It's Time for a New Civic Institution

Mar 12, 2014 | Updated May 12, 2014

The Franklin Project believes that a year of full-time national service should be a cultural expectation, a common opportunity and a civic rite of passage for every young American. By 2023, we aim to create one million full-time "service year" positions annually for young people to serve their communities and country as civilians.

In short, we believe our country needs a new civic institution. That's a big idea, but I'm convinced and encouraged that it's the right one for our time: young people want it; prevailing conditions allow for it and our country needs it. This is highlighted by the Pew Research Center's recently-released report, Millennials in Adulthood.

According to the report, 50 percent of Millennials self-identify as political independents, up from 34 percent in 2004. At scale, there's no actionable expression of such nonpolitical sentiment. A 2011 study that found that 71 percent of Millennials identify meaningful work as one of the top three most important factors in a successful career; a different study indicated that just as many young people thought it was "important or somewhat important to have the opportunity to do something that changes the world."

It would be easy to dismiss such sentiments as juvenile optimism; but, young people are willing to step up and serve when given the opportunity. In 2011, AmeriCorps had over 580,000 applications for just over 80,000 positions. In the same year, Teach for America had 48,000 applications for just 5,200 slots.

One common criticism of universal national service is that it would simply delay entry into adulthood. In truth, the traditional pathway to adulthood has already slowed, opening an opportunity for a new institution for 18 to 28-year-olds in a timeframe that used to be filled by marriage. According to the Pew Report, just 26 percent of 18 to 32-year-olds are married --compared with 48 percent of the same age group in 1980, and 65 percent in 1960. A service year would provide a meaningful experience, and one that would be widely recognized as integral to a young person's maturation.

While this presents a window where a service year is possible, the same statistics also point to why our country needs a new civic institution. As people are getting married later and with less frequency, more kids are being born outside of committed relationships. Young people are also less likely to attend religious services than prior generations.

Marriage and church may not be the right fit for every circumstance, but the dwindling numbers of young people who participate in these traditional institutions indicate a need for some structure that binds peoples' futures and wellbeing to one another and their community. National service would provide such an experience.

Given the dissolution of traditional civic institutions, it is not surprising that Millennials are less trusting than other generations. According to the Pew Report, "In response to a long-standing social science survey question, 'Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people,' just 19 percent of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31 percent of Gen Xers, 37 percent of Silents and 40 percent of Boomers."

Lower levels of trust may be a result of this generation's ethnic diversity. Furthermore, Millennials are more tolerant of race, but differ over important questions along racial lines. While Millennials of all races favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who meet certain requirements, Millennials vary greatly along racial lines in regard to questions about the role the federal government should play: white Millennials prefer smaller government (52 percent to 39 percent). Non-whites would rather have a bigger government by an even larger margin (71 percent to 21 percent). All of these conditions beckon for a mechanism that calls upon people of all backgrounds to solve problems together.

The Pew Report's subtitle -- "Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends" -- makes the argument clearly. Even as social connection increases, social trust is decreasing. Technology can be very good at creating the appearance of understanding and connection, without anything authentic to back it up. Millennials need some common experience; our society needs institutions that connect people to the country, but also match the character of where the country is at a given time.

Our country is at an inflection point. Four decades removed from compulsory military service, it would be very easy -- and convenient -- for us to slip in to a citizenship that's heavy on rights and light on responsibilities. Millennials, more than any other generation, favor a bigger government providing more services; and more than six-in-ten Millennials opposed benefit cuts as a way to save money.

If challenged to do so -- and provided the opportunity -- Millennials would respond by serving. Millennials haven't detached from institutions because they're reflexively non-conformist, or because they don't care. The Pew Report found that "The relative optimism of today's young adults stands in contrast to the views of Boomers when they were about the same age as Millennials are now. In a 1974 Gallup survey, only about half of adults under the age of 30 said they had 'quite a lot' of confidence in America's future, compared with seven-in-ten of those ages 30 and older."

Existing institutions simply aren't reflective of Millennials' enthusiasms. Large scale national service would harness Millennials' optimism and direct it toward action in a way that binds young peoples' lives to the outcomes of their communities and country. Millennials want the former; our country badly needs the latter.