As we face this new era, the world is in danger of losing an entire generation to the power of a contagious cynicism which plagues progress. The causes are everywhere and the risk factors are multiplying but, fortunately, so are the remedies.
Though the political sphere can be a force for positive change, today it seems to be breeding more cynics than actually addressing the challenges facing our future. Throughout our history, sensible and incremental progress has been reflected through our laws, and many of these steps came from citizens and lawmakers coming together to move an important issue forward. Now, the power of legislation to serve the common good has been eroded by the products of self-interest: record amounts of money in the system and a lack of long-term vision in our politics.
It’s hard not to lose hope when political strength is simply sold to the highest bidder. The more that “dark money” interest groups have the power to grow and influence lawmakers with secret and unlimited campaign funds, the less it feels like our voices actually matter. Rather than search for lasting, sustainable solutions, it’s more effective to jump in the direction of a short-term, lucrative fix that serves only a small segment of monied elites.
The up-and-coming generation has watched as our governments expand benefits for the people who have already made it, by providing tax cuts and leaving loopholes, instead of investing those dollars in future generations or extending a hand to those who are struggling. While our roads and bridges across the country crumble, corporate jets get more tax relief than working families. A good school may be the only route out of poverty for a disadvantaged youth, but let’s trade their potential to make sure the world’s Warren Buffets pay less of their income to taxes than their secretaries. And, though more and more of today’s jobs require higher education, we insist on shackling graduates with debt or pricing the dream out of reach entirely for countless Americans.
The communicative reach of this generation is greater than any yet. Each of us today holds a microphone with the potential to be heard across the globe, and how we use it will be the ultimate test of our times. Facing so much adversity, we often look to humor and enjoyment for release—a practice that is both therapeutic and necessary. However, while entertainment is powerful and impactful, it can also be the simple place to stop while in search of “what’s going on in the world.”
Many of us, myself included, use our digital megaphone to provide commentary on the latest happenings of the day. In the process of our observations, we often remove ourselves from the subject matter at hand and separate from the outcome. This makes us susceptible to either ending the conversation there, rather than being motivated to seek redress and change, or sharing only things that entertain and advance us personally without considering the impact (negative or positive) that we can have. The result is a flood of cynical, pessimistic messages to a society that is already struggling to overcome deep self-interest and enormous challenges.
So, how can we foster hope in a time when it's so easy to sit on the sidelines and watch the world rip itself apart?
First, it’s time for a new generation to realize its potential. Whether we choose to be or not, we are all part of the system. Through our action or inaction, we are participants. This means that, despite being dealt a bad hand, we have the capacity to alter our circumstances.
While it’s easy to joke about things like political dysfunction or take a “not my problem” attitude, in reality, it is your problem—and everyone’s. If we sit idly by while the future is being traded away, we’ll inherit an even more damaged world than the one we have today.
With technology, it’s never been easier to be a socially conscious and informed citizen. In addition to our ordinary online consumption, let’s set aside time to advance our knowledge, increase awareness, and impact others for the better. Commentary is good, activism is better.
In many ways, this generation is the smartest, most tolerant in history. And, fortunately, cynicism can be combated by just a small dose of understanding and empathy. It’s time to recognize that we can be the ones to change the world, but we’ll have to conquer the debilitating comfort of the status quo before we can take up the reins and guide it to a new era of fairness and opportunity for all.
Theo Stavropoulos is a recent graduate of Kansas State University.