An agenda for the Silent Generation

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

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.

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 protected].


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