A broken promise to our youth

Jeff vonKaenel

“Obey the rules. Work hard. Be nice.”

Do this, and everything will be OK. You will have a roof over your head, food on the table and your family will be taken care of. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I heard this message from my parents, teachers, neighbors, minister, coach and virtually every adult I knew.

It made sense to me. And, for the most part, I have followed this advice. When I talk to young people, especially young people that share a high percentage of my DNA, I tell them the same thing. Work hard, be nice, and everything will turn out OK.

But when I came of age in the early 1970s, I noticed some flies in the oatmeal of this generational message. The world was not color-blind. While this advice might work for those of us with pigment deficiencies, it did not ring true for those with normal amounts of pigment. They might obey the rules, work hard and be nice, but everything would not be OK for them.

Potential employers would turn them down. They might wait in line for hours to vote. God forbid they were going 36 mph in a 35 mph zone. For them, the message lost its power right along with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.

For the rest of us in the late ’60s and ’70s, the power of the message faced some serious blows during the Vietnam War. The same adults who told us to obey the rules and work hard were turning around and sending us to fight in an immoral war in Vietnam.

Today, our institutions may be a little more color-blind, and the Vietnam War is over. But again, the message is ringing hollow. When kids follow the rules, stay in school and finish college, they end up with a large debt they can’t afford. Everything does not turn out OK.

More than one out of every eight students in California doesn’t graduate from high school. With the steady destruction of school activities and real job training, many students are understandably asking themselves, “Why stay in school?” Without training, they will have no future. Everything will not be OK.

The same goes for our adult-school programs. For the message to ring true, there must be an opportunity for a second chance. When all else fails, people need to know that they can work hard, go back to school, get a high-school diploma or job training. Without these opportunities, everything will not be OK.

In a better world, the message would ring true. Hard work should pay off. But my generation is failing to hold up our end of the bargain. We have to do more than just say the words. We need to put our money where our mouth is. We need to hand over more in taxes to give our kids a chance. Our young people deserve more.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.