AFTER SPEAKING AT A NUMBER OF UNIVERSITIES and colleges in these past three months I’m getting a clear sense of an uptake of interest in civic responsibility. Often the subject emerged in classes that, on the surface at least, seemed to have little to do with citizenship and engagement. When I talked to students following the sessions, I would ask them directly if they felt their respective educational institution offered enough instruction on the subject and the answer was most often in the negative.
Another thing was repeatedly affirmed: all those commentators who lamented that the Millennial Generation, and those even younger, were retreating into their own private worlds were themselves living in some other universe. Mountains of research has emerged recently showing that younger generations are in fact engaged, ready for change, and are more than willing to lead whatever it takes to bring about a fairer society.
It should be stressed that they have a specific kind of civics in mind and it doesn’t centre on the traditional ideas of voting or legal status, but primarily action, responsibility, even accountability of the individual to the greater good. They desire to volunteer, protest, become politically active, and promote advocacy. In other words, they’re set to go.
Increasingly these younger Canadians move easily through various dimensions that relate to climate change, work, relationships, charitable and social justice work, socializing, connecting through social media, and taking citizenship into new dimensions.
These are different times, occasions where the world is calling out for a new breed of citizens who seek to capture more than compartmentalize their lives. And just in time. Democracy was growing weary of the stale and divisive offerings of the political class. Under assault from an elite capitalist class endeavouring to find a way around the globe’s greatest problems, democracy was growing poorer by the year and less able to respond to the dangers of climate change or growing financial inequity. It required a new generation of citizens ready to engage across the board in order to alter the financial, social, environmental, political, and global direction of a troubled world and it found that answer in the Millennials.
In reaching the stage where politics had become a zero-sum game of diminishing returns, a new generation of Canadians has been opting to move the goal posts of expectations by an engaged activism. And in a time when the private sector continued to accrue billions while tolerating unemployment, environmental desecration, inequality, and expanding poverty, these same Canadians began operating in a shared economy that pulled all things together in a quest for a fairer humanity.
For too long we have been presented with two collective conditions: an impotent political state and a profiteering free market. But now a new generation of citizen activists is reminding us that citizenship matters and to make it effective it must enhance a new state to balance the other two: civil society. In such a world civic activism matters more than power or money.
Civil society is breaking out of the vice that had historically impinged it between politics and the free market. Leading that revolution are younger citizens who demand closer attention to civics and to the role of the citizen in the remaking of society. Or as John Dewey more effectively stated:
“Democracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community life itself … It is a name for a life of free and enriching communion.”