Kicking the can down the road — we do it rather well in this country. Whether it is reforming the funding formulas for Social Security and Medicare, or addressing our nation’s crippling debt and deficit, or rising college costs, or wage stagnation, we seem to put off solving problems today that we can solve tomorrow.
According to the Social Security Administration, Social Security is likely to become insolvent in the early 2030s. According to Medicare’s trustees, it will become insolvent even sooner, in the late-2020s. That might seem far off, but it isn’t. The federal Highway Trust Fund, which funds upgrades in transportation, is set to expire Oct. 29. These impending calamities have not come from thin air, though. Congress has known for some time action is needed, upwards of the last decade and more. But has Congress acted in a serious and meaningful way? No.
These issues are difficult to solve, to say the least. After all, if these problems were so easy to solve, they would already be solved. Our members of Congress are human, like us. Perhaps they do not have answers to all these problems. But there is more to it than that.
For many elected officials, these issues are not priorities. The average age of a member of Congress is 57 years old — 61 years old for the average senator. Why should someone around that age be expected to prioritize stemming rising college costs, wage stagnation or the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare? When these programs go belly up, most of these people — with all due respect — will either be in nursing homes, six feet under or golfing in South Florida. Kicking the can down the road is easy for them because they will not have to live with the ramifications of inaction. The status quo bodes well for them — but not for their grandchildren.
Our generation’s engagement in these issues can command the attention of elected officials. If youth engagement as a percentage can rival that of our parents and grandparents, elected officials would be wise to heed our wants and needs more than they currently do — it would be shrewd electoral politics to do so. Research shows those who participate in government and politics receive more attention than those who do not. Thinking realistically, why should an elected official be responsive to a generation that does not engage or vote in large numbers, who therefore pose little threat to the official’s re-election when he or she is not responsive? If elected officials consciously ignore issues important to our generation, there is little threat of reprisal. Martin Wattenberg humorizes that “politicians are not fools; they know who their customers are. Why should they worry about young nonvoters any more than the makers of denture cream worry about people with healthy teeth?” Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, in his 2016 presidential campaign, has reached out to youths, as he believes many align with his more libertarian values, but youths do not engage or vote in large enough numbers to sway the election.
Ironically, there is a cyclical nature to the process of impassiveness between young people and elected officials: A lack of our generation’s engagement in the electoral process necessitates a lack of attention paid to youth issues by elected officials; a lack of attention paid to youth issues by elected officials necessitates a lack of our generation’s engagement in government and politics. Which caused which in the first place is a chicken-or-the-egg type of question, but it shows how each side’s apathy indirectly reinforces its own indifference.
This is a call to action. Our generation, those in their teens and twenties, has to get engaged — our fiscal future depends on it. It is not my intention to scare or guilt people into action, as that might sound very doom-and-gloom, but we must awaken our generation out of indifference and apathy. I recognize every 18-to-29 year old will not engage, but more should. What is realistic is for each of us to find an issue we are especially passionate about, and focus on tackling that issue. For some it might be rising college costs — great. For others it might be addressing deteriorating entitlement programs — great. For the remainder it might be the dissatisfaction with partisan vitriol between Democrats and Republicans — great. Pick an issue and contact your elected officials about it. Send them an email or call their offices. Even easier, talk to your friends and neighbors about it. Encourage them to become more engaged.
If we ignore these issues, they will not solve themselves. If we ignore these issues, we become complicit in our own fate, intentional or not. Our elected officials will continue to eschew acting soon if we remain unengaged and unconcerned. The positive news — and there is some — is that we have an opportunity to act, but we must do so quickly. We are the masters of our own fate. That is both gift and curse. The curse lies in that the window to act is closing, whether we act or not. Inertia allows the can to continue being kicked down the road, but our mobilization can stop it. Enough is enough; let’s stop kicking the can down the road.
First-year Ph.D. student studying American politics