THE BLOG
11/14/2013 11:46 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

JFK and the Millennial Generation

We've already begun hearing about the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death this month but there is one perspective that consistently goes unaddressed: Why JFK should matter to the Millennial Generation, and what young people today can learn from his legacy. This is perhaps the most important emerging perspective in terms of how we look at Kennedy and the long-term allure of his presidency.

The "staying power" of Camelot will be determined not by those who lived through it, but by those who didn't, and for JFK to remain relevant in the decades to come, Millennials need to embrace his legacy, with its core message: service and citizenship.

This poses a challenge. To Millennials, the JFK story is "history" and not "experience," meaning that we (I'm 30) view the early 1960s differently than our parents and grandparents do. We don't remember where we were when he died. We didn't vote for him or Richard Nixon. We didn't experience the excitement and promise of that era first-hand.

In fact, if you ask young people today about JFK, their knowledge is limited. They may be familiar with the Peace Corps or the missile crisis or his famed inaugural address -- historical nuggets from high school classes. Maybe they know some of the gossip. But naturally they don't have the emotional attachment that older generations share.

In consequence, the 50th anniversary commemoration -- so far -- misses the mark. Instead of debating who fired gunshots, or merely looking back at history, we ought to be looking forward and using this history to connect the ideals Kennedy emphasized with a new generation.

I believe there is ample reason to do so. Kennedy advanced a unique and enduring model for how we can be good citizens that is as relevant now as it was half a century ago. Millennials need to hear this message -- especially given our current political climate of cynicism and division, in which the spirit of "ask not what your country can do for you" is less visible than it should be -- and especially, too, because no one is asking this generation to embrace the pioneer spirit in ways Kennedy did. We as a nation seem to have forgotten that we're all on the same team.

In his inaugural address, Kennedy famously declared that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans. In order for the torch to be passed once again, a new generation must heed Camelot's timeless call to service. To do this, we must first learn it.

A fresh look at Kennedy's lessons is therefore particularly timely, and chief among them is the way he focused on the theme of citizenship -- the idea that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, and that with our rights come certain responsibilities.

Though his goals were typically big, what he sought from individuals was often rather small. Not everyone was expected to join the Peace Corps or become an astronaut or participate in the Freedom Rides. But citizens were asked to do their part -- to think about how they could improve their community or make another person's life easier -- to look past their differences and focus on our common humanity. We badly need this message again. I believe it is one that resonates very deeply with young Americans who are yearning for a time when we can search for new frontiers and once again be part of the same team.

There is much to commemorate 50 years after JFK's death. I hope part of our discourse in the coming weeks will assess why JFK matters to a new generation.

Scott D. Reich is an attorney and the author of "The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation."