08/06/2012 04:51 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2012

What Our Kids Can Teach Us

A good friend of mine who is also a fellow parent posed this question the other day to her Facebook friends: How would they recommend handling a mother-daughter talk on what it means to be an adult and assume the responsibilities and posture of an adult? Now ordinarily I do not ensnare myself in deep reflections shared with the Facebook universe on what are ostensibly very personal and important conversations, but on this one I simply could not resist.

What I found so intriguing was the premise that being an adult, assuming the responsibilities and posture of an adult, implies that those things automatically carry a degree of gravitas that elevates the adult to a position of superiority, at least intellectually, to that of the child, who in this case is college age. The self-congratulatory smugness that accompanies such an assumption is probably every bit as damaging as any potential advice that could be dispensed by the parent, who of course is the adult.

Therefore, I reject the premise. And I am reminded of Oscar Wilde's suggestion that "I am not young enough to know everything," so I would reject a premise predicated on the notion that either the child or the adult is in a better position to prescribe the appropriate roles and responsibilities of being an adult. As a father of two college-age sons, let me offer the following: Our kids have very good reasons for rejecting our advice and wisdom without serious caveats, the most important being that while we experientially have many things to offer them, they also have much they can offer us.

I am constantly amazed at the things I learn every day from my kids, but many times the things I learn are also cause for great concern. I have spent my entire professional career of over three and a half decades dedicated to the pursuit of public policies that will benefit the greatest number of citizens, but particularly geared to help those who can least help themselves. So yes, I am the quintessential bleeding heart liberal. Yet I am also part of a generation of baby boomers who have royally screwed up and are in the process of turning over a world that is far less appealing than the one we inherited.

On many occasions I have lamented in public speeches that I cannot pinpoint when the "we" generation turned into the "me" generation, but collectively my generation, proud to have been spawned by the "Greatest Generation," has turned out to be the "Greediest Generation." Nowhere is this more apparent than in the environmental degradation we have engaged in, encouraged, and course bequeathed to future generations. We have failed every metric of sustainability; we are on a climactic collision course that will have dramatic consequences for the air we breathe, the water we drink and countless species that will simply disappear from the planet -- and there are serious concerns over whether the planet will survive.

We are dangerously close to reaching a tipping point which, once crossed, will place us at the mercy of our ability to adapt and remove our ability to mitigate dangerously adverse trends. We are in the throes of a global financial recalibration and have come face to face with a level of economic inequality never before experienced by mankind. Financial success has always been guaranteed to only those few lucky enough to have been born into the right families, but opportunity for success has been the hallmark of an American society dedicated to the prospect that with hard work and a little luck you too could "make it." For my generation, a college education was a fairly reliable barometer that one could achieve a level of material comfort and contentment. Today our kids are losing faith in the value of a college education under the weight of staggering financial aid responsibilities and a lack of employment opportunities at the other end. It is now estimated by some that upwards of 85 percent of college graduates are forced to live with their parents upon graduation.

Today's generation is well aware of the fact that our government and its institutions cannot be trusted to be responsive to their needs, is out of touch, dishonest, corrupt and does not level with them, whether it is the war on drugs or the seemingly interminable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those same political institutions are dysfunctional when it comes to handling just about any issue of substance, suffocating from a political polarization that renders them impotent with respect to the ability to reach compromise.

In my day we once did not trust anyone over 30; today's generation has a hard time trusting anyone, least of all those so-called responsible adults who they see running the show. There is a palpable air of distrust, cynicism, anger and despair that has permeated the world that our kids have inherited and they have every right to be wary of adults. For it seems that to be an adult, to be responsible, to be in charge as it were, you need to forfeit your ability to be creative, compassionate and caring, and there is a widespread rejection of the legitimacy of those in power.

What I find most dispiriting is that the reaction from a large contingent of today's generation is to withdraw from rather than engage these inequities and inequalities. To many of today's youth, the fight for right is a fool's errand and not worth the cost. It is critical that we reverse this attitude, otherwise the downward spiral will continue unabated.

There are many things we can learn from our kids, who by virtue of the information revolution that has accompanied their development are far more aware of many things that we adults either have forgotten or ignore. The more appropriate question is what our kids can teach us about the roles and responsibilities of being an adult, because collectively I do not believe we are sufficiently qualified to dispense advice given the track record we have amassed.

Information is indeed power, and the power of the information readily available at the click of a mouse has rendered today's youth far wiser than their years. This does not mean that we adults do not have much to offer by way of accumulated experience and wisdom, but it must be tempered by the sobering reality of today's world. And that is what our kids know well.