My parents, and most of the parents in the neighborhood where I grew up, were products of the Depression and the Second World War. Through the 1930s to the end of the war, they experienced various levels of poverty, sacrifice, separation, and an abrupt exposure to a large country with a diverse culture and population.
Some had served in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Many had served in the military. All had served in a civil defense role in some capacity, from collecting tin cans and rubber for the war effort to supporting bond drives to working with the United Service Organizations (USO). For virtually all of them, these experiences shaped their views of community, service, and responsibility.
Perhaps most importantly, this experience generated a sense that, as Americans, they not only had a common future but they all had a stake in it. They all had to do their part. In a diverse nation with cultural and regional differences, this sense of a collective future helped bind the country together.
As a specific example, during the Depression my dad's family went from middle class to borderline destitute. The 1930 census listed his father's occupation as "unemployed commercial artist." They lived on government relief in a home with several other families. After high school, with the nation at war, my father joined the Navy and his life changed dramatically. He left central Ohio and experienced a much wider world. He established a friendship with an African American from Chicago who had similar life aspirations. He worked out with a first generation immigrant from Mexico, and roomed with a big farm boy from rural Georgia who was the smartest man he had ever met.
Through all of these experiences, the social and cultural differences perceived in youth rapidly disappeared. My dad and his new friends were all on the same team and the war had to be won. Even though they had remarkably different backgrounds, the common experience of service transcended those differences and inculcated a sense of a common American future with a belief that they all had a part to play. And this future wasn't a passive endeavor or spectator sport. It was something that you created.
I'm convinced that this set of beliefs, held by much of an entire generation, was a major factor in some of the remarkable advancements the US made in the post-war years. These include sustained economic growth, massive expansion of the middle class, advances in racial equality, and the audacity to believe that, armed with wooden slide rules and 1950s technology, we could actually get to the moon inside of 8 years.
As we look at contemporary America we still see a large and diverse nation. And like the 1930s and 1940s, we still face significant challenges. We also have huge advantages and capabilities, and a talented and resilient population. But, unlike my Dad and his friends, we seem to have lost the sense of a common future. We've lost the sense that we all have a responsibility to our communities and to the nation. And in the process, we have lost the belief that collectively we can accomplish great things under difficult circumstances.
There is no panacea for this. Life in a technologically sophisticated and increasingly diverse America is complex. And, in the Internet age with continuous news cycles, every issue seems to be excessively contentious. Most significantly, historical circumstances will probably never replicate the life experience of the 1930s and 40s for current or future generations of Americans.
But we can take steps to help build a sense of service and a common experience by providing each young American the opportunity and expectation to serve a year in a full-time volunteer national service position. The Franklin Project, an initiative operating under the direction of the Aspen Institute, is well on its way to developing the organization and nationwide infrastructure to establish this capability.
First proposed by General (Retired) Stan McChrystal in 2012, the program is focused on expanding full-time service positions such as those offered by Americorps and City Year. Individuals in these positions do serious work in critical areas such as education or healthcare, receiving a stipend that supports an austere lifestyle. Funded by both private and public funds, the Franklin Project has the potential to replicate in a peacetime setting something similar to the common experience of service that my dad and his friends experienced during the war. Over time it can scale up to the point where it impacts an entire generation, much like the Depression/WWII influenced my father's generation.
There are a number of areas where we need to make long-term investments as a society. As we prioritize how we allocate resources, supporting a large scale national service program that provides a common experience and reinforces a sense of a common American future needs to be near the top of the list. I suspect my dad, were he still alive, would enthusiastically agree.
This post is produced by AmeriCorps Alums and The Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute in honor of Veterans Day. The Franklin Project envisions a future in which a year of full-time national service -- a service year -- is a cultural expectation, a common opportunity, and a civic rite of passage for every young American. The Franklin Project is chaired by General Stanley McChrystal. To learn more about The Franklin Project, watch this video.