In the Nation's Interest

Can Millennials Help Resolve America’s Political-Identity Crisis?

by SEAN HICKS July 21, 2015

Bipartisanship, a strong social fabric, business commitment to national interests—where have these once pervasive national hallmarks gone? Corporate and political values seem to have become more shortsighted and self-interested in recent years; yet, formidable economic challenges are on the horizon—crushing student debt, burdensome healthcare costs, and increasing federal budget deficits, to name a few—that will require political and generational concessions to resolve. How do we move past ideologically-driven discord and toward practical solutions? What reforms can be enacted that address these challenges with fairness and objectivity across generations?

In part to engage Millennials on these questions, The Can Kicks Back recently launched Restoring Balance: Millennial Perspectives on America’s Spending and Investment Challenges. The report consists of six policy recommendations from Millennials on issues ranging from social impact bonds to Social Security reform and explores ways to restore the balance between short-term deficit spending and long-term investment that is necessary for sustainable economic growth.

The underlying theme of Restoring Balance is compromises needed to create sustainable fiscal policy—an issue that is not on many Millennials’ radar, but should be. While an improving economy has led to lower budget deficits in recent years, that trend will soon reverse and the deficit will return to $1 trillion annually within the next decade. The acceleration in deficit spending will be driven primarily by mandatory programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. At the same time, investment in discretionary programs, necessary for long-term growth, will be “crowded out” to cover more immediate needs.

At the heart of this reality is a generational conflict about which commitments to prioritize. Our country’s commitment to supporting those in need through programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is an important part of our collective identity—perhaps captured best by President Kennedy’s enduring quote, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” However, it should be equally as important to ensure that our social service programs are sustainable in the long run by implementing policies that foster the development and prosperity of future generations, who after all are the benefactors of these programs.

For most of the twentieth century, politics in America was driven by a unified national agenda, for the most part, and a healthy dose of bipartisanship—both of which undoubtedly help create the “American Century.” Even though this unity was brought on in part by antagonism toward foreign regimes and a more homogenous society, its economic advantages were palpable. There’s no way to know what impact a divided national identity may have had on irresponsible fiscal policy and a decline in America’s standing in many categories, such as education and manufacturing. But it’s certainly feasible to imagine how competing interests with excess amounts of individualism are able to divide a nation and its elected representatives to the point where the lawmakers no longer find it realistic to govern for the good of the whole and instead are forced into short-term, piecemeal solutions leaving the overarching problems for tomorrow.

Millennials, the most educated and diverse generation in American history, are sure to influence our national identity in due time. To make a positive impact, they should focus on fostering greater understanding between the “competing interests.” The Can Kicks Back uses the term “Generationship” to express the need for cooperation and compromise between the young and the old to revive our economy, reduce the deficit and restore generational balance to the federal budget. Millennials who have an interest in restoring bipartisanship, national identity, or generational balance to the federal budget can begin the process by having a conversation with folks outside of their generation about Generationship and the tradeoffs each of us need to make to ensure opportunity for all generations. Together, through a renewed sense of national identity, we can help restore the spirit of the American Dream for future generations.

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