We’re pleased to announce the winners of The Nation’s sixth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing what they think is the most important issue facing their generation. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-one states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Bryce Wilson Stucki of Virginia Tech University and Hannah Moon of Brooklyn College Academy in Brooklyn, New York. This is a college finalist. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. —The Editors
The most serious issue facing my generation is that we don’t really face up to serious issues. It’s not that our challenges aren’t weighty; it’s that we don’t confront them at all.
But these aren’t the so-called “serious” issues of years and culture wars past. We’ll leave those to the reactionaries, all stuck squarely on the wrong side of history.
No, our generation’s issues are serious precisely because they’re not simple, not talking points. How will we pay back our parents’ debt? How will we take care of our grandparents as Medicare comes under assault? How will we find common ground as our newspapers go under and our discourse dissolves into dissonance? And closer to home, what about our student loans? How will we make good when college degrees don’t end in jobs and yesterday’s careers disappear? These challenges can’t be crowd-sourced or live-tweeted. They’re our battles, to be won or lost in the next few years, not decades. And unless we step up, we will inevitably stand down.
Maybe it’s because we never had a Normandy or a Vietnam, never sent hundreds of thousands of our own to war. Or maybe it’s because our leaders think we’re all talk—that on election day, we’ll just stay at home. Unfortunately, they’re right. In 2010, according to Civic Youth, only 24 percent of 18–29-year-olds voted; those older than us doubled that. Our generation makes up a fifth of the voting population, and even in 2008 we failed to cast a fifth of the votes. Our failure to face up—to show up—manifests in the longer years we stay at home, the scores of polls that show us weary with politics and with one another. We’re good at satirizing, critiquing and analyzing. But I don’t think we’re quite as good at believing. We don’t take ourselves seriously when the moment calls for it. And this moment does.
A few years ago I got the chance to attend the Beijing Olympics. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a sea of beaming, blue-shirted volunteers—over a million in total, almost all of them my age. They had applied and beat out thousands of others for the chance, the honor, to move across the country and work long hours for no money. They picked up my bags without my asking; they gave me directions in good English; they told me, time and again, that their nation was open for business. They faced up to the needs of their nation—one that had bulldozed slums and jailed thousands of dissidents for the occasion. Those million blue shirts were inspiring but fearsome. In a way, they were a lot scarier than a tank platoon or a manipulated yuan.
As the inheritors of an open society, we’re in danger of being left behind in an exponential world. From 2001 to 2010, mankind produced a quarter of the goods and services that have been made in the last 2,000 years. History has dealt us its most interesting and expansive hand yet—and in our own kids’ textbooks, big battles and great men will be less important than the price of oil, the speed of bandwidth or an Arab Spring.
Of course, the web is our birthright. We know networks: their nooks, crannies, perversions and possibilities. But how are we using them now? As echo chambers for ignorance and narcissism, for search-engine-optimized distractions, for slideshows of funny cats, as cheap substitutes for those years when “friend” wasn’t a verb. We have to use the web’s democratizing force to broaden thought and impel action—not distract from them. Did we really think we could leave it all to a young, hip Illinois senator with lofty promises and killer marketing?
If we don’t face up now, it may end up being too late. Ours is a century that takes nothing for granted, from our nation’s global dominance to our life expectancies. Yes, we will live longer; but will we live better? Yes, we will know more; but will we be more? And though these questions can be pondered on the web, they must be tackled offline, face-to-face. We’re already losing ground to a digital cloud of cynicism, and we don’t even have the energy to throw our hands up in dismay. When you get your news from comedians, it all becomes one big joke. It takes just a click to “follow,” but a whole lot more to lead.
We’ve wandered away from the old orthodoxies, and lost a lot along the way. But let’s not leave behind conviction, nor lose hope. There’s still time to face up to the issues we stand to inherit, and our generation has the modern means to do it. Whether we can muster the will—well, that’s entirely up to us.