Commentary

You Currently Owe $750,000

Are American high school students the victims of an enormous generational theft and the inheritors of an economically uncertain future?

Victor Davis Hanson, a historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, raises these provocative questions in an op-ed aptly titled “The War against the Young” that appeared in the April 9, 2013 online edition of the “National Review.”

Hanson understands that some American teenagers think they are riding the crest of a progressive historical wave that will bring greater equality and fairer income distribution to America. He argues, however, that the truth is far more inconvenient than we may suspect.

Our generation will bear the brunt of paying almost 17 trillion in national debt that grew by about $250,000 dollars in the short time it took you to read this sentence, according to an article on DefeatTheDebt.com titled “How Much Do We Owe?”

Our parents and grandparents incurred this debt and enjoyed the benefits it bestowed, but we’re each going to get stuck with the bill. In fact, “today’s teenagers are starting out each owing a lifetime share of the national debt amounting to more than three-quarters of a million dollars,” according to Hanson.

Some economists argue that this debt is inconsequential. But Steven Rattner, a former economic advisor to President Obama, rebuts this “irresponsible fiscal” idea in an op-ed entitled “The Dangerous Notion that Debt Doesn’t Matter,” which appeared in the New York Times on January 20, 2012.

Governmental debt matters to Rattner because it must be repaid. As a result, we are the heirs of an America caught between the rock of defaulting on that debt and the hard place of servicing it through “either higher taxes or sharp cutbacks in government programs, or both,” according to Rattner.

It would be one thing if we were inheriting a prosperous America. But the days when each new generation in America could reasonably expect to live a better life than their parents may have reached a dead end of diminished opportunity.

We have always been told that if we work hard and get into a good college, we will secure a bright future. Indeed, this “quid quo pro” has become a kind of social contract that helps govern our lives. It has motivated us to achieve. It has spurred us to study hard. It has filled us with hope.

But are the terms of this social contract still valid?

Some colleges would like us to think so. They address our aspirations for a good life by marketing and selling the dream of attending college in glossy brochures and incessant e-mails. We buy this dream because we live in an America where almost everything eventually becomes a commodity—even our future.

We apply in record numbers to colleges that often reject 90 percent or more of their applicants, and we do so because we want to grab our fair share of a fading American dream, even if it means incurring student loan debt that will cripple our finances after we graduate.

Many believe that attending the right college will provide them with keys to the kingdom of success. But when we enter college, we will likely compete for unpaid internships that may not even result in a paying job after graduation. In the process, we will, as Hanson observes, turn ourselves into “indentured serfs” working for employers who are “virtual feudal lords.”

And if the economy does not improve, we may face a bleak future after we graduate from college. According to a January 2013 report from The Center for College Affordability, “a not inconsequential number of Americans who obtain higher education do not achieve the economic gains traditionally accompanying the acquisition of college-level credentials.”

In fact, this report finds that, “About 48 percent of employed U.S. College graduates are in jobs that…require less than a four-year college education. Eleven percent of employed college graduates are in occupations requiring more than a high-school diploma but less than a bachelor’s, and 37 percent are in occupations requiring no more than a high-school diploma.”

More than 40 years ago the words, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” were a rallying cry for American high school students unsatisfied with the status quo. I don’t suggest that we return to that divisive standard, but we can no longer afford to blindly trust our elders as they market an increasingly moribund American Dream and threaten our future with crushing debt and dispiriting underemployment.

Eric Meyers is a two-year Senior from Miami, FL.