Which Deficits Do Millennials Care About?

The nation's capital is abuzz with talk about deficits.  The Republican co-chairman of the President's Deficit Reduction Commission, Alan Simpson, a member of the aging Silent Generation (born 1925-1945), began the debate by lecturing his younger Baby Boomer (1946-1964) colleagues about the need for their generation, labeled by Simpson the "greediest generation," to finally face up to their lifelong avoidance of responsibility and agree to painful reductions in their future retirement benefits and current tax preferences. The generation gap that has separated Boomers from their elders for decades appeared to be almost as wide today as it was in the 1960s.

The Commission's confrontational conversation was all about money, devoid of any discussion about what kind of country America should become. By contrast, at the NDN headquarters in Washington, the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, a think tank run by and for Millennials, was releasing an equally important document, a Blueprint for the Millennial America. In stark contrast with the zero sum proposals being tossed around by older generations, the Blueprint's focus was on America's civic deficit-- the imbalance between what we need to do as a nation and the investments we are willing to make to retain our global leadership. The group launched its Think 2040 project, this past March, in order to "leverage our unique generational characteristics, transform our communities nationwide, and redefine the American dream," in the words of its national director, Hilary Doe.  Their vision, generated in a year-long discussion with over two thousand Millennials, focused on what type of country America's youngest generation (born 1982-2003) wanted to inherit when it takes over  the reins of power in 2040. 

The participants envisioned an America "that continues to be a model for the world in terms of innovation, productivity, and strength... [and] a moral leader as well." They wanted America to live by three core values: "a deeply held concern for equity, respect for the individual and society, and a belief in community empowerment and self-determination." Together, these values, and the group's vision, paint a picture that "uniquely represents the world Millennials aspire to create: more accessible, more equitable, more community-driven, more entrepreneurial, more inclusive, and better prepared to tackle the long-term challenges our country faces."

Participants were appalled at the inequities of the country's current educational system, "the foundation of our economy and democracy," and placed its reform at the top of their list of priorities. They committed to changing the system's unequal outcomes, but didn't want American schools to "lose their essential creativity and civic function in an effort to meet federally mandated standards." Rather, as part of their generation's focus on acting locally to implement national goals, they favored "an eclectic mix of federal incentives and local power and creativity to revitalize American education."

The Millennials who participated in Think 2040 approached America's environmental problems with the same values that informed their broader vision. Because they believed that "environmental challenges fundamentally alter the texture of communities," they proposed solutions that respected "the needs of America's communities," so that no one would be asked to "make sacrifices without fully considering the cost to communities across the United States." To accomplish this goal, which clearly reflects the unique sensibilities of Millennials, the report prioritized the development and usage of renewable sources of energy above all other environmental solutions. The participants argued that "creating a thriving domestic market for renewable sources of energy, fostering a strong green-jobs sector, and achieving energy independence....was essential for the long-term health of the country's environment and its economy," as well as "maintaining national and global security and preserving biodiversity."    

Just as, after World War II, the previous civic generation, Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation, created "a system of global cooperation to promote human rights, poverty reduction, and conflict resolution," these globally minded Millennials shared "an overwhelming belief that it is the moral duty of the United States to reduce global conflict by reinvigorating international institutions." They pointed out that "the rise of genocide in the 20th century has led to a fundamentally different conception of America's international responsibility," to guide the country's foreign policy.  In their  Millennial America, the United States would work "with its allies across the globe to promote sustainable development, capacity building, and community ownership, instead of invading and occupying enemy territory," and use "defense, diplomacy, and development as equal pillars of U.S. foreign policy."

At home, Think 2040 participants wanted "to build an American economy that supports and rewards creativity, ingenuity, and personal determination to succeed," leading them to endorse banking reform, infrastructure investment, and turning the nation's social safety net into a "trampoline."  Their government social safety trampoline would "lower barriers to entrepreneurship, enable workers to rebound in times of need, and combat intergenerational poverty by allowing children the opportunity to succeed regardless of their family challenges," in order to produce an economy with greater upward mobility.

Exemplifying their generation's penchant for combining high ideals with pragmatic solutions, the Blueprint's action plan suggested Millennials "demand change, but act locally. Work to combat challenges, but do so from within the system. Create change, but not just through protest....What allows us, as communities, to overcome obstacles ... is collaborative action." The report emphasized the need not only for  high levels of civic engagement by the generation, but the need for reforms  in the political system to reduce the role of money in elections  creating  "a more open, accountable, and democratic electoral system."

 Doe is confident of her generation's ability to effect the changes the Blueprint advocates because "our shared experiences have made us socially empathetic, tolerant, informed, collaborative, engaged, innovative, entrepreneurial, effective problem solvers both capable and willing to work together to overcome the challenges that we face."  Unlike older generations that are ready to engage in pitch fork battles to protect their own perquisites and power, Millennials consistently look for win-win solutions to the challenges the country confronts. Perhaps, if more decision-makers in Washington listen to the voices of this generation so eloquently captured in the Blueprint, they will find a vision for the future that can point to a way out of the partisan gridlock that continues to poison U.S. politics as it has for decades.   

 Rather than judging the value of deficit reduction and other policy proposals based on the number of oxen they gore, we should judge each one by how much it contributes to building the kind of America we want our children and our children's children to inherit. Based on that criterion, the Blueprint for the Millennial America sets a high bar for the rest of the country to jump over.