A recent study by the University of Michigan has produced an astonishing finding: The number of teenagers who got a driver's license dropped by 20 percent between 1983-2003. That quintessential metaphor for American opportunity -- hitting the open road -- has apparently lost its allure. What's going on? And, what does it mean for their future?
When Jack Kerouac finished his iconic book On the Road in 1951, the United States was surging with post-war optimism, and the automobile was its symbol for youthful independence, exploration and possibility. Acquiring a driver's license -- earning the right to drive -- became an important rite of passage for American teens, a way for them to launch off on their own toward a bright, if unknown, future.
And so it remained for the next half-century. And then, the national car hit a pothole that threw its steering mechanism out of whack. All of a sudden, the bright future at the end of a driver's license no longer seemed so full of opportunity. And, millions of teens decided to opt out.
Today, those Americans head off to college knowing there is no certainty they will be able to work after they graduate. According to a survey conducted by the Associated Press, 53.8 percent of all recent college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed. And even more are deeply in debt.
The sense of possibility that had previously been encoded in a driver's license has been crushed. As one teen put it, "I got my license at 17 because my parents pushed me, but I've only driven an hour or so since then. I don't feel any reason to. I know some people feel it gives them freedom, but I don't."
Too many kids today no longer believe in the American Dream. The role of adults in realizing that dream isn't only to provide a generous standard of living; it is also to convey the possibility of individual mobility. We are responsible for giving our kids their faith in America's open road. It's our job to authenticate the feasibility of their dream -- one that is even better than ours -- and we have not done so.
So, what should we do? How can we bring the spirit of Jack Kerouac back into our teens' lives?
Rediscovering the Open Road
Too many of America's teens no longer see an open road in their future. They see a passage littered with detours and roadblocks, crumbling bypasses and unmarked dead-ends.
Why? Because they're lost in today's workplace. The American economy holds a vast store of opportunity, but they can't find or access it. They've been educated in this or that field of study, but taught absolutely nothing about how to make a career in that field. As a result, they haven't a clue how to navigate their way to success.
To help them, therefore, we must patch the hole in their education. We must give them the skills and knowledge of effective "career self-management." We must teach them how to build up their employment strength, reach and endurance by practicing the habits of career activism.
Those habits are much more than simple job searching techniques. Indeed, they have little to do with writing a resume or learning how to interview. No, career activism is a set of practices that prepare a young person to achieve career security -- the ability always to be employed and always by an employer of their choice. It is the new superhighway to the American Dream.
Some of the practices will reinforce their perceived value among employers. Others will enhance their brand in the marketplace of talent. And, still others will enable them to extend the range of their potential contribution on-the-job. Collectively, the habits of career activism are a GPS to a rewarding future in today's economy.
So, let's all resolve to bring Jack Kerouac home. Let's renew our kids' belief in the American Dream by showing them how to access the open road in our economy. Let's teach them how to be Career Activists.
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