Recent census data shows that on the West Coast, less than half of Americans younger than 24 have registered to vote. And only a quarter say they've actually voted. That figure is considerably lower compared to other age groups – for example, among 45- to 64-year-olds, nearly 60 percent say they've voted. The situation in other parts of the US is very similar.
A new documentary film #ReGeneration explores why young people appear to be so socially and politically apathetic. Director Phillip Montgomery got the idea to create such documentary film back in 2006. George W. Bush was serving his second term as president, and the war in Iraq had been going on for three years.
Montgomery and some friends were in their late 20s at the time. They were angry about what was happening, but they didn't know what to do. “For me personally, it was just a moment of self reflection, of why wasn't I personally doing more. So, that's really where I started to explore as a filmmaker different influences that were sort of holding me back personally,” Montgomery says.
#ReGeneration took six years to create. It's organized in three segments that examine how media, education, and parenting affect young people's worldview. Montgomery and his team focused on his old high school in Minnesota. Film director says that he had a very lucky childhood, but he never really explored many of the issues addressed by #ReGeneration. “So, in that respect it kind of became early on the film that I kind of wish I would have seen myself in high school,” Montgomery adds.
Over time, the project evolved from a critique of the Bush administration into a deeper exploration of activism – or the lack of it – in modern American society. Jeffree Lerner is a co-author of the film. He recalls how his own focus changed after Barack Obama's election in 2008: “It was galvanizing, it was inspiring, it was hopeful.” But later on, Lerner continues, “We got that man elected on a progressive campaign – and we immediately went back to our armchairs and our living rooms and we said, ‘Ok, we've done our job, we've elected our president and it's up to him.’”
Many of the young people in the film are like Claire Friedman, a senior at Minnesota high school. “We aren't as active as generations of the 60s and 70s. The big part of that is because we haven't got outside,” Friedman says in the film.
Meanwhile, writer Noam Chomsky, also interviewed for the film, thinks that from the industry point of view, “the ideal social unit is a pair – you and a television set. If you can impose the society constructed pretty much of such units, then you've got country pretty much under control. Even without force.”
Lerner says competing influences of media, education, and parenting are complex – as are the challenges facing American society. “There are a lot of people dealing with a lot of different things! There is not a Vietnam [war], there is not a Civil rights [movement] that everybody is sharing in common and can rally around. There is a wide spectrum of problems,” says Lerner. Problems like climate change, wars, and political corruption. The film suggests that the complexity of those issues might be one of the reasons so many young people feel powerless and apathetic.
Matt DeRoss is one of the film's producers. He says one way young people could start to participate is by voting in the upcoming elections. Back in the 1960s, youth voting was high -– over 50 percent. It dropped down over the years, but has increased steadily since the year 2000, reaching its peak during the 2008 election.
DeRoss says voting isn't the only way to be politically active. He also supports movements like Occupy Wall Street. But he says it's just as important to elect politicians that young people feel represent them. “I don't think that one specific leader or one specific party is going to change what we are talking about,” says DeRoss, “but at least we are going to have a voice and an attempt for those people to help us.”
#ReGeneration is an attempt to start a conversation and raise awareness among young people in the United States. And this, the filmmakers say, is their own form of activism.