high school, let alone graduate school. Public schools are somewhat more racially segregated than they were in the 1970s, so plenty of working-class rural and urban youth have little direct experience with racial diversity. There are precious few after-school opportunities in poor neighborhoods or chances for poor adolescents to interact constructively with adults. The age of first pregnancy has not been delayed, but rates of incarceration are sharply up.

Given this widening gap in formative experiences, it is not surprising that there is a growing disparity in civic engagement by class. In its 2006 report entitled Broken Engagement, the National Conference on Citizenship found (using data analyzed by CIRCLE) that there had been a steep decline in the proportion of Americans who said that they had “worked on a community project within the last year.” But the bulk of the decline had occurred among people without college degrees. “College graduates dominate everyday American community life; high school dropouts are almost completely missing. Half of the Americans who attend club meetings—and half of those who say they work on community projects—are college graduates today. Only 3 percent of these active citizens are high-school dropouts. Thirty years ago, the situation was very different. In 1975, only about one in five active participants was a college graduate, while more than one in ten was a high school dropout.”