To defeat totalitarian dictators, the greatest generation rationed goods, tended victory gardens, paid higher taxes, bought war bonds, and sent 16 million young men and women to war.
To confront rogue nations, terrorists, energy issues, soaring debt, and other urgent problems that threaten America’s security, the Facebook generation has made... virtually no sacrifice at all.
This must change. And it can. Just as the consumerism of the 1920s and isolationism of the 1930s gave way to the thrift and global engagement of the 1940s, so, too, can today’s young adults mature to take on severe challenges.
It won’t be simple, though.
No progress is made without sacrifice, and this generation (my generation) is loath to sacrifice. We see this everywhere: from the water-cooler conversations that focus on “American Idol” to the adoration of women like Paris Hilton and their false pedestals of achievement to the television and mediacentric addiction that drives our choices of what we buy and what we wear. Apparently, we want every luxury and every hope; we want to play, but never to pay.
My generation doesn’t understand the backbreaking labor of an agrarian society, the ruthlessness of a Wild West, or, as in World War II, the sacrifice and motivation to fight a war in which literally thousands are lost in a single day. Compare that with the roughly 5,400 US soldiers killed so far after eight years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Harsh news and wretched tears of war spared few families across America through April and May 1944. Allied Air Forces lost almost 12,000 men and 2,000 aircraft as they cleared the way for a ground invasion. On D-Day, the “bravest generation” lost at least 2,500 American servicemen in a single day defending the world against a tyrant. By the end of the war, more than 400,000 of our military had made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Critically, it wasn’t just a herculean effort by our armed forces. All Americans contributed because they understood that our future and our values were at stake.
Today, our future is again under threat, but too few young Americans are taking up the call to action.
Our soldiers are certainly an exception. In the past decade, they’ve deposed dictators, enabled free elections, liberated minorities and women, built schools, and invested billions in everything from hospitals to power plants. The struggle to prevail against the enemies of freedom is ongoing, but by almost every objective measure, Americans should be awash with pride at what the sacrifice of our military has nobly accomplished.
The rest of my generation must now step up.
We must view current events through the clarifying prism of history instead of the fun-house mirrors of postmodern culture.
Through a milieu of never-ceasing, nerve-ending satisfaction, we fail to see the screen for the pixels. This generation seems blind to one poor decision after another at the hands of power brokers who are mortgaging our future. In the face of this, it is essential that we cease our shirking, embrace our future, and, without hesitation, exert our influence in a manner heretofore not imagined.
The “bill” coming due is not merely the scourge of national debt. Twenty-five years from now, which countries will threaten peace with nuclear devices? Which terrorist groups will exert power?
Will capitalism exist in the United States? Which entity will control Wall Street? Why is my generation apparently satisfied with the status quo? We must radically shift our expectations: pursuing deep space exploration, inventing weapons to make nuclear devices obsolete, eliminating genetic maladies, and harvesting energy from sources we have yet to imagine.
Our most eminent young engineers, writers, bankers, and intellectuals have an opportunity to apply their energy toward the challenges of a new world. This is not a fanciful whimsy; Google, possibly the most notable technology of the last 15 years, was created by Larry Page and Sergey Brin before they reached the ripe old age of 26.
One hundred seventy-five years ago, Manifest Destiny was the clarion call for westward expansion and was the trigger for a mind-set of exploration, risk, and the hope for a better America. In the 20th century, World War II set the stage for American world dominance, the nose-to-nose confrontations with Communism, and the intellectual groundwork that would create a technological explosion of information in the latter half of the century.
Our firm grasp on information technologies and the power we wield with that weapon could be the cornerstone of this generation’s legacy. As the challenges of the 21st century become clearer, it’s time my generation stopped asking “When?” or “Who?” and started answering “Now” and “Me.”
Motivation is rooted in presentation. We tend to ignore abstract problems, but we do respond quickly to matters of survival and to big opportunities. Many of today’s most pressing challenges – terrorism, energy security, climate change, uncontrolled debt – fall into both categories, so today’s generation could be stimulated to action.
One looming challenge is the bankrupt legacy of Social Security. Just this year, the program started taking in less revenue in taxes than it pays out in benefits. Its unfunded liability now stands at $7.7 trillion. Our parents’ generation has passed the buck to us. What if we immediately discontinued the program for everyone under the age of 70? Would such an idea cause short-term suffering? Yes, but more critically, would it spur long-term innovation? Would it compel us to relearn the art of savings, the definition of community compassion, and the concepts of capitalism anew?
This is just one idea. We require a host of initiatives across all fields if we are to break the status quo.
My generation can either choose to wrench the mantle of responsibility from the shoulders of the lawmakers and power brokers in control, or we will reap the consequences of another generation’s actions for years to come.
A world that desperately needs courageous, ingenious, long-term thinking is counting on us. Will you step up?