Abstract: Hardly Silent: Exploring a Generation’s Engagement and Participation in Civic Life (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Hardly Silent: Exploring a Generation’s Engagement and Participation in Civic Life

Friday, January 14, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 7, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Taylor Patskanick, LCSW, MSW, MPH, Technical Associate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA
Julie Miller, MSW, PhD, Research Scientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
John Rudnik, BA, Technical Associate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
Lisa D'Ambrosio, PhD, Research Scientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA
Joseph Coughlin, PhD, Director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA
Background: Increasing public attention has been devoted to recognizing the collective influence older adults can wield in civic life. Existing gerontological research has conceptualized civic participation in the context of productive aging, benefits to participating, and the challenges faced by older adults who choose to participate. A gap exists in exploring these issues with those ages 85 and older, a growing age demographic in the U.S., despite the novel coronavirus pandemic. Understanding how this population engages with social and political issues is essential to examine due to high voter turnout among older adults in the U.S., stigmatization of older adults within the political arena, and the role of technology-mediated information exchange in influencing how people engage civically.

Methods: An exploratory, mixed methods study was conducted in January 2020 as part of an ongoing longitudinal panel of adults ages 85 and older. For this study, participants completed a 75-item questionnaire (n=24) online or via postal mail measuring original items related to civic engagement and participation, technology use, and political efficacy as adapted from the American National Election Studies (ANES) survey. For the in-person workshop, 22 participants who attended were divided into five focus groups for semi-structured discussions on their engagement with social and political issues, perceived barriers to civic participation, and use of technology to engage with and influence social and political issues. Quantitative analyses of the questionnaire triangulated focus group data, which were analyzed using a qualitative description orientation and coded with an inductive, manifest content analysis approach.

Results: Mean participant age was 89.81 and tech-savviness score a 9.87 (σ=2.67). Findings can be classified into five themes: current civic participation, political efficacy, current information access, digital accessibility, and drawbacks of technology. Survey data revealed more variance in current participation compared to focus group data. Comparisons to participation during midlife and ambiguity around what constitutes a “political activity” in later life were sub-themes that emerged. Participants scored high in internal political efficacy, but low in external efficacy. Many expressed they felt they had low agency in their ability to participate in civic activities due to age. Unique to the 85+, participants felt there was a lack of time left to influence political and social change. The role of technology in promoting civic participation was complex. Participants with greater comfort with technology were more likely to have greater internal political efficacy compared to those with less comfort. Increased information transmission through digital channels created the potential for our sample to be overwhelmed or left out of the discourse entirely.

Conclusion: Technology-mediated engagement in civic life is increasingly a part of participatory citizenries. Traditional models of civic participation decreased in our sample, but participants are engaging in informal forms of participation. To ensure older adults can continue to partake fully in civic life, should they choose to do so, it is crucial to understand how older adults currently do and how this intersects with their use of digital communication channels. Implications of this study for social work practice will be discussed.