It is America's teens. With each passing minute, their future is being foreclosed upon thanks to the unfathomable debt being dumped on them by the sorry adults governing the country these last 40 years.
How are teens responding? They're not. Seems they're not aware of their existential fight. I should know. I teach 100 of them each year about investing and finance at a leading public high school on New York's Long Island. Their mindset upon entering class that first day is one of blissful ignorance.
Won't the renewed interest in financial literacy education in the aftermath of the economic crisis clue-in the teen masses? According the Jump$tart Coalition, only four states have made a dedicated financial literacy course a high school graduation requirement. And the headwinds against further progress are strengthening. As we fall in OECD's country education ranking, the chorus grows for more focus on core skills. After all, it is more important that Johnny be able to read than appreciate the power of compound interest. Add on the budget woes being felt at all levels of government and it's easy to see how even well-meaning schools may view a state financial literacy requirement as just another unfunded mandate.
While Utah, Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia should stand up and take a bow, if we look closer at what constitutes financial literacy education, we see a whole other problem. We're not leveling with our teens. To be sure, Virginia's learning standards address earning, spending, saving, and investing. They explore banking, credit, and insurance. Yet, no matter how hard I searched, I couldn't find this standard:
Students will be able to understand that the national debt and deficits are the prior generations' way of passing down the cost of the benefits they've received.
I couldn't find this one, either:
Students will be able to use sound budgeting techniques to assess the likelihood that the average American household can save enough money to pay its share of the annual deficit and interest on the national debt.
Or this one:
Students will understand the impact of low growth and high unemployment on their career prospects and future living standards.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that I couldn't locate:
Students will assess how the savings and retirement goals of Americans are impacted by the Federal Reserve's prolonged zero-interest rate environment.
I decided a long time ago to tell my students the unvarnished truth. They're owed nothing less. During our unit on bonds, I begin the most memorable lesson of the year by displaying the U.S. debt clock on the big screen. An A+ is offered to any student who can simply write down the amount of debt. Students quickly realize that the challenge can't be met as the clock spins frenetically.
We write down our best estimate for the debt and then do a little research to learn about the components of the federal budget. We return to the debt clock toward the end of the class, perhaps a half hour later. Even today where big numbers are regularly bandied about, it's humbling to learn that at an increase of $2.5 million per minute, the debt has increased $75 million in just 30 minutes!
I conclude with a sincere apology on behalf of the adults who've put the nation's future in jeopardy and dimmed the light of their futures. Impotent as my apology may be, it nonetheless shows that at least some adults are remorseful. At 14 and 15 years of age, the students understand. And with knowledge comes power. Except in this case, there's a final insult. At their tender ages, they are years away from even being able to cast a vote for reform. In the mean-time, we'll give 'em an extra few thousand of debt each year for good measure.
The most disenfranchised group in America? That would be today's teens.