According to the study of more than 2,000 18-to-29 year olds, young people in the United States are nearly universally connected, often in multiple ways. Some 94 percent report having an Internet connection at home, and 88 percent say they have a mobile phone. Eighty percent have a Facebook account, though social-network participation drops off sharply from there: Google+ stands at 45 percent, Instagram 39 percent, Twitter 38 percent, Pinterest 30 percent, Snapchat 28 percent, and Tumblr 13 percent.
Providing context here is recent research from the Pew Research Internet Project that finds that 67 percent of 18 to 24 years old are politically active on social networking sites.
But the Harvard poll finds that young Americans are unlikely to get involved in conventional channels of offline politics, even with time or interest to spare. Asked about a friend or peer attending a political rally or demonstration, 57 percent said that they weren't likely to go along, even if they had the free time and agreed with the issue. And 64 percent were unlikely to volunteer on a political campaign that they otherwise supported, even should they have the freedom in their day to do it.
That said, young people aren't completely unwilling to give of their time to something outside their own immediate sphere. Some 67 percent said that if a friend or peer were to suggest volunteering for "a worthy cause," they were likely to do it. That presents an intriguing cognitive gap: Asked whether political engagement or community volunteerism was the better way to address the problems facing the United States, 18 percent said politics and 42 said community volunteerism. But more than a third said that they weren't sure.
That disconnect -- young people hold out the possibility that traditional political participation is worthwhile, but they aren't willing to do it -- might be explained in part by the results showing that, when asked "With whom do you place the blame regarding the political gridlock in Washington, D.C.?," more than half of respondents chose not congressional Democrats, congressional Republicans, or President Obama, but "All of them."
It's worth noting that the Harvard polling question presupposed that respondents would both accept the notion of political gridlock as fact and blame someone for it; asked why on a news call on Wednesday, John Della Volpe, the polling director at Harvard's Institute of Politics said, "It came through, without question, in polls before this on why young people weren't going to vote. We did assume that people were concerned about political gridlock." But that disenchantment with the political establishment isn't, it seems, born of a deep familiarity with the day-to-day happenings on the national political scene: some 60 percent of young people polled said that, despite their highly-connected online experiences, they don't follow political news closely.
Those results, to Marshall Ganz, aren't totally surprising. Ganz is a senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is a longtime political organizer, going back to the days of Cesar Chavez and the 1960s California farm worker movement. Ganz is also credited with creating the "snowflake" model that the 2008 Obama campaign used to organize communities volunteer by volunteer. To him, the success of that campaign, and the dominance of young people in it, suggests that the polling results like Wednesday's should be taken with a grain of salt.
"Young people generally have a skepticism of how they find the world, but hopeful hearts," said Ganz. "They have an orientation toward making the world a more promising place. And presented with a viable alternative, it becomes, 'Maybe it could be.' Reading in the abstract about how nothing happens in Washington, though, who would think that politics is going to be the solution to things? But if you look at the history of political and social campaigns, young people are always at the center of them."