Broken Promises: How We Betrayed the Next Generation

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By Derek Penwell

Last week, on the day of the President’s State of the Union address, Alexandria Petri wrote a piece for the Washington Post on the “State of the Millennial Union.” You know, Millennials—that age demographic that includes those born between 1980 and 2000?

Ms. Petri suggested that the state of the Millennial union is anything but strong. Twenty and Thirty-somethings are stressed, anxious. They’re unemployed at a rate of 13.1% … which fails to take into account the 1.7 million young adults from that generation that have given up looking for work.

They are, according to Ms. Petri, feeling a bit left behind by the administration whose presidential campaign relied so heavily on them to win reelection. “Yes,” they say, “we’re concerned about social issues. Yes, we tend to be more liberal than our parents on the soft stuff. But we are concerned about economics—especially the economics that have to do with our own pocketbooks … since those are remarkably empty right about now. We were there for you; we need you to be there for us.”

Why the stress? Why the lingering fear that they’ve been betrayed?

Broken promises.

If you know someone in their 20s or 30s whose been to college or (God forbid) graduate school, then you have a picture of the new face of poverty. What you may not be aware of, however, is that though this young person is educated enough to work in your company/firm/office/school, she may very well have debt that will outstrip anything you can pay her.

Somebody help me out here. How did we let this happen? We told kids that to make it in this world that we constructed that they had to get a college education. Then, we defunded their education so dramatically that to get that education they had to sign a mortgage on their future. (Actually, not really even a mortgage—because people can walk away from mortgages.) Student loan debt is harder to remove than that drunken tattoo of skeletons in top hats smoking cigarettes and playing five card draw that you got after an especially bad run-in with a bottle of $7 vodka in Daytona Beach.

This is the thing most older people don’t quite get, I think. If you have $100,000 in student loans, what happens if you can’t find a job–or the only job available to you is stocking the self-help shelves at Barnes and Noble or slinging lattes as a barista at Starbucks? The government gives you a little leeway with forebearances and so on, but in this economy the government feels like it can only forebear so much.

And when the government can’t wait any longer, it comes after you like a heat-seeking missile in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Only, in this case, the bomb doesn’t blow up once in an ugly but survivable bankruptcy, it keeps blowing up the rest of your life. You can’t walk away from your student loans–with a few rare exceptions–ever. Your credit, and therefore, your purchasing power and employability (thanks to credit checks by prospective employers) will be almost certainly perpetually devastated.

“Well, they should have thought of that before they borrowed all that money.”

I understand the “personal responsibility” argument here. I’m not saying young people don’t have some responsibility for making good decisions. But, let’s be honest, that’s way too easy.

We’ve frittered away the inheritance given to us by our parents and grandparents —fairly priced secondary education—on an outsized military and tax cuts for rich people.

Since we got snookered into believing that our highest moral duty was to protect the the tax rates for the “job creators,” we knew that there was a ready source of cash available to make up for the revenue that we would inevitably lose to tax cuts. So, the governors’ offices across the country dispatched memos to the public universities explaining that because of the vicissitudes of the economic situation and the necessities of blah, blah, blah, the universities were going to have to cut their budgets by however many percentage points. However, those same universities needed to remember how committed they were down at the capital to public secondary education, blah, blah, blah.

As a consequence, those universities had to make up the lost revenue somewhere. Tuition is a great place to do it, they figured. So, tuition at public universities continues to rise at rates that far exceed the rate of inflation.

How do these kids—who’ve been told since they were in Stride-Rites that to get anywhere in this world that they need a college education—avail themselves of access to public secondary education?

Student loans, of course—which we make enticingly available to kids who’ve got no other way to get the money they need for the education we told them they had to have.

Somebody help me out. How did we let this happen on our watch? How is it that we sold our children’s inheritance so the wealthiest among us might realize more wealth? Worse, how can we muster the galactically large stones to look 20 and 30 somethings in the eye and let them think the reason they can’t make it is because they’re lazy slackers?

I don’t get it. I thought we were better than this. It’s time we started to un-break some of those promises to the next generation.


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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity,, and blogs at his own site at

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