Young People Can Lead as “We Meet the Moment.” But, They Need Our Country to Invest in Them


An abbreviated version of this blog ran in the Aspen Times.  

There is no doubt that the world has changed. Covid-19 is having, and will have, an unprecedented impact on the long-term physical, emotional, and financial health and wellbeing of nearly all Americans, including the rising generation. Young people who have grown up during the time of the Great Recession are now left to navigate a second unprecedented economic catastrophe. Young people of color from places of long-time disinvestment, a history of racist systems, and concentrated poverty are starting from even further back than most.

Meeting our country’s near-term needs and achieving the long-term vision for the America we want, will fall woefully short if we do not invest in our country’s greatest and most under-utilized natural asset: the next generation. At the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, we partner with over a dozen foundations to implement the national Opportunity Youth Forum/Fund (OYF), where we fund and work with community networks and opportunity youth – 16-24-year-olds – who are not connected to education or employment. At the start of 2020, we were celebrating ongoing annual declines in the number of disconnected young people in our country. After years of coalition work – scaling best practice, advocating for systems change, and investing in youth-led efforts – the number had reached an all-time low of less than 5 million opportunity youth according to Measure of America. While that is still a significant number, we could actually envision a point in the future where America would have second chance opportunities for every single young person who was out of school or work and wanted a better life. But that is no longer the case. The latest unemployment data tells us that the estimated number of young adults in our country who are no longer connected to school or work has likely more than tripled – with some staggering estimates putting the number at 18 million or more.

Young people who have grown up during the time of the Great Recession are now left to navigate a second unprecedented economic catastrophe. Young people of color from places of long-time disinvestment, a history of racist systems, and concentrated poverty are starting from even further back than most.

The painful reality of what it means to be graduating from high school in the midst of a pandemic and an economic freefall, or the trauma of being twenty-two years-old, recently laid off, and struggling to decide between paying for community college tuition or basic needs, is only part of the story. The reality is that the millions of young Americans who are currently out of work represent our best hope for a prosperous and sustainable future. They are motivated and filled with talent and untapped potential. They represent the most diverse generation in our nation’s history. Most importantly these young adults are committed to both a belief in serving the greater good and in a more compassionate capitalism. Poll after poll points to this tech-savvy generation as the most tolerant, activated, and involved. Covid-19 can either represent the barrier that stopped them from being the next “Greatest Generation” or the catalyst that catapults America into a prosperous and sustainable future. This cohort of young people can be the engine for expanding equitable opportunity in America for the long haul, if we support them.

To begin the process of investing in and optimizing youth-led recovery from Covid-19, our elected officials, along with philanthropy and the private sector must step up.

First, Congress must prioritize public employment and paid service opportunities in the next recovery bill. The recent massive investments that have been passed by Congress have done little to directly support those young adults who are not connected to education and employment and even less to prioritize mobility and opportunity. The $4 billion increase for existing federal youth pathways that is being recommended by the Reconnecting Youth Campaign and by young grassroots leaders who are part of Opportunity Youth United would be a good start in this unprecedented moment. The proposed expansion of AmeriCorps should also help. The Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act would fund 750,000 national service positions over a three-year response and recovery period, create partnerships between AmeriCorps and federal health agencies, and increase the AmeriCorps living allowance so that lower income Americans are able to serve. For too many years, AmeriCorps service participation has been predominantly accessed by those who can afford to commit to a term of service, often with support from more affluent parents. When implemented, these new AmeriCorps opportunities should prioritize and scale up paid service opportunities for opportunity youth from low income communities. For example, some service infrastructure exists in Native and Tribal communities and urban centers with concentrated poverty and inequity. New national service resources should target and grow community-anchored youth employment organizations in low income communities across the country – shifting the service paradigm from a neo-colonial “helping those people” to one that is anchored in self-determination and self-reliance – with youth in low income communities of color building resilience and leading the way to thriving communities.

Elected officials and government agencies must find other ways to target resources to those young people who represent the hardest hit communities and demographics. The pandemic has exposed what happens to communities that have lived with structural inequities for generations. Just as Covid-19 targeted those with the least privilege, investments in recovery must target those who have been stifled by inequity and structural barriers for generations.

Second, philanthropy must invest in youth-led strategies and in approaches that harness youth civic engagement and activism focused on systems change. Regardless of the issue area, from climate change  to homelessness, now more than ever, funders need to share power, invest in young leaders, and tap into the expertise and energy of young people to shape their grantmaking. This builds upon the emerging trend of engaging constituencies in grantmaking design and decision-making. For example, how are transition age youth who have experienced foster care working directly with foundations to address child welfare reform and to plan for the added stressors on families as the Covid-19 crisis taxes family systems? How are funders and young people working collaboratively now to seize the opportunity to end mass incarceration in America, end the school to prison pipeline, and finally achieve sustained juvenile justice and police reform? How can philanthropy support the youth-led efforts to strengthen democracy and ensure access to the ballot for the upcoming and future elections? In response to the pandemic, philanthropy must set aside highly prescriptive and over-engineered approaches and tackle the long-term structural inequities in America – with youth at the center of recovery and reinvention.

Finally, we all have a responsibility to make room for the rising generation. Employers should take every measure possible to implement paid internships and develop on-ramps for young workers, including moving summer employment, internships, and apprenticeship programs online. To do this inclusively, they must also help to bridge the digital divide so that low income young adults have equitable access to remote positions. Over the long-term, employers can take steps to reduce barriers to employment for young people and recruit from the communities that have been hit hardest by the Covid-19 downturn.

Our country has a history of turning profound challenges into societal advancement. A massive effort to rebuild our economy and our infrastructure will be necessary in the year(s) ahead. Collectively we can set a course for a more free, just, and equitable America. To get that right we will need to restructure our systems and policies to invest in and share power with the rising generations – especially those who already had unequal access to opportunity. Creating the enabling environment for the next generation to lead the rebuild will set the country on a course to a new, more inclusive definition of greatness. It is the only way we will achieve our highest promise and in the words of the Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again, post-pandemic.

Stephen Patrick is Vice President at the Aspen Institute and Executive Director of the Forum for Community Solutions. He has previously held senior leadership positions at three foundations, most recently leading a portfolio focused on disconnected youth at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He is the co-founder of Rocky Mountain Youth Corps in Northern New Mexico and started his career as a youth worker in the northern pueblos of New Mexico.