Oscar-winning actor Robert De Niro made headlines last week for a line he delivered during his commencement address to the Brown University Class of 2017. Recapping the past four years, he quipped that “when you started school, the country was an inspiring, uplifting drama…You are graduating into a tragic, dumbass comedy.” The line was delivered with a smirk, but there was sincerity in his sentiment, implying that America has dramatically changed for the worse for the young adults in the audience. To him, the definition of America has fallen from the quality of Raging Bull to Meet the Fockers.
Contrary to his analogy of dramatic American decline, the United States remains the land of freedom and opportunity, though one with tremendous hurdles for recent graduates. Transformative technologies and companies such as Apple, Google, Uber and Amazon has provided us with more access to knowledge and connectivity than ever before. Yet, even with this blinding pace of technological progress, the United States presents massive, systemic challenges for younger generations that must be understood, analyzed, and addressed to preserve this grand experiment.
For the first time, young adults today are making $2000 less on average than their parents did when they were the same age. Currently, there is a larger percentage of 18 to 34-year old’s living at home with their parents than at any point since 1900 – with the exception of the housing shortage during WWII. Student debt is at an all-time high $1.4 trillion – more than doubled over the last decade – and threatens to delay major life decisions for millennials, such as getting married or buying a home. To cap it all off, our national debt is at a record high $20 trillion and we have barely begun to hit the $100+ trillion unpaid for liabilities that are associated with the baby boomer retirement wave. All of the federal policy problems do not even touch upon the challenges that recent graduates will face with a constantly shifting jobs landscape in the era of mass automation.
None of these stark realities that face the graduates of Brown and the millions of others that graduated this summer were created in the ballot box in November. Yet, the idea that the American experience – its core creeds of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – can shift so dramatically in so little time based on who sits in the Oval Office is one that is held by many. This extreme polarization simultaneously turns so many away from the political process. The disengagement effect on recent graduates is one that should be of the gravest concern.
The most tragic part about De Niro’s analogy is that it perpetuates the idea that the only thing that matters is the fever-pitched politics surrounding the occupant of a single office that is voted on once every four years. Everyone, but especially recent graduates, must be aware and participate in the policy problems and solutions that confront our generation’s livelihoods. Disengagement cedes the issues to politicians in Washington, which always puts their own reelections – and thus frequent voting seniors’ interests – above all else.
Hopefully, the Ivy League educated audience knows better than to take life-lessons from a Hollywood actor. But if they do, it should be when De Niro implores the graduates to “work for the change” so that the “Class of 2018 will graduate into a better world.” Regardless of one’s feelings about President Trump or President Obama, the United States of America is so much more than the person that occupies the White House at a given time. It is a shared project – one that will require civic education and engagement from recent graduates – to protect, preserve, and prosper. Disengagement from recent graduates will solidify the United States’ plot path as a slow-developing horror film.