Hello, class of 2018! Welcome to the last day of your K-12 education and the launch of your adult lives.
I know that today is customarily a celebration of all you’ve accomplished. But these are not customary times, so I’d like to break protocol and level with you instead.
Class of 2018, as you leave school for college or a career, know this: You are arriving in a country that, perhaps more than ever before, does not care about you or your peers.
Our politics, our economy, our environment and our broader society are currently set up to ignore you.
So as you assume the freedom and responsibilities of adulthood, you should know a little about what you’re about to face.
You’re joining a society where mass shootings in schools and on college campuses are met with shrugs. Policies go unchanged and a new town begins to weep before tears have dried in the last community touched by mass gun violence.
You’re arriving into a world where conservative politicians insist on debating the scientific standing of climate change—even as its effects already roil the planet.
But most troubling, you’re starting your careers in an era when the broader structures of the economy are tilted against you. The core elements of the old American Dream—a good job, an affordable house, a chance to build assets for retirement—are increasingly difficult to piece together.
Sure, at last count, there were around 6 million unfilled jobs in the United States, and about 6.8 million people trying to get one. Doesn’t sound so bad, right?
Trouble is, many of those openings require a college degree and the skills that come with it. And, as you’ve probably noticed, college costs have skyrocketed. Our national leadership’s response? A collective shrug.
If you want a chance at the middle class, kid, have a bucket of student loans and suck it up.
Even if you get the college degree, you’ll soon find that most of the country’s better-paying jobs are clustered in—and moving to—booming cities where housing costs are through the roof. For many of you, the path to upward mobility runs through communities where two-bedroom housing sells for an average of over a half-million dollars. You don’t mind moving—and piling on some more debt—do you?
How did we get to a place where bright-eyed, energetic new adults like you get stuck with such terrible headwinds?
Well, in part, it’s because American political leaders don’t take young adults seriously. They don’t think you’re paying attention, and for years, young people (your older siblings and your parents before them) have been proving them right.
Since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971, young voters have generally been one of the lowest-turnout voter groups. In 2016, just 46 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds showed up to vote.
Meanwhile, 67 percent of your parents (45- to 64-year-olds) and 71 percent of your grandparents (65 years old or older) cast ballots.
It’s worse for midterm elections. In 2014, the numbers were similar: Just 19.9 percent of young adults voted, compared to 47 percent of their parents and nearly 59 percent of their grandparents.
It was always thus. The young don’t show up, so the young’s needs aren’t addressed.
Public leaders—who depend on those votes—think you’re too distracted by the indulgences of youth. You have so much time ahead of you, so many different projects, so many different enthusiasms. Why would you bother with the boring stuff of politics?
They think you are hopelessly entangled by the internet. They think you’ll only get around to paying attention to politics in the odd moment when presidents are linked to porn stars and petty Hollywood gossip engulfs the news.
See, this voting status quo works just fine for sitting members of Congress (average age: 57 years old in the House and 61 years old in the Senate), governors (average age: 56 years old) and the president (turning 72 years old this June). But it’s not good for you.
These folks won’t have to live with their decisions for many years—because they don’t have all that many years left. If mass shootings keep scarring U.S. campuses, if college costs triple again, if economic opportunity further consolidates in expensive cities dominated by old men, if the effects of climate change wreak havoc on our food supply, well, the consequences will be your problems, not theirs.
If this gives you pause, if it pushes your buttons, take equal parts solace and anger from the knowledge that our current crop of “leaders” isn’t entirely sure that you’ll leave them be. They’re at least a little wary that you’ll get angry and get involved. That’s why many of them have gone out of their way to make it harder for you to even register and vote.
But in either event, they’re pretty sure you won’t bother.
Are they right?
You’ve got the time. You’ve got every reason. Find out how to register to vote in your state and then get out there and do it.