Don’t Forget About Us!

Young people in the Social Security fight.

By Andrea Batista Schlesinger Sep 21, 2005

Young People in the Social Security Fight.

The push to privatize Social Security is the right wing’s single most important gift to the future of progressive politics. But our so-called representatives in the halls of power are throwing this gift away. They are so busy playing defense and talking to themselves that they’re missing a critical opportunity to organize the constituency with the most potential to save this country: young people.

People under 30, who technically have the most at stake in this debate, have been conspicuously absent from the discourse emanating from the Democratic leadership and the activist groups that have sprung up to fight privatization. Instead, the Democrats have focused on the AARP, soccer moms, opinion polls, districts with vulnerable Republicans and whether or not Harry Reid can hold on to the coalition.  

These short-sighted tactics come at a moment when reaching young people on Social Security is critical to our own long-term objectives. No generation has more invested in the future of Social Security. No generation better understands the impossibility of relying on the market to fund the American Dream. No generation is more important to engage in the debate about the role of the government in our lives.  

Some think that we’re unlikely to mobilize significant numbers of young people around Social Security. They say that the issue is a non-starter for those who think of retirement as an abstraction. I learned how faulty this assumption was in the late 1990s, when I ran a campaign to engage college students in a conversation about the program’s future. We visited campuses all across the country, including Hawaii, Florida, Appalachia and the Bronx, speaking with thousands of students. We found a population that knew dangerously little about Social Security but that was hungry to know more. Their own apathy is not the reason for excluding young people from this conversation. How can anyone know if young people care about Social Security if no one has bothered to ask?

I learned by talking to those college students that we won’t move anybody but the usual suspects if we talk about Social Security in a vacuum, asking for a yay or nay vote, or attendance at a rally, or the placement of a bumper sticker on a fender. We need to tap into the hopes of young Americans and not just their fears. We need to put this conversation in context. And the context is the reality of their lives.

We need to be asking young people, what has the market done for you lately?

People are entering adulthood burdened with enormous debt. For the nearly two-thirds of college students with student loans, they owe $19,000 on average. Plus, the typical college student leaves school with another $3,000 on the cards, with interest rates climbing as fast as they can. And that’s if we can afford college, an increasingly unlikely proposition as tuition skyrockets—up 14 percent for public college tuition in 2003 alone. Despite our best efforts, this is our economic reality and our economic future, and it’s not going to change until we start talking about it.

Reid and the AARP should be spending as much airtime on the disproportionately high number of young Americans who are under-employed or unemployed and who have still not recovered from the last recession as they do on the dangers of Social Security privatization. They should be tackling head-on the impact of the lack of affordable housing, as rents outpace the growth of wages, and six in ten recent college graduates consider moving back in with their parents.

And don’t talk to me about public opinion polls, which seem to be driving the Social Security strategy. Polls take temperatures. Did last year’s poll showing that young people support privatization mean that young people wanted to do away with Social Security? No. Those polls showed only what young people value, that we want to take ownership over our own economic futures. We want to feel that we have control over our own destinies. There is nothing inherently Republican about this notion. I’m a progressive, and I’d like to know when I’m ever going to own a house and how I will retire after a career in the nonprofit sector.

Rather than relying on thermometer readings of America’s youth, we can engage young people in a real conversation. That conversation is about more than the privatization of Social Security. It’s about more than even the future of Social Security itself. It’s about how the American Dream is increasingly out of the grasp of young Americans and about the role we expect government to play in reversing that trend.

The young people of this country haven’t experienced a moment in which our government has made a concerted effort to do anything but wage war. We don’t know what it meant for the government to decide that our elders wouldn’t grow old in poverty. We don’t know what it meant to decide that everyone serving in the military abroad could get an education when they got home. We have a different relationship to government than did our parents and grandparents. They envisioned government as a vehicle for protecting their values. Today, America’s youth—at best—are agnostic towards even that possibility.

My generation doesn’t understand the nature of the commitment that Social Security represents, which was a pact between people and their government to run a nation guided by our shared values. We must reclaim the belief that the government’s purpose is to play a positive role in our lives if young people are to be mobilized to stop the gutting of government programs like Social Security. And then we must harness that belief as a starting point for conversations about what needs to happen to democratize the American Dream.

We are a potent political force, as the last election indicated, but we are directionless. We are fighting small battles, lacking context for the larger ones. The Social Security debate provides an opportunity to do more than stave off privatization, to advance our vision of an American dream, one in which government can play a positive role in the lives of its residents. One in which young people can expect a fundamental commitment to the creation of jobs that will allow us to support families. One in which credit card companies don’t prowl around our campuses, ready to pounce. One in which our parents aren’t forced to choose between saving for our education and saving for their retirement.

The gift certificate the Republicans have handed us is expiring. And along with it, a chance to lay the groundwork for a new generation of progressive activism.