I recently gave a lecture to students who were considering careers in public service, either in the public sector or in nonprofits. My lecture was about why so many public problems have worsened over the last decades — climate change, economic inequality, gun violence, access to healthcare, public education, child poverty, homelessness, even democracy itself.
When I finished, one of them asked, “given everything you’ve told us, why should any of us want to enter public service now?” The question elicited nervous laughter from the class. It had hit a nerve.
I responded, “but this is the very best time to enter public service!” They looked puzzled. I continued: “You wouldn’t want to enter public service when there were no major public problems. You’re desperately needed now. Think of all the good you can do! You’re young and energetic and idealistic. You have most of your lives in front of you. The challenges are huge. It’s your time!”
They laughed. Some applauded. But I wondered how many of them understood what I was trying to say.
I’m getting to be an old man. I’ve spent most of my life working on public problems, much of the time in public service of one kind or another. Yet over my lifetime, so many public problems have worsened. Occasionally I’m haunted by an overwhelming sense of failure — not just my own failure but my entire generation’s failure.
I’ll continue to do what I can, but it’s now up to the next generation. Yes, there’s still Biden and Pelosi and Bernie (and Trump), and a few other aging boomers. But we’re all in our last acts. The real fate of the world is in the hands of these young people.
It’s their time.