• April 03, 2010
  • by Rebecca W. Rimel

Winter 2010 Trust Magazine

The one sure thing about the future is that it will always be there. The important question is, what kind of future will it be? Every generation is called to be mindful of their responsibility to leave the world better than they found it. This duty encompasses a host of obligations, not the least of which is to be civically engaged, fiscally prudent and environmentally aware. In short, it means we are called to be good stewards, recognizing that our times do not belong only to us.

Each generation has confronted unique circumstances in answering this responsibility. The new group of 18- to 29-year-olds, called the Millennials because they are the first cohort to come of age in the new century, has its share of challenges. They face serious obstacles, not of their own making, in entering the workforce in these difficult economic times. Yet the Pew Research Center has found that these young people are optimistic about their future and about the nation’s as well. They place greater emphasis on being good parents and helping others than they do on accumulating personal wealth. They are eager to make their presence felt in how our nation is governed and, indeed, had significant impact in the last presidential election. The Pew researchers also found that the Millennials, more than previous generations, have great respect for their elders. Those attributes bode well for the future because they signal that these young people are thinking beyond themselves, for the greater good both now and in the times to come.

In our 50 state capitals, it is more important than ever to think beyond the present. To be sure, the current reality for many states is grim. Unlike in Washington, leaders in nearly every state must balance their budgets and in recent years they have had to contend with deep declines in revenues. But for many states, the most difficult times may actually lie ahead as federal stimulus funds are exhausted and with economists predicting it will take years for revenues to return to pre-recession levels. The challenges states face also are partly the result of years when government leaders expanded programs, promised retirement benefits to public employees that could not be sustained and borrowed to pay bills. As they made those long-term commitments, those officials did not always understand or fully consider the impact of their actions on future generations. Policy makers can no longer engage in short-term decision-making and still fulfill their responsibility of stewarding and protecting vital state services for all citizens in the future.

Through its work on pension reform, government contracting, corrections spending and other policy initiatives, the Pew Center on the States has found that tough times can offer opportunities to make sound, albeit hard, decisions to ensure fiscal integrity. Many recently elected governors and legislators are about to take office, and they face an array of budget problems for which there are no quick fixes. Solutions will require good data and rigorous cost-benefit analysis about what works and what does not and which investments and policy choices will deliver the greatest return on taxpayer dollars. Pew researchers, working with partner organizations, will provide state leaders with the high-quality, nonpartisan information they need to chart a path toward fiscal recovery today and sustainability tomorrow.

Stewardship of our natural resources is as equally important as proper management of our public finances. Last summer saw a victory for the environment that will benefit not only the Millennials but all generations. Nine leading conservation organizations and 21 logging companies came together to protect 178 million acres of Canada’s boreal forest. The agreement, facilitated by the Pew Environment Group’s International Boreal Campaign, recognizes the scientific and environmental importance of the vast forest, which is home to caribou and dozens of other species and serves as an essential storehouse for carbon emissions in a time of global warming. The accord is the world’s largest forest conservation agreement, but just as importantly, it is an emblem of the power of working together to preserve the world for those who will come after us.

The stories about the Millennials, state fiscal policy and the boreal in this latest issue of Trust magazine are all illustrations of hope at a time when many of us need encouragement. The Great Recession has created high unemployment, diminished our savings and shaken many people’s sense of confidence. But it must be remembered that Americans have faced hard times before, from world wars to economic depressions to societal upheaval. Through ingenuity, industriousness and a sense of stewardship we have not only survived but thrived. This is because America’s greatest strength is a desire, not for an easy life, but for a better life. We need only to look at all the assets our country and its people can bring to bear on today’s problems to know that the Millennials are right in their inherent optimism. With a history as rich as this nation’s, there is every reason for us to have hope and to believe our future will be strong.