Teens and young adults who engage in civic activities, such as volunteering, activism and voting, are more likely than non-engaged peers to attain higher incomes and education levels as adults, according to a new study.
“We know from past research that taking part in civic activities can help people feel more connected to others and help build stronger communities, but we wanted to know if civic engagement in adolescence could enhance people’s health, education level and income as they become adults,” said Parissa J. Ballard, Ph.D., assistant professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest Baptist and principal investigator of the study.
Ballard and her team used a nationally representative sample of 9,471 adolescents and young adults from an ongoing study called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health.
Students participating in the study were between 18 and 27 years of age when civic activities were measured. Six years later, outcomes like health, education and income were measured.
The research team used propensity score matching, a statistically rigorous methodology to examine how civic engagement related to later outcomes regardless of participants’ background characteristics, including levels of health and parental education. For example, adolescents who volunteered were matched to adolescents from similar backgrounds that did not volunteer to compare their health, education and income as adults.
Researchers found that the participants involved in volunteering and voting also showed fewer symptoms of depression and were at a lower risk for negative health behaviors including substance use.
For teens that were involved in activism the findings were more complex. Although they too had a much greater chance of obtaining a higher level of education and personal income, they also were involved in more risky behaviors six years later, Ballard said.
“In this study, we couldn’t determine why that was the case, but I think activism can be frustrating for teens and young adults because they are at a stage in life where they are more idealistic and impatient with the slow pace of social change,” Ballard said. “I would encourage parents to help their children remain passionate about their cause but also learn to manage expectations as to short- and long-term goals.”
Teens and young adults that are working to make a difference in their school and communities use a combination of skills, knowledge, values and motivation that can enrich their lives long into adulthood.
The study was published in the journal Child Development.