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The Quiet Generation

Are today's young people too quiet—and too online—for their own good?

By Thomas L. Friedman

OPINION features excerpts of pieces by columnists from the Op-Ed page and other sections of The New York Times. All columns from the last seven days are available at nytimes.com; Op-Ed pieces (by columnists and outside contributors), plus Editorials and Letters to the Editor, are at nytimes.com/opinion. Please let us know what you think of OPINION at upfront@scholastic.com.

I recently visited several colleges, and the more I'm around this generation of college students, the more I'm both baffled and impressed.

I'm impressed because they're so much more optimistic and idealistic than they should be. I'm baffled because they're so much less politically engaged than they need to be.

They're not only going abroad to study in record numbers, they're also building homes for the poor in El Salvador or volunteering at AIDS clinics.

The Iraq war may be a mess, but I saw young men and women proudly wearing their R.O.T.C. uniforms. Others channel their national-service impulses into programs like Teach for America, which sends young teachers to schools in poor neighborhoods.

It's for all these reasons that I've been calling them "Generation Q"—the Quiet Americans, in the best sense of the term, quietly pursuing their idealism.

But Generation Q may be too quiet, too online, for its own good. I think of the huge budget deficit, Social Security deficit, and ecological deficit that our generation is leaving them. If they're not spitting mad, then they're just not paying attention.

When I visited my daughter at her college, she asked about a terrifying story that ran in The Times on October 2, reporting that the Arctic ice cap was melting "to an extent unparalleled in a century or more." She wondered why none of the candidates were talking about it.

Generation Q would do itself, and America, a favor if it asked every candidate who comes on campus: What will you do about climate change? How will you deal with the budget deficit, so we won't all be working for China in 20 years?

America needs a jolt of idealism, activism, and outrage from Generation Q. That's what 20-somethings are for—to light a fire under the country.

But they can't e-mail it in, and an online petition or a mouse click for carbon neutrality won't cut it. They have to get organized in a way that will force politicians to pay attention to them: Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy didn't change the world by asking people to join their Facebook crusades.

Maybe that's why what impressed me most on my college swing was the life-size statue of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi, where, in 1962, Meredith became the first black student admitted. He is posed as if re-enacting his fateful step onto the campus, in defiance of a violent mob.

Carved above the archway is the word "Courage." That's what real activism looks like. There is no substitute.