Wednesday’s scheduled demonstration by students in Gainesville and nationwide was, for many, an indication of the concern and the passion today’s young people have for issues that affect them.
It’s a shame it took a tragedy like last month’s school shooting in Florida to rally so many teens and others to share their ideas on the issues it touched, including gun laws, mental health and bullying. However one feels on those issues, a robust debate is healthy, and having those from all sides and all age groups weigh in gives the discussion more value.
Such civic engagement is an encouraging sign, and raises hopes young people will learn more about how government works and take an active role throughout their lives.
Students at the Parkland, Fla., high school where 17 died did their part, traveling to both state and national capitals to register their views with lawmakers. Others throughout the country have picked up the ball at the local level, Wednesday’s event seen as a show of support for their cause. To the credit of all who took part here, students were orderly and respectful, and school officials in Gainesville, Hall and most other districts in the area supported their efforts without a disciplinary response. It was handled properly.
But what comes next?
While we support and applaud students’ willingness to express their views, we urge them and others not to stop there. Protests are fine up to a point; they surely had a profound effect on public opinion during the civil rights and Vietnam War marches in the 1960s.
But it’s a different era and it’s questionable whether such actions on their own can have the same impact in an era of instant news and 24/7 news coverage when so many groups are protesting for various reasons. Chanting and marching alone won’t change things; it takes active political participation up and down the line.
That begins with voting. While today’s 16- and 17-year-olds who are engaged in the issues don’t yet have that right, many who reach age 18 still aren’t being counted in large numbers. Voter turnout in 2016 was around 50 percent for millennials (ages 18-35), according to Pew Research figures (see chart 5). That’s up from 46 percent in the previous presidential election, which is the good news. But it still ranks far below voter turnout for older groups: Generation X (ages 36-51), 63 percent; baby boomers (ages 52-70), 69 percent: and seniors ages 70 and older, 72 percent.
Census trends (figure 4) over the last three decades show that while younger voters’ interest peaks and wanes, from a low of about 40 percent to a high of 51, older voters steadily turn out at 70 percent or higher in key elections.
Thus, no matter how engaged young people may seem to be out on the streets and on social media, their parents and grandparents are still making most of the decisions. Having your voice heard is a first step, but words must lead to action, and those who show up on Election Day still have the most influence.
As a demographic wave carries millennial voters into a full majority in coming years, it will be interesting to see how that turns into results at the ballot box. So far, it feels like more of a ripple than a tsunami. Perhaps the new round of political marches will carry over into election time, but the proof is in the numbers.
We encourage young people who took part in this week’s walkouts to not let that enthusiasm for public policy fade. The same goes for those who perhaps didn’t take part because they think differently on gun control and other issues; their voices, and votes, should be counted as well as they reach voting age.
It’s safe to say those of tender years have much more at stake in our political future than others; they’ll feel the effects of today’s decisions much longer. Yet because older voters turn out in greater numbers, elected officials favor policies that serve their needs in the short term. That’s why we get budgets backing programs that benefit those middle-aged and older yet kick a $20 trillion national debt can down the road, to be paid by taxpayers decades hence. Many of those future workers now are piling up massive college loan debts and face dimming job prospects on top of the tax burden awaiting them.
If they want that to change, tweets and slogans aren’t enough. While they’re marching, others are organizing campaigns and political groups and pushing legislation that favors them. That’s the ground game in our political system that leads to results. Patience is necessary, knowing change won’t come overnight.
“The next step, I think, for students here, if they’re turning 18, is to go register to vote,” GHS junior Matthew Penado said. “Change is slow ... but it happens.”
To make a difference requires putting down the sign and going to work for a political organization or campaign. It means knocking on doors, handing out fliers and making phone calls. It means staying informed about candidates and issues by relying on unbiased sources of information such as a newspaper, this one for local races or others for state and national races. Registering to vote and casting a ballot is the final step.
It’s still possible the recent wave of youthful activism is just the start of an era in which they will grab the baton of leadership and do something with it. For their sake, let’s hope it’s not both a beginning and an end.
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