Civic Engagement After 9/11


Faculty Researcher Robert Putnam, Malkin Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School Paper Title Still Bowling Alone? The Post-9/11 SplitCoauthorThomas Sander Executive Director Saguaro Seminar, Harvard Kennedy School

Fifteen years ago, Robert Putnam’s seminal book, Bowling Alone, described how social engagement had markedly declined and people were no longer connecting with their communities. Now, nine years after the 9/11 attacks, Putnam and collaborator Thomas Sander have found a marked turnaround in the civic and political engagement of America’s youth. But it’s not all good news.

In Bowling Alone, Putnam suggested that civic reengagement “would be eased by a palpable national crisis, like war or depression or natural disaster, but for better and for worse, America at the dawn of the new century faces no such galvanizing crisis.” The 9/11 attacks occurred soon after the book’s publication, and Putnam’s bittersweet prediction came to pass with the rise of the post-9/11 generation.

Putnam, Malkin Professor of Public Policy, and Sander, executive director of the Saguaro Seminar, found that the generation of Americans born in the 1980s — who were at their most impressionable age when 9/11 occurred and the resulting wars broke out — are more actively engaged than previous generations in politics and their communities. The share of college freshmen since 2001 who report engaging in political discussion is at an all-time high of 36 percent; voting rates have risen three times as fast for under-29-year-olds as for over-30s; and the Obama presidential campaign saw unprecedented youth involvement reminiscent of the era of John F. Kennedy.

“While the post-9/11 spike in community- mindedness among adults was short-lived, the shift appears more lasting among those who experienced the attacks during their impressionable adolescent years,” write Putnam and Sander in the Journal of Democracy article “Still Bowling Alone? The Post-9/11 Split.” “If this effect persists among young people who lived through 9/11, the inevitable turnover of generations will provide the cause of civic engagement with a powerful following wind.”

The bad news, however, is that research on high school seniors indicates an upswing in civic engagement for upper-middle- class white youth but not across the board. Indeed, working- and lower-class white high school seniors are withdrawing from, or have never undertaken, any engagement.

“Advantaged kids increasingly flocked to church, while working- class kids deserted the pews,” write the authors. “Middle-class kids connected more meaningfully with parents, while working-class kids were increasingly left alone, in large part because single parenting has proliferated among lower- and working-class whites . . . Among ‘have-not’ high-school seniors, trust in other people plummeted, while seniors from the ‘right side of the tracks’ showed no decline at all in social trust. On indicator after indicator — general and academic self-esteem, academic ambition, social friend- ships, and volunteering — the kids who could be described as the ‘haves’ grew in confidence and engagement while their not-so-well-off contemporaries slipped farther into disengagement with every year.”

The authors’ overarching concern is that if this class divide goes unaddressed, it will grow ever wider and create two worlds — that of socially and civically engaged affluent white youths, and that of the “have-nots.” Since many of the indicators along which the gap is growing — social capital, self-confidence, academic esteem, academic aspirations — affect life chances, the gap portends a movement toward a society in which social class is increasingly replicated among whites.

“The United States could become less a land of opportunity than a caste society replete with the tightly limited social mobility and simmering resentments that such societies invariably feature. . . . Of course, the image of exact equality of opportunity has never been entirely realistic, but as a statement of our national aspiration, it has been important, and as the discrepancy between aspiration and reality grows, a fundamental promise of American life is endangered. The growing class gap among high-school seniors erodes this promise.” The researchers, together with Bruce Western and Kathy Edin of the HKS Inequality Program, are conducting further analysis, trying to understand whether these trends can be found across multiple data sets and examining this issue through qualitative interviews of youths.

“A goal of the project over the coming several years is confirming that this growing social class gap is real and found in multiple data sets,” says Sander. “In addition, our goal is to help understand what causal processes might be at work and what framing of the problem is helpful in spurring policymakers and civic leaders to respond effectively." — by Lindsay Hodges Anderson

“The kids who could be described as the ‘haves’ grew in confidence and engagement while their not-so-well- off contemporaries slipped farther into disengagement with every year.”


John F. Kennedy School of Government 79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-495-1100 Get Directions Visit Contact Page