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An agenda for the Silent Generation
There is no shortage of issues awaiting the attention of the under-40s.
Word cloud depicts Gen Y's self-perception. See Research Center for Leadership in Action, NYUWagner, for cloud showing others' perception.
Where is their political awareness? asks Kevin Ryan in Part 2 of a two-part series.
The finally retiring Boomer Generation is used to getting its way. These sons and daughters of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation grew up as America was economically coming into its own. Americans emerged from World War Two with factories ready to convert from producing tanks and guns to cars and television sets. We were not only able to feed our own pent-up needs and material desires, but also more than willing to supply the lucrative markets of both our war battered allies and enemies.
America’s postwar children were the kids-of-plenty. Life was relatively easy and they adapted quickly to getting their way. When an unpopular war in Southeast Asia started up, many refused to go. Unlike their fathers, who dutifully reported at the first draft notice, many young Boomers said, “Hell, no. We won’t go!” And they didn’t stop there. Flying under flags such as, “Question Authority” and “Different strokes for different folks”, they took on the popular wisdom of the time, whether it was the treatment of racial minorities, rules about how to live out one’s sexual lives, or what substances to ingest into their bodies. They wanted change and were willing to go to the streets and then the polls to get it. They learned to use the media and the political system to achieve what they wanted. But for whatever reason, the next generation, the children of Boomers, haven’t followed in their parents’ footsteps. They have become the Silent Generation.
If and when the ninety million 20- to 40-year-olds wake up from their political lethargy, there is no shortage of issues awaiting their attention, issues that affect all Americans, but which should be of pressing concern to their generation. Here are four issues just waiting to become the core of their political manifesto.
First among them is schooling. Currently, eighty-eight percent of our children go to state run schools and the cost per pupil is north of $10,000 per year. A small percentage of our 60,000 public schools are excellent; the great bulk in the middle is poor; the bottom 25 per cent, typically serving the urban and rural poor, is disgraceful.
Every US president in memory has declared himself “the education president”, only to leave office with bloated public school budgets and embarrassing student report cards. More tax money has not led to better skills and higher test results. Every promising innovation seems to run aground and be replaced quickly with the educational version of “the new, new thing”.
The ugly truth is that our public schools are run by the teachers unions and that translates to our schools being run for the teachers, and not the students. Our schools will not change until the public school monopoly is broken and parents are given the opportunity to select the education their individual children need. The free market choice system has served the nation well in every other area. Why not education?
Without intending to provoke class envy, it is nevertheless instructive to observe how the rich behave. Wealthy families put great value on the education of their children. They will move from city to suburb or from suburb to suburb in pursuit of a quality education for their children. And, as typically happens, when they find the public schools wanting, it is off to private schools. Why should the rich be the only ones who can effort school choice?
The public sector
Second on the Silent Generation’s agenda is the trimming of the public sector. Recently, many Americans have come to realize that we’ve been victims of a massive and quite public robbery, the hand-in-glove robbery of the public coffers by public employees unions. It is a system with a certain sinister beauty: the union boss delivers to politicians not only the votes, but also the skillful hands of teachers, office workers and others to make the calls and turn out the vote. Then, the politicians dutifully pass legislation to raise wages, benefits, cost of living adjustments, early retirement plans, and vacation and sick leave allowances. This is followed by regulations which make it all but impossible to fire a public service employee. In the meantime, workers in the private sector are coming to realize two things: first, they will never come close themselves to receiving such a cushy deal; and second, they, through their taxes, are the ones paying for this deal. This huge, rotting system is a political plum just crying out to be pruned. .
Related to this is the need to reorganize and streamline the services of local municipalities. From the village hall to the county office, we need a massive governmental re-think. Are the services for which we are paying large tax bills being delivered in the most effective way? Does every little village need its own police department with a chief, several lieutenants and deputies? Why not reorganize the law enforcement on a regional basis. Why all the little redundant fiefdoms with their own budgets, procedures and systems?
The same with the local fire departments? Why should each town and village have its own court system, water department and “recycling” (read: garbage collection) department? And why in the computer era should every burg have its own elaborate records department? And why should our villages and towns and cities have these overlapping police and judicial and on-and-on departments? Do we really need close to fifteen thousand individual public school districts? These redundancies are relics of the past and currently are, besides being enormously expensive, sources of massive inefficiencies.
And then there is our overstuffed federal bureaucracy. We have seen in the last two decades an extraordinary growth in these various bureaus. It is no surprise that the Washington, D.C., housing market is the most vibrant in the country. The simple reason is the incessant increase of federal jobs. Small bureaus with small missions have morphed into gigantic entities with new and confusing missions. Has the Department of Energy helped lower our “energy independence” or the price of a gallon of gas? Has the huge expansion of the Department of Education improved our schools?
There are few Americans who do not appreciate the protection and safety we receive from the men and women in the armed forces, but cannot we get along with a smaller, more targeted military? And is having four aggressively competing branches of the military (Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard), each lobbying for its own budgets and separate agendas (the latest stealth fighter, the newest, biggest aircraft carrier) the best way to address our national defense needs? And why four distinct military academies? Currently, each is graduating its officers more committed to their own branch of the service than to our overall defense needs. Why not reorganize a 21st century military around principles that ensure protection against 21st century threats, instead of fostering internal, intra-service rivalries.
Government and business crime
Third, we need to get serious about government and business crime. One of the hoary election promises of politicians from both parties is “to root out fraud and abuse”. Regularly we hear pledges to save what are mind-numbing sums by cleaning up this criminal behavior. Perhaps little happens because it is more satisfying for our elected officials to spend money than do the hard work of rooting out these felonies. Government run Medicare and Medicaid are prime examples of this lack of criminal oversight. Since Washington and our state houses will not or cannot solve this perennial problem, why not turn it over to the private sector? Why not private detective-agencies-on-steroids going after the thievery that is part of so many government programs? Why not put a bounty on the billion dollar criminality? Instantly we would have a gold rush of crime fighters, ones with goals more lofty than retiring in twenty years with a nice pension.
Cost of college
A fourth issue, and one that rests heavily on the shoulders of the young, is the cost of a college education. The spiraling costs of higher education and the states’ declining support for it means our children have assumed heavy debts on the hope that the education will lead to a prosperous future. While this has been true in the past, social scientists are casting doubts on its truth going forward. Nevertheless, the majority of Americans who have bought into society’s urgings to go to college have long ago forgotten Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the five reasons why we entered World War One, and what “regression to the mean” means. They do, however, remember that they are still paying for that knowledge.
There needs to be a plan to get so many young workers and their families out from under their onerous college debts. The nation should be able to put in place a debt relief scheme which financially punishes neither those who religiously have paid their tuition bill nor those who chose not to go on for higher education. Although for many little more than a four year campus sleepover, overall a college education contributes substantially to the overall health of the nation.
In sum, we should provide some paths to less expensive higher education and relief for those struggling with unpaid loans. Currently, we provide free higher education for military service. Why not let our college debtors work off their bills through social service? Running a church youth group? Tutoring children? Helping out at a home for the elderly? Why not let college grads use their skills and knowledge and get out from under their educational debts?
Build trust and alliances
These four are not the only causes which could focus the now dormant energies of the Silent Generation. There is also our toxic public culture, laced as it is with f-bombs and sexually provocative nudity, a culture which is stealing the innocence of our children. Further, there is the failure of government to bring intellectual clarity and, if needed, a workable action plan to the energy and environment problems hanging over the heads of young Americans. A lack of issues is not the cause of this generation’s political passivity.
Movements, particularly political movements, are dicey affairs. Advocacy can easily degenerate into “us against them” conflicts, emotions can take over and what was a promising movement runs amok. The energy and anger which fueled the anti-Vietnam movement of the late 1960 and early 1970s brought about Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority. The campus free-speech and pro-marijuana demonstrations featured slogans like “don’t trust anyone over thirty”. In low voices and through clenched teeth, their seniors often responded, “Don’t trust anyone under thirty!” which, in turn, fathered the generation gap. The lesson is to stay positive and seek coalitions.
One potential ally is the oldster-dominated Tea Party Movement. While a youth movement may threaten many seniors who will see their potential loss of political clout, Tea Partiers claim that one of their chief motivators is eliminating the huge debt burden which they see undermining their children’s and grandchildren’s future.
Fueled by our economic recession and over ten years of seemingly endless wars, distrust and exasperation with our current political actors is building. To date, the group with the most at stake has not been heard from. This is truly a pregnant moment waiting for the birth of a new voice to give form and substance to a fresh force in our civic life.
Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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