NPR logo Social Security: Involve Young People

Social Security: Involve Young People

I am a young American. I do not own a home, I have no savings, and I have no retirement plan.

This makes me like a whole lot of my peers, with two major exceptions. I received a college scholarship that enabled me to graduate debt-free; the average college student today graduates with $19,000 of debt. Secondly, and much to their relief, I don't live with my parents, unlike almost 6-in-10 recent college graduates who plan to move home because they can't afford to strike out on their own.

Andrea Batista Schlesinger is the executive director of the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. She previously directed the Social Security Challenge, which hosted policy discussions on 120 college campuses.

But the most important thing we share is this: Neither political party cares much what we think, even about the issues that will determine the quality of our adult lives. This is nowhere more evident than in the debate over the future of Social Security.

It is a cruel irony that the one thing that both Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on is that young people aren't real players in this debate. Let's be clear: no generation has more at stake in whatever policy remedies are adopted than those under 30. It is our benefits that may or may not be cut, our taxes that may or may not be increased, our lives unto which risk may or may not be shifted.

Instead of engaging us, Republicans have interpreted polling data showing that young people want to be able to invest some of their earnings as a sign of blanket support for privatization. And the Democrats are ignoring this population and their opinions altogether, opting to fight the deliberating misleading notion that Social Security is in crisis.

In the late 1990's, I ran a campaign to engage college students in a conversation about the future of Social Security funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. We went to campuses all across the country, from Hawaii to Florida to Appalachia to the Bronx, and talked with thousands of students and found a population that knew very little about Social Security but was hungry to know more. Apathy is the excuse often given for not engaging young people, but how can they say we don't care if they haven't asked?

To simply poll young Americans who do not understand the larger debate about Social Security is meaningless. It tells us only what they value. Yes, we want to take ownership over our economic futures. Yes, we want to feel that we have control over our destinies.

But young people cannot talk about Social Security privatization in a vacuum. We must discuss it as part of a larger conversation about the reality of young people's lives and the ways in which the "market" has failed us. We must talk about how the skyrocketing cost of college tuition — up for public universities 14 percent on average across the country last year alone — is making it harder for us to gain the education necessary to qualify for the jobs that will enable us to save. We must talk about how the enormous burden of personal debt is preventing us from accessing the American Dream. We must talk about the lack of affordable housing, as rents outpace the growth of wages. We must talk about the disproportionately high number of young Americans who are underemployed or unemployed. All of these things — despite our best efforts — impact our ability to access the ownership society.

Even as we face a rockier start to our working lives than our parents faced, we're told we must be responsible for an increased portion of our own retirement savings. What's more, we're advised to trust the same market mechanisms that have left so many of us jobless, uninsured, indebted and unable to afford our own homes to insure us a secure retirement. Is it any wonder most of us would prefer to avoid thinking about how we'll afford to retire?

But we can't avoid thinking about it, and if Democrats were smarter, they wouldn't be avoiding it either. They would be thinking about how to make their case to young people about Social Security by offering a vision for an economic future for this country in which we have an opportunity to achieve the American Dream. But instead, they are content to play defense on the president's privatization proposals, wasting their opportunity to become the candidate of choice for my generation.

Young people voted in historic numbers in November's presidential election. The conversation about the future of Social Security presents an opportunity to capitalize on that civic momentum, and also signals a message to Republicans and Democrats that they would be remiss to neglect young people in a conversation as important as this one — and that, come Election Day, we'll remind them.