There was a fair amount of chatter among my friends last week as a result of Lawrence Martin’s column If there’s an inspiration deficit in our politics, blame it on the young. My friend Alison Loat wrote an excellent, albeit polite, response, pointing out that blame could be spread across sectors and generations. She’s right. There is lots of blame to go around. And I don’t think Martin should get off so lightly. Here’s why:
The young reject the political status quo, as they should, but they are too lazy to do anything about it. Most of the under-25s don’t even bother to vote. Instead of fighting for change, they wallow in their vanities and entitlements. Not much turns them on except the Idol shows, movies with smut humour and the latest hand-held instruments. Their disillusionment with the political class is understood. Their complacency isn’t. It will soon be their country. You’d think they’d want to take the reins.
The problem with Martin’s piece is that he’s looking in the wrong place. He’s not looking at what young people are doing. He’s looking at what he thinks they should be doing… or more specifically, what he would have done when he was 25. To say an entire generation has given up because they don’t vote or participate in party politics is farcical.
Yes, young people reject the status quo, but it is deeper than that. They eschew the tools that Martin wants them to use – not just party politics but traditional media as well. They reject the whole system. But this isn’t out of juvenile laziness, but for the very opposite reason. In a world filled with choice, one that fragments our attention, they seek to focus their energy where they will be most effective and efficient – at the moment, that frequently means they are uninterested in the slow and byzantine machinations of politics (why engage when every party, even the NDP, are conservative?), the snobbishness of traditional media (when’s the last time a columnist on the Globe actually responded to a reader’s comment on the website?) or a hierarchical and risk-averse public service (held hostage by the country’s auditor general).
Indeed, Martin’s example around voting is perfect starting point. Here is a system that has not changed over 60 years. By and large one must still vote at the local church, community centre, or school, places that may or may not be near public transit and are not frequently visited by young people. In a world where shareholder proxy votes are regularly done over the web (not to mention credit card transactions), how are young people supposed to have confidence in a system that still cannot manage electronic voting? Complaining that an Elections Canada campaign targeting young people didn’t work is akin to wondering why a marketing campaign on Facebook didn’t generate a bigger youth audience for a cable TV Matlock marathon. Why didn’t young people watch TV any more? Can’t they see that Matlock is a classic?
Nor can they find much comfort in the media. If newspapers are the gathering places for political discussion, how inspiring might they be to young people? Since Martin writes for the Globe and Mail, let’s start there. Its opinion page’s most frequent columnists include Rick Salutin (68), Rex Murphy (62), Lawrence Martin (61), Roy McGregor (61), Jeffrey Simpson (60), Margaret Wente (59), Christie Blarchford (58), John Ibbitson (54) and the one young voice, Jim Stanford (43?). It’s not just political parties that have boring old guys (or BOGs, to use Martin’s term). I think it is safe to say that the hegemony of the boomers isn’t limited to the polling station. (No wonder so many of us prefer blogs – we at least get to hear what our peers think.) I wish the Globe would take a risk and hire some young and smart columnist for their opinion page – someone like Andrew Potter. The New York Times did; they replaced the relatively young William Kristol (56)with 29 year-old Ross Douthat. It would appear there’s an inspiration deficit in our newspaper too…
But above all, just because someone doesn’t vote, prefers blogs to the Globe, or doesn’t find Ottawa engaging doesn’t mean they are either inactive or a bad citizen.
Take my friends over at Mozilla (some who vote, some who don’t – but all of whom are young): they are part of a worldwide movement that broke Microsoft’s monopoly over control of the web (probably the single most important act to preserve freedom of speech and expression in the world as well as democratizing innovation online) and now, through a combination of technology (Firefox) and advocacy (the Mozilla Foundation) are continuing to innovate and find ways to preserve the freedom of the internet. This is something no political party or government initially cared to do or was willing to do something about. Should they have devoted their time and energy to get involved in politics? Should they have instead lobbied the government to regulate Microsoft (for all the good that ended up doing)?
Or take ForestEthics – another organizations started and staffed by young people. Canadians may consistently rank the environment as one of Canada’s top priorities and yet inaction consistently wins out. So ForestEthics bypasses government altogether and combines the power protesters with that of market forces to improve logging practices and save forests. It identifies corporations — such as Victoria’s Secret, with its vast catalogue distribution — whose consumption shapes the paper industry. It then offers these corporations a choice: cooperate and reform their practices or face painful protests and boycotts. For those that cooperate, ForestEthics works with the multinational’s procurement department to help it adopt more sustainable practices. This has given ForestEthics direct influence over the forestry industry practices, since logging companies pay attention to their largest customers. Would the staff of ForestEthics be more effective running for office or working for Environment Canada?
The key is, young people (and many Canadians in general) are engaged and more exciting still, are innovating in new and transformative ways. It just happens that most of it isn’t seen by today’s BOGs. Moreover, even when it is happening right in front of us it is hard to spot, such as within the Globe (where it feels like Mathew Ingram is almost singlehandedly fighting to save the newspaper), within political parties (where a community here in Vancouver has been excited and rewarded by our work with Vision Vancouver around Open Data) or within the public service (where a small and and amazing team within Treasury Board has been creating tools like GCPEDIA in an effort to pull the government into the 21st century).
But because the efforts are often invisible, herein lies the real dangers: not to young people — they are going to be just fine — but for the institutions Lawrence Martin and Alison Loat worry about. To many of my friends, today’s newspapers, political parties and public service look a lot more like General Motors than they do Google, Facebook, or better still, Mozilla, ForestEthics, or Teach For America. As they look at the institutions Martin assumes they should engage, they’re still evaluating: should we bail them out or should we just let them go bankrupt and start from scratch?
And that’s why Martin is looking in the wrong place. His misidentifies where the real innovation gap lies. The fact is that these institutions simply aren’t places where new thinking or experimentation can easily take place. They may have been at one point – perhaps when Martin was young, I don’t know – but they aren’t today. So those young people he believes are wallowing in their vanities and entitlements… they aren’t apathetic, they’ve simply opted to deploy their social capital elsewhere, places Martin chooses not look, or don’t know where to look.
So is there an innovation gap? Absolutely. Just not as Martin describes it. There is a gap between where it is actually taking place, and where he thinks it should be taking place. But let’s be clear, there’s plenty of innovation taking place, if you know where to look. Will it manifest itself in some political revolution? I don’t know. But more importantly, will it change Canada, or the world? Definitely. It already has.
As an aside, one friend suggested that Lawrence Martin and I should debate: “Be it resolved there is an inspiration deficit in our politics and young people are to blame.” If Martin is up for it, I’d accept the debate whenever and where ever he wishes. Perhaps we could rope Alison in to moderate.