Explanation for Youth's Unshakable Optimism Lies in Self-Confidence, Not Washington

With yet another successful CPAC in the rearview mirror, I’m reminded of one of the best speeches I ever heard. It was Indiana governor Mitch Daniels speaking at last year’s CPAC about the enormous problems facing this nation, but moreso a rallying cry for young adults to grab the reins.

He called it a “generational assignment” or, if you’re into puns our “raison d’ebt.” It was an encouragement to not accept the government we had been given, complete with its unsustainable spending habits, but instead to create a lean and dynamic system capable of fostering a new, private sector-based prosperity.

“The failure of national economic policy is costing us more than jobs,” Daniels said. “It has begun to weaken that uniquely American spirit of risk-taking, large ambition, and optimism about the future. We must rally them now to bold departures that rebuild our national morale as well as our material prosperity.”

Optimism. It is one of the defining traits of our generation.

Throughout a recession that has seen young adults beaten and battered worse than any generation, we have managed to keep our chins up and our heads held high.

In fact, a new poll by the Pew Research Center finds that young adults have been hit hard by the recession. Currently, only 54 percent of 18-to-24 year olds are employed – the lowest percentage since the government began tracking the data. Even those who are lucky enough to have found work have experienced a 6 percent drop in earnings – larger than any other age group.

The sad state of youth unemployment is having a domino effect on numerous life decisions. Pew finds that 49 percent have taken a job just to pay the bills. 31 percent have postponed either getting married or having a baby, and 24 percent have moved back in with their parents to save money.

Nevertheless, young adults have remained steadfastly optimistic about their situation. According to Pew’s analysis:

“Among those ages 18 to 34, nearly nine-in-ten (88%) say they either have or earn enough money now or expect they will in the future. Only 9% say they don’t think they will ever have enough to live the life they want. . . While young people are less likely now than they were before the recession to say they currently have enough income, their level of optimism is undiminished from where it was in 2004.”

Now, some like Voltaire would merely say that such optimism “is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.” Or others like political scientist Raymond Aron would quip that “what passes for optimism is most often the effect of intellectual error.”

And all of that may be true. We may simply be covering our eyes and ears to the tough times around us. What’s more, we may be imagining a better future than really exists for us. Nevertheless, we must harness that optimism, that risk-taking spirit that succeeds with nothing but the brute force of our ambition, to ensure the America we inherit is the America we want.

That requires fulfilling our generational assignment. “They will attack our program as the way of despair,” Daniels concluded, “but we will say no, America’s way forward is brilliant with hope, as soon as we have dealt decisively with the manageable problems before us.”

Those problems include remaking a tattered safety net with rope that will not fray for future generations. It will require paring away government red tape that ties the hands of many entrepreneurs and small businesses. It demands that we squeeze every last drop of savings from our federal government so that we may divert a flow of dollars towards the pursuits that give us optimism about our future – education, infrastructure, and research. Finally, we must fashion a tax system that as former Treasury secretary William Simon says, “looks like someone designed it on purpose,” meaning fewer loopholes and lower rates.

Young adults have reason to be optimistic. But that optimism lies in the knowledge that our generation has what it takes to make things better, not in the current federal government that is doing everything it can to set obstacles in our path. We can succeed, but Obama has proved that we cannot count on Washington to do it for us.