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Hilary A. Doe Headshot

On Social Security's 75th Anniversary, Millennials Think 2040 for 75 More

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Millennials have the potential to dramatically reframe the Social Security conversation. There is a misconception that this largest-ever generation of Americans does not care about Social Security and the outcome of potential reforms. Despite the fact that the Social Security debate revolves around the alleged burden that the national debt places on "the next generation," young people are rarely asked to contribute to these conversations.

Millennials are targeted by well-financed groups who seek to narrowly frame American's challenges around fiscal responsibility. However, those outreach efforts often take the form of dis-empowering and fear-provoking lectures likening the deficit to student loan debt and Social Security funding to a missing slice of the group's pizza dinner. It won't be there for them anyway -- so why keep paying into it? This model essentially silences the Millennial voice and prevents young people from weighing in.

To combat these arguments and really engage young people in strengthening Social Security, we must engage them in a way that is unique to the characteristics of our generation. Millennials are innovative, entrepreneurial, hyper-informed and extremely engaged. Millennials don't want to pick from two predetermined choices -- they want to contribute their ideas and engage substantively with issues. We have grown up expressing ourselves through technology and commenting on each other's ideas, not looking at static pages. Therefore, when Roosevelt Campus Network members demanded that we provide them with an opportunity to make their voices heard on these issues, we created a forum for them to design, articulate, and begin to realize their vision for the future. We're calling the program Think 2040. Think 2040 allows Millennials to do what they do best: be innovative and creative to re-imagine America.

Over the course of 2010, Think 2040 will challenge young people to design the America that they would like to inherit through a series of in-person and online conversations. Participants from across the country will delineate the values that they want American policy to reflect, identify the most crucial outcomes and policy priorities, and, as the year progresses, offer recommendations for policy steps we must take in order to realize the shared vision for the future that we, as Millennials, have designed together.

During the first set of Think 2040 conversations, I learned a lot about my generation and specifically how young people feel about Social Security. It quickly became clear that young people think of Social Security as an essential part of the fabric of American society -- woven into our culture and inextricably linked to other policy outcomes that young people desire. Social Security isn't necessarily on every Millennial's mind, but when discussing America's future, Social Security and a strengthened social safety net play an important role.

Specifically, in the Think 2040 conversations that we've had so far, young people consistently address two major themes that underscore the importance of social security to them:

The first is community empowerment and a sense of community responsibility. These were the top values cited by a large percentage of the groups that we've engaged thus far. Social Security and other major programs are considered by community-oriented Millennials to be a form of community expression -- a shared initiative that we've taken on together to raise up those with the greatest need and keep the community as a whole at its strongest. We are socially empathetic, and this value expresses that sentiment. Millennials have had shared experiences that underscore the importance of supporting one another in order to prosper as a whole. We've lived through two recessions, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and we're all conscious of the fact that we're vulnerable. Our 8,000 active members across the country are acutely aware that the recent recession has hurt them deeply, personally, and with more sweeping long-term implications than it has affected almost any other demographic. Our generation lacks healthcare coverage, consistently ranks amongst the hardest hit by unemployment, and carries huge debt, with 20% of us owing more than ten thousand dollars. Millennials are conscious of the economic situation that they're walking into. They can feel it. It hurts. Community empowerment and responsibility are values unique to the generation that have grown out of this experience.

The second theme is a shared spirit of entrepreneurialism and a desire to innovate. As more and more young people agree that they'd like to work for themselves, take advantage of a mobile work life, engage in business through an online community, become social entrepreneurs, grow a community-focused business, or advance their field through a job in the knowledge-based or green economy, Think 2040 participants noted the importance of feeling free to pursue their innovative ideas. Social Security provides the safety net necessary for young people across the country to take these risks and follow their dreams.

In the current economic climate, these entrepreneurial risks -- however valuable to society and important to our recovery -- are harder to take. Parents must work one, two, or three jobs to support their children. When they retire, they're faced with the reality of paying for a life they can no longer afford while their children are unable to help them. While worker productivity goes up, and corporate profits skyrocket, real wages have stayed the same or even declined. And, most immediately pressing to Millennials, every recent college graduate is painfully aware that that they will graduate with loans, debt, and a potentially long bout of unemployment. College tuition has continued to rise, and students are shouldered with heavy debt before they even get their first job -- if they can find one. Young people deserve the right to pursue their American Dream. But they need the promise of security to do it. Social Security provides that freedom.

In the words of one Roosevelt member from American University, instead of a safety net, we need a social trampoline -- a trampoline that doesn't just catch people near the ground, but bounces them back into the high-functioning roles where they're capable of succeeding with the quality of life that they deserve.

A trampoline that allows them to take risks, to pursue their entrepreneurial, innovative ideas and take chances -- the foundations of the American Dream.

A trampoline that ensures that not just the fortunate do well, but that our community remains strong. One that assures Social Security is there to support all of us in our time of need, and launch any of us that need it back into the action, growing and succeeding along with the rest of our community.

Cross-posted from "New Deal 2.0"

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