On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama delivered a bittersweet farewell address. After eight years as a poised, prepared and conscientious president, it is hard to think back to Obama as the young, springy senator who spoke of hope so very long ago. But perhaps, deep down, hope had been his mantra since his time as a teenager from Honolulu. The question we should be asking, though, is whether Obama’s story in 1975 could really be recreated for a millennial in 2017. Unaffordable housing, skyrocketing student debt, rising rates of stress, depression and anxiety and the promise that they will be the first generation to make less than their parents — this is the environment that will have characterized Generation Y.
Students today are pressured to choose only the most practical paths in life. Many were raised to practice a dogma of cynical pragmatism in which playing it safe is the only way to play. We dare not dream of the wild success on the silver screen, seek to master the arts, express an inner voice or aspire to the Oval Office. Balance in life is seen as hedonism. As the semester begins anew, we must consider here at USC whether we are encouraged to entertain the thought that that Commander-in-Chief might just one day be us. We must become the generation that believes in our own ability — our ability to become the audacious, self-affirmed brats that many older citizens have been so delighted to say we are.
At his commencement address in 2015, President C.L. Max Nikias told USC’s newest group of freshmen, “If you feel very special to be here … it’s because you are.” There can be no doubt that the University attempts time and time again to ingrain in its students the idea that their greatness, their wild success or big dreams are tangible with the right guidance, proper work ethic and good decisions. The science department works to put Trojans in Google and NASA. The School of Cinematic Arts gets Trojans on the big screen. The Unruh Institute places Trojans in the marble-topped capitols of Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
But money is required to make money, as any indebted college student knows. As one millennial told Vice, “I had to leave a really great internship — an internship I was supposed to be doing as part of my studies — because I couldn’t afford to work for free.” Another: “You lose your drive because you get into this routine where you feel you can’t get away from your responsibilities, or your debt, or take risks.”
The sad truth is that a stagnating economy with stunted job growth doesn’t play well with rising costs of higher education — all but absolutely necessary for employment — and corresponding rates of student debt. Millennials are entering the workforce at a time when a Republican Congress seems almost to delight in the shrinking middle class, and pays lip service rather than instituting policy. The Affordable Care Act insured millions of Americans not previously able to afford health care, many of them millennials — and lowered costs for thousands of others. It’s no surprise that the Trump administration has decided it will be first on the chopping block. Progress, it seems, is too terrifying.
In light of the incoming administration, is this an era in which hope for a wildly successful future, for the achievement of one’s dreams, could actually survive? It appears that the necessity to be employed in any capacity to pay off debt chokes innovation — and dreams of a preferable future.
The most obvious solution, and perhaps the most effective one, would benefit young people entering the workforce as much as those already within it: grow and foster the middle class with common-sense progressive legislation. We should seek to move the nation forward in order to compete with its European counterparts with regards to affordable healthcare, education and housing. We must force large-scale corporations to work in the interests of their employees instead of their executive boards. We must quit ignoring the refusal of the wealthy to pay their fair share.
But in order to make the change that many wished for — even as recently as in the 2016 Presidential election — college students must believe, collectively and wholeheartedly, that they have the ability to do so. There can be no room for the apathy that characterizes our politics. Millennials must be optimistic. Each student has the potential to be the springy senator giving speeches in the cold of Iowa in 2008.
The University is a few days into the new semester, and an endless stream of myriad to-do lists begin to flow once more, for everyone. Students can only hope that it’s all really working toward something meaningful, successful and enjoyable — that we can still afford, on top of everything, to dream.
Believe in yourself wholeheartedly, narcissistically — refuse to play it safe. Don’t leave the world without changing it.
Lily Vaughan is a sophomore majoring in history and political science. Her column,“Playing Politics,” runs every Friday.