We know well the warnings that the Social Security system is broke, broken and needs an overhaul. Relax. What the system needs is adult supervision. The hand-wringers have focused on trimming and recalculating benefits and on tweaking tax formulas that finance the system. But there's a bigger picture that starts with the fact that there are 125 million Americans under 30. A fundamental question for our generation is whether we are committed to providing the quality and variety of education that prepares the generation of younger Americans for their future and ours. As crushing as the job shortage may be, the real "jobs crisis" is the mismatch between available jobs and the skills U.S. workers need to fill them. The president highlighted this in his State of the Union speech: "Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job."
U.S. companies are going overseas to find skilled workers. Apple, for example, now employs 43,000 workers in the United States, but as iPhone and iPad sales exploded, the company restructured its manufacturing process. More than 20,000 Apple employees work overseas, and another 700,000 people work for Apple subcontractors around the world.
Consider how the job and corporate landscape has changed. Fifty years ago, when manufacturing dominated the economy, the five largest private employers were General Motors, AT&T, Ford, GE and U.S. Steel. Today, when service providers, sales and temporary staffing firms generate six of every seven jobs, the largest private employers are Wal-Mart, Kelly, IBM, UPS and McDonald's. The typical GM worker makes about $20 an hour more than a Wal-Mart worker plus benefits.
This trend makes it even harder to sustain the nation's global competitiveness and the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.
This is where adult supervision comes in. Adults worry about their kids, the schools they attend and the education they get. As a nation, we're failing, even though our federal and state governments spend $519 billion a year on elementary and high school education. As a percentage of public spending, that total has dropped three straight years.
At the same time, we don't hesitate to spend nearly $1 trillion on the nation's defense. Here's a thought. The Pentagon is buying 2,443 F-35 joint strike fighters, sleek, $133 million supersonic jets for battling a weapon that hasn't been imagined by an enemy that remains unknown. If we bought just seven fewer F-35s, we could buy a handheld computer tablet for every first-grader in America.
Here's the point: Old and young, we're in this together. There's a larger context for the Social Security debate. It's part of a conversation about where the nation is headed, the opportunities younger Americans must have and our role as adults to make sure they get them. Their future and ours depends on it.
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