The relationship between Millennials, technology and civic participation is not as straightforward as one might think.

We recently kicked off in earnest a project in Louisville to develop a piece of technology aimed at engaging low-income Millennials (young adults ages 18-30) in city planning processes. This project comes as part of a broader Living Cities effort to better understand the potential for tech to deepen civic engagement and improve the lives of low-income people, and to help us explore roles we might play in maximizing this potential in the future.

We came into this process with a few questions in our minds:

  • Who exactly are Millennials and what does it take to engage them in civic process?
  • How might a new technology solution aid us in this work in a way that is meaningfully different than what existing tech does?
  • What are the deeper issues underlying the “presenting problem” of engaging low-income young adults?

Here are some things we are learning.

Millennials and Traditional Civic Participation: Out of sync

The relationship between Millennials, technology and civic participation is not as straightforward as one might think

The verdict on Millennials (a group to which I belong) is mixed. Some hail Millennials as pioneers of disruptive technologies (Mark Zuckerberg is 29) and new ways of organizing that have enabled a whole new, hyperconnected approach to social change. Others deride Millennials as a self-absorbed and entitled “ worst generation.” But OpenPlans’ review of research by groups like Circle and the National Committee on Citizenship suggests that the situation is less clear-cut than the discourse indicates. Millennials may be less likely than other generations to participate in traditional political or civic organizations, but may actively engage around civic issues online (for instance, more than half of Millennials use social networking sites for some form of civic purpose). Furthermore, Millennials are blurring the lines between work life and civic life (for example, by pursuing careers in social enterprise), challenging traditionally-recognized forms of civic engagement like volunteering.

The reasons for these differences – and even the way I’ve characterized the differences here – are hotly debated. But perhaps most relevant for our purposes: To a generation that takes it for granted that they can do (and should be able to do) most things easily and immediately online, the traditional structures of civic participation can feel byzantine, and the potential impacts of participation can feel too distant and too small given the effort and time required to produce them. But that doesn’t mean we don’t care.

If “the establishment” wants to tap into Millennials’ tremendous energy, it needs to explore approaches to engage Millennials that reflect a legitimate expectation for user-friendliness and meaningful near-term results , but that don’t reduce their participation to “ clicktivism” either.

This blog post is part of our ongoing commitment to “open source” our work on this project. Stay tuned for part two of this post tomorrow and for more beyond that, and let us know what you think below, via email ( or via Twitter ( @tamirnovotny, @living_cities).

Photo Credits:; Supri Sunarjoto / Shutterstock, from The Atlantic Monthly