Have You Given Up? The State of Activism in America

By Staff
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Readers of Utne Reader are among the most community-minded, socially active, and politically influential people in America.
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Although new issues were introduced in 2013, environmental protection still remains near the top, from 1986 to 2013, in the main issues to which Utne Readers donate money.
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From 1986 to 2013, civic organizations jumped to the top issue to which UR readers volunteer their time.
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In both 1986 and 2013, bioregionalism ranked as the top issue about which UR readers want to learn more.

Have You Given Up?

The State of Activism in America from Utne readers

Have you given up? If you’re a typical baby boomer, the answer is a resounding “No way!” You’re still on the barricades fighting to save the environment, working for social justice, and generally raising hell to make a difference in the world.

But if you’re a typical Gen-Xer, your answer is more likely to be some variation of, “Given up what? I never believed I could make a difference in the first place.”

And if you’re a millennial, your answer is more likely, “Hey. I’m just getting started. Bring it on!”

These are among the surprising findings of a recent survey conducted by Utne Reader, in collaboration with social scientists Jay Ogilvy, Ph.D., and Brad Edmondson. Ogilvy, the former director of research for Stanford Research Institute’s Values and Lifestyles (VALS) program, and Edmondson, the former editor of American Demographics magazine, together with Utne Reader founder Eric Utne, designed the survey and analyzed the results.

We asked Utne Reader readers “Have you given up?” in November 1986, over 27 years ago. And we asked the same questions again in July 2013. We wanted to hear from boomers whose worldview and politics were shaped by the ’60s and ’70s movements for change. And from Gen-Xers and millennials as well. Do you care about what’s going on in the world? Do you believe you can make a difference? To what extent do you act on your concerns?

In the introduction to the 2013 survey we wrote: “Did you march in Selma in the ’60s, or serve with the Special Forces in Vietnam? Did you door-knock for McGovern, or hang out on a hippie commune in the ’70s? Or both? Did you work for the PIRGs in the ’80s, Greenpeace in the ’90s, and against the invasion of Iraq in the ’00s? Or did you spend that time trading junk bonds on Wall Street? No matter what your age, even if you weren’t a glimmer in your parents’ imagination until the turn of the millennium, if you’re old enough to read this, let us know what you’re thinking about today.”

In this era of information overload and shortened attention spans, we feared we might not get many responses to a survey that takes at least 30-40 minutes to complete. Were we wrong! We got over 1,100 responses within the first month. We asked the same questions to all comers, then sorted the responses by generation. Here’s what we learned.

Whither activism?

Winston Churchill famously said, “If you’re not a liberal at 20, you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative at 40, you have no head.” What about at 60? The results of our survey show that sixtysomething UR readers are getting more radical. If you’re not an activist at 60, it appears, you’re probably dead.

Winston Churchill notwithstanding, UR readers are not getting more conservative as they age. This holds true for Gen-Xers and millennials as well as for boomers. Whereas 25 percent of survey respondents in 1986 said their “political views had gotten more conservative” as they’ve gotten older, only 4 percent of respondents agreed with that statement in 2013, and 93 percent disagreed. And when asked to use traditional terms, 89 percent, the same percentage in both 1986 and 2013, say they’re “liberal”—37 percent are “somewhat” liberal and more than half are “very” liberal.

Yet left/right, liberal/conservative nomenclature does not describe the political spectrum anymore, if it ever did. A more evocative measure of one’s place in society may be how much “influence” you wield. “How influential are you?” The survey shows that UR readers are among the most influential citizens in America, the people who initiate change and the ones to whom others turn for advice.

RoperASW, the marketing research firm, created a typology of the American population nearly 50 years ago to help identify America’s opinion leaders and cultural change agents. It’s still in use today. According to Roper researchers Ed Keller and Jon Berry, authors of the book, The Influentials, social engagement is key to influence.

Since UR readers are among the most civically and socially active Americans, it stands to reason that this survey amounts to a profile of America’s Influentials. The survey gives us a discrete glimpse into the lives of influential baby boomers, Gen-Xers, and millennials. It explains the way they work for social change, the precise tactics and groups they prefer, and whether or not they’ve given up.

Who are you?

Utne Reader readers distinguish themselves more by their involvement in local affairs than by characteristics like age, income, and education. But let’s start with the demographic numbers anyway.

Most UR readers are single, divorced, or living together outside of marriage. Less than half are married (48 percent). Eight in ten are college graduates (81 percent), compared with just 34 percent of the general population. And more than half (53 percent) of Utne readers have gone to graduate school. These numbers were the same in 1986 and 2013. This makes UR readers among the most educationally credentialed people in America.

Since the Great Recession of 2008, Americans have been facing one of the worst job markets in decades. Many are unemployed. Only 64 percent of UR readers in 2013 are employed (50 percent full-time; 14 percent part-time), compared with more than three quarters in 1986. Just 47 percent of working age Americans are employed full-time today. Eighteen percent of UR readers are retired. Another 11 percent are not at work due to illness, vacation, strike, or they’re looking for work, unemployed, or laid off. A whopping 62 percent of employed respondents have professional or technical jobs in fields like accounting, art, computers, medicine, law, teaching, and writing. Only 11 percent hold executive positions in management or administration. Clearly, the economic downturn has affected UR readers as it has the rest of America, though perhaps not quite as severely.

The income gap between old and young Americans is widening. Many millennials are in debt. Still, by the measure of household income, Utne readers are a privileged group. Almost all of the respondents (94 percent) say they are “middle class”: Half are plain middle class, 22 percent are “lower-middle class,” and 24 percent are “upper-middle class.” Back in 1986, when the national household average income was $24,900, 60 percent of UR readers made that much or more. In 2013, with the median household income for the U.S. at $51,404, three out of five Utne Reader households make $60,000 per year or more. Twenty-seven percent make $100,000-$300,000, and another 13 percent would “rather not say.”

Our readers have gotten older over the last 27 years, but so has the general U.S. population. Between 1973 and 2000, the median age for Americans rose from 28 to 35. In 1986 the median age for Americans was 31.7, and 38 for UR readers. By 2010, four in ten Americans were over 45. Most of our readers are baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1963. Eighty-six percent of them are 35 or older. Seventy-two percent are 45 or older. Fifty-five percent are 55 or older. Their median age is 57.

About half of survey respondents represent the leading edge of the baby boom. This is the group whose values were shaped by the civil rights, anti-war, women’s rights, environmental protection, natural foods, gay rights, and anti-nuke movements. They moved from civil rights to flower power, Vietnam, Watergate, and the Me Decade. They reject large organizations or, if they are part of one, they feel like an outsider within the system. They prize their individuality and they work for social change.

You are what you do

Our survey, “Have You Given Up?” asks respondents to agree or disagree with a series of statements. Based on these responses, and the activities that respondents participated in during the previous 12 months, we found that UR readers are among the most community-minded, socially active, and politically influential people in American.

Influentials, too, are distinguished by their social involvement, that is by things like voting in federal, state, or local elections; writing to the editor of a newspaper, magazine, or website; writing something that has been published; personally visiting an elected official to express a point of view; addressing a public meeting; taking an active part in some local civic issue; organizing or participating in a political protest or demonstration; and actively working as a volunteer.

As it happens, our readers participate in these activities at rates that far surpass most Americans, making them among the most influential of the Influentials. When asked which of the following activities they engaged in during the previous 12 months, UR readers reported:

• 86 percent voted in federal, state or local elections (compared to 58 percent of eligible U.S. voters in the 2012 elections).
• 58 percent actively worked as a volunteer
• 45 percent wrote to the editor of a newspaper, magazine, or website
• 42 percent took an active part in some local civic issue
• 36 percent engaged in fundraising
• 31 percent wrote something that has been published
• 27 percent addressed a public meeting
• 24 percent organized or participated in a political protest or demonstration
• 20 percent actively worked for a political party or candidate
• 18 percent personally visited an elected official to express a point of view
• 12 percent committed an act of civic disobedience

When compared with the general U.S. population these numbers are off the charts. UR readers almost double the participation rates of the general population in such key activities as writing something that was published, addressing a public meeting, and personally visiting an elected official to express a point of view.

What’s more, most of these numbers held steady from 1986 to 2013. The notable exceptions were that fewer 2013 respondents wrote to an editor (45 percent in 2013 vs. 61 percent in 1986), addressed a public meeting (27 percent in 2013 vs. 38 percent in 1986), organized or participated in a public protest (24 percent in 2013 vs. 33 percent in 1986), or committed an act of civic disobedience (12 percent in 2013 vs. 16 percent in 1986).

Do these drops in influential activity mean that UR readers in particular, and Americans in general, are becoming less activist? Less influential? On the surface this appears to be the case. But maybe their activism is finding different modes of expression. Perhaps their tactics have changed. Perhaps their actions have become less dramatic and confrontational, but more nuanced, skillful, and under-the-radar effective. 

Just as we now do more shopping from home than we did in 1986, so likewise our politics? With the demise of so many newspapers, there are fewer editors to write to. Technological change and the rise of the internet have altered the means and the intermediaries for the expression of what seem to be abiding values.

What do you believe?

Have the flames of idealism and activism dimmed since the ’60s? Or have they become embers, burning hot and steady still? Back in 1986, 57 percent of survey respondents agreed with the statement, “The ’60s will rise again.” In 2013, only 38 percent do. Most (63 percent) agree in 2013, as they did in 1986 (56 percent), that the ’60s are still “an unfinished experiment.”

So let’s dig deeper into the numbers. The respondents to our survey say they are still idealistic—92 percent assert that, “Ideals are powerful motivating forces in me.” But 62 percent “feel less idealistic now than ten years ago,” up from about half of respondents in 1986. They’re still idealistic, but less so than before.

They’ve grown even more skeptical about big government and big business than they were in 1986. Ninety-three percent now agree that, “Most politicians are bought off by some private interest,” while 79 percent held this view in 1986. And a near-unanimous 98 percent now agree that, “There’s too much power concentrated in the hands of a few large companies.”

Overall, respondents feel good about life in 2013. A large majority say they’re happy, (87 percent), feel satisfied with life (77 percent), and are committed to making a contribution to society (96 percent). But there’s a difference across the generations: the older you are, it seems, the more likely you are to say you’re happy, (93 percent of respondents 65 and older vs. 77 percent of millennials, 34 or younger). Twenty-five percent of the older cohort strongly agrees with the statement “I feel satisfied with my life,” vs. only 11 percent of the youngers.

Seven in ten boomer respondents say they feel more “realistic” now than they did ten years ago, but Gen-Xers (81 percent), and millennials (91 percent) feel even more so.

Generational politics

The biggest divergence between the generations comes in their beliefs about the nature of social change. Seven in ten respondents in each age group agree that accomplishing social change “inevitably involves a struggle between competing interests.” But only three in ten of the older respondents feel that bringing about social change “can and should be fun,” whereas 62 percent of millennials agree with the statement, and 50 percent of Gen-Xers do.

There’s a similar but less extreme divergence across the generations around the personal toll that working for social change requires. Thirty-seven percent of boomers agree with the statement, “Social change requires personal sacrifice,” while 48 percent of Gen-Xers and 56 percent of millennials do. In other words, the younger you are, the more likely you are to believe that social change can and should be fun, but it’s also more likely that you believe that social change requires personal sacrifice. So which is it—personal sacrifice or fun? Or both?

Older respondents seem to be saying, “I don’t expect my work for social change to be much fun, but then the sacrifices required are no big deal to me.” Lower expectations on both sides of the equation.

We think it’s safe to say that the older you are, the more likely it is that you’ve evolved a rather nuanced, more seasoned perspective about social change. UR readers in general are committed to social change, but the older generations have more experience in the trenches working for it. They’ve learned that the things that are most important to them, that bring them the most satisfaction in life, require personal sacrifice. And they’re all right with that. In fact, for many of them it doesn’t feel like sacrifice. 

Whether working for social change is fraught with greater or lesser expectations of fun and/or sacrifice, the real question is, what are America’s leading Influentials doing about the things that concern them? How are they acting on their ideals?

How active are you? To whom do you give?

The readers of Utne Reader most certainly have not given up. But they have given—given most generously of their time and their money to dozens of charitable organizations and causes each year. And, in many cases, at higher rates than in 1986.

One-quarter of UR readers are hard-core activists. They’re the ones who Occupied Wall Street and showed up in Washington, D.C., or down at City Hall, to protest fracking, GMOs, and the Keystone Pipeline. They’re the ones who write articles and letters to the editor about the dangers of government secrecy, the importance of a free, unrestricted internet, and the joys of wilderness preservation and protection.

More generally, UR readers are almost by definition community organizers. They talk to their neighbors, both online and in person, meet in each other’s living rooms, and knock on doors across town and around their block on behalf of their preferred candidates and issues. And they are more likely than other Americans to express their beliefs and attitudes with their checkbooks—a lot more.

The tables of social change activities and issues show how UR readers invest their time and money to make the world a better place. The lists were first created in 1986, so some of the issues have lost their urgency in 2013, while others are more pressing now than ever. We added a few new ones in 2013. Respondents were asked to indicate which causes and issues they give money to, volunteer time for, and would like to learn more about.

The most striking thing about these numbers is the extraordinary percentage of UR readers who donate their time and money. And for some issues the high rates of donating in 1986 increased dramatically in 2013. For example, in 1986, 13 percent of UR readers contributed to organizations that work to end hunger. By 2013 that number grew to 33 percent. And in 1986, 4 percent of UR readers volunteered for gay rights organizations. In 2013 that number had grown to 17 percent, a four-fold increase!

The rates of giving money held fairly constant between 1986 and 2013, even though overall giving in the U.S. was down, presumably due to the Great Recession. And more people, especially millennials, are volunteering their time across a range of issues. 

The causes that attracted the most financial contributions from UR readers in 2013 were environmental protection (40 percent), public radio (40 percent), culture and the arts (39 percent), and ending hunger (33 percent).

The issues that attracted the highest number of UR volunteers in 2013, after the usual cultural, civic, and church-related mainstays, were campaigns and organizations working for environmental protection (26 percent), food issues (22 percent), and gay rights (17 percent). The number of UR readers who volunteered their time for civic organizations doubled from 16 percent to 30 percent. Twice as many people (16 percent vs. 8 percent) volunteered their time to end hunger in 2013 than in 1986.

There was considerable divergence across the generations regarding which causes attracted support and what was given. It seems the older you are, the more likely you are to give money to your favorite causes and the less likely you are to volunteer your time. And the reverse is true. The currency of youth, it appears, is time and energy. Millennials, saddled with debt and struggling to find work, were understandably more likely to volunteer their time than to donate money, though they were generous with both.

The causes to which the most millennials donated money were culture and arts (39 percent), public radio (32 percent), the environment (30 percent), hunger (23 percent), and pro-choice efforts (23 percent). The causes to which they donated their time were the environment (34 percent), culture and arts (33 percent), civic organizations (32 percent), gay rights (31 percent), and women’s rights (29 percent). Gen-Xers gave most heavily to culture and arts (38 percent) and the environment (34 percent). Forty-nine percent of boomers gave money to environmental causes, their number one issue, but only 29 percent of them volunteered time. And UR readers 65 years and older gave most generously to public radio (54 percent), followed by environmental groups (51 percent).

These numbers show that UR readers, no matter what their age, have not given up—instead, they give most generously of both their time and their money.

There’s a great deal of congruence across the generations regarding issues supported, but also a few outliers that were exclusive to specific generations. For instance, “marriage and gender equality” were popular among millennials, but much less so for the older generations. And likewise, electoral politics resonated with the older generations, but barely showed up for young people. Thirty-seven percent of the 65+ set and 25 percent of boomers donated money in support of electoral politics, whereas only 5 percent of millennials, and 9 percent of Gen-Xers did.

A look at readers’ interests also reveals intriguing differences over the last quarter century. Whereas in 1986 readers were most interested in topics like bioregionalism—an ’80s-era environmental movement that led to the creation of Green Parties around the world—their interests today appear to have broadened. In the years following the recession, revelations over NSA spying, and Occupy Wall Street, readers in 2013 want to see more about the unchecked power of finance, government secrecy, and income inequality. Also on their radar today is climate justice, an idea unheard of in 1986 but increasingly vital in the 21st century.

The end of the American dream?

So, what can we conclude from this latest version of “Have You Given Up?” For starters, it’s clear that America’s most influential citizens have most definitely not given up. In fact, their generosity toward the causes and issues that concern them appears to be almost boundless. If their interests, concerns, and actions continue to serve as a bellwether for the rest of us, Americans are in for lots more public-spirited activism in the decades ahead.

But the motivation for all this social and environmental activism appears to have changed over the years. Remember the American Dream? Remember Ronald Reagan announcing on GE Theatre that, “Progress is our most important product?” According to author Elizabeth Thoman, writing in Rise of the Image Culture: Re-Imagining the American Dream, “In the ’50s we were told that anything new was better than something old; that science and technology were the greatest of all human achievements, and that in the near future—and certainly by the time I grew up—the power of technology would make it possible for everyone to live and work in a world free of war, poverty, drudgery, and ignorance.”

Instead, the idea of progress is now in retreat. Working for a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world, which most boomers believed was possible and even likely back in the ’60s and ’70s, now seems naïve, or out of reach. Most activists now feel like they’ve got their fingers in the dike. They’re working to delay imminent climate collapse, slow the spread of handguns, and reign in Wall Street. They’re trying to forestall the spread of GMOs, narrow the gap between the rich and poor, and avert the “Great Disruption.” They go about their community-building work not so much to achieve a vision of a better world, but simply because what they’re doing feels like the right thing to do, and the most fulfilling. They’re no longer trying to build a new age. They’ve joined a bucket brigade.

“I have no illusions that life is getting better anymore,” says 70-year-old Minnesotan Bryce Hamilton, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in the ’60s and a founder of Earth Day in 1970. “In fact I’m pretty sure things are going downhill fast. But I’m not giving up. My children and grandchildren and future generations are my motivation now.”

Back in 1986 we asked UR readers, “What’s love got to do with it?” Half the respondents answered, “All you need is love.” Now 62 percent do.

But what does that mean? We agree that love is essential for making a difference in the world, but is it sufficient? In addition to love you need enormous amounts of hard work, the patience and perseverance of the Buddha, and the ability to let go of your attachment to outcomes. How do you do that? Well, maybe UR readers are right. Maybe it does come down to love after all.

We wish to thank the many respondents for taking the time to complete this survey. More importantly, we wish to thank you for caring so much about the world, and for devoting so much of your time, energy, and treasure to making it a better place for all, now and in the future. And if you’d like to see the survey and find out how influential you are, visit Have You Given Up?

In the words of writer Brenda Ueland, “Strength to your sword arm!” And we would add, “Honey in your heart!”

Read More: Learn more about how activism has evolved since the ’60s and ’70s.

The Influentials

One American in ten tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy. Who are they? The most influential Americans—the ones asked by their neighbors which politicians to support, which movies to see, and where to vacation. They are not necessarily the people you’d expect. They’re not America’s most affluent 10 percent or the best-educated ten percent. They’re not the “early adopters,” always the first to try everything from Franco-Polynesian fusion cooking to digital cameras. They are, however, the 10 percent of Americans most engaged in their local communities … and they wield a huge amount of influence within those communities. They’re the campaigners for open-space initiatives. They’re church vestrymen and friends of the local public library. They’re the Influentials … and whether or not they are familiar to you, they’re very well known to the researchers at RoperASW.

For decades, these researchers have been on a quest for marketing’s holy grail: that elusive but supremely powerful channel known as word of mouth. What they’ve learned is that even more important than the “word” —what is said—is the “mouth” who says it … Influentials lead the way in social development, from the revival of self-reliance (in managing their own health care, investments, and consumption) to mass skepticism about the marketing claims of everything from breakfast food to politicians. Although America’s Influentials have always been powerful, they’ve never been more important than now. —from The Influentials, by Ed Keller and Jon Berry

What do you consider the most pressing issues of the day?

“What to eat, how to make it, where to go for lunch.”

“Climate change. Climate change. Climate change.”

“How to reveal to people their spiritual connection with the universe. How to connect deeply with fellow humans. How to focus the energy of humans on our collective survival.”

Jay Ogilvy is now splitting his time between writing and hiking in the red rock canyons of southern Utah. His most recent book is Facing the Fold: Essays on Scenario Planning.

Brad Edmondson is a specialist in the effects of population change. He is the author of Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s, published by Berrett-Koehler in January 2014.

Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader. He is currently writing a book with Jeri Reilly on aging and activism. He blogs at: boomwithaview.org.

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