Critical Age Theory
Towards a new politics of anti-gerontocracy
Political movements are usually motivated by a grand narrative. The most common approach is to find an enemy and blame them for what has gone wrong in the world. Some ideologies, like libertarianism or Marxism, emphasize the importance of systems rather than individuals, but nonetheless try to provide structure to how one interprets events and thinks of solutions to problems. What successful political movements tend not to do is simply provide a series of policy recommendations without any kind of story tying them all together. Effective altruism perhaps comes closest to this model, but it has as a result been criticized for either being trite in its recommendations or hiding its more controversial philosophical assumptions.
Today, I’d argue that many of the problems of Western society are caused by the same underlying dynamic — a natural status quo bias and concentrated interests that in effect end up privileging the old over the young. Critical Race Theory holds that our institutions have been designed to favor whites over blacks in an endless number of ways large and small. This is pretty unconvincing to most conservatives, but group disparities in areas like income and health are presented as evidence to support that idea. Of course, anyone who knows anything about American governance and institutions understands that they have been deeply concerned about unfairness towards black people for generations now. While explicit laws and policies sometimes provide them with special consideration, inequalities remain, and those who hold different political ideas are divided with regards to how they respond to this seeming paradox.
At the same time, when it comes to age, we see group disparities in favor of the old alongside legal and social institutions set up to officially favor them. If one looks at many of our most serious problems — out-of-control housing costs, a looming debt crisis, rampant credentialism, etc. — the direct distributional consequences of policy choices that society has made are clear enough. When second order effects are considered, they surely make most people of all age groups worse off, but that is not something that the majority of the population understands.
I’ve previously written about gerontocracy mainly as an issue of government spending. The state takes money from the young and gives it to the old, despite this going against the entire justification for having a welfare state in the sense that it is a regressive transfer, from a poorer group to a wealthier one. Yet entitlement spending, like other gerontocratic policies, should not simply be understood in isolation. We can call this way of seeing the world Critical Age Theory, a framework in which one considers choices that have been made in different policy areas as tied together in a system of generational oppression. I Googled that term and saw that a few academics have used it to talk about the elderly as a disadvantaged class. There’s only one previous author on the first search page who uses the phrase like I do here, to refer to ways in which society discriminates against the young.
An anti-gerontocracy movement would advocate the following solutions to many of the major problems society faces. The goal is to dismantle age privilege, which has in effect made young people poorer, less likely to have families, and in a state of perpetual adolescence. Concrete proposals include:
Less government spending on entitlements that go to old people
Fewer government subsidies to education
Occupational licensing reform
Giving the youth an even playing field in the labor market by abolishing seniority systems and cutting back or eliminating age discrimination laws
Subsidies for families with children
The point of this essay is to explain the concept of gerontocracy, and show how various seemingly disconnected policy areas can all be tied together in a single thread. I’ll begin by providing the theoretical background for explaining why gerontocracy exists across modern societies. In addition to the influence of concentrated interests, there is a simple psychological dynamic at work, which starts with loss aversion, one of the most well-established concepts in psychology, and ends with the way that it leads to a status quo bias in public policy. This explains why young people are in general no less likely to oppose gerontocratic policies than old people are. They tend to have wide appeal across all age groups.
I then go on to show how gerontocracy works in four broad areas of public policy: government spending, credentialism, employment law, and housing. An important point to understand is that we do not simply rob the youth of money, but their most precious asset, which is time. I go on to connect anti-gerontocracy to pro-natalism, and explain how this part of the agenda can potentially appeal to the left by making peace with at least some forms of government redistribution. Finally, I present the case for Critical Age Theory as an intellectual movement, and anti-gerontocracy as its political corollary.
Loss Aversion and Public Choice Theory
When explaining why entitlements are politically untouchable, people often say that older Americans vote in large numbers and look out for their interests. Similar arguments are often employed when trying to understand why the rich and poor or different ethnic groups diverge in their political preferences. The problem with this theory is that economic self-interest is an extremely poor predictor of political views. This is because people don’t actually “vote their interests.” The concept is in fact somewhat incoherent, since an individual vote never changes an election. Rather, people take positions and choose candidates based on some combination of things like group identity and moral intuitions.
Loss aversion refers to the idea that people feel the pain of losses much more than they enjoy the benefits of similar gains. We bring this same intuition from our personal lives into the political arena. Free trade is often unpopular, even though there is a near consensus among economists that it makes society wealthier. People may prioritize preserving the jobs individuals currently have over the much larger losses society suffers when governments prevent the free flow of goods and capital — that is if they even understand the latter, which they usually don’t.
Public policy issues very often revolve around the question of whether to inflict or allow a harm to one group of people in order to achieve some greater good. Our moral intuitions often tell us not to. Because they’ve had time to form connections, build skills, and accumulate wealth, old people at any one point in time start out with the most desirable jobs and valuable assets. If society encourages arbitrary credentialism, those who met whatever standards have already been set are naturally going to be older than those thinking about entering a field. An inclination to protect the status quo therefore ends up favoring the old over the young, even if that is not the underlying intention.
A leftist may argue that the status quo bias might be a reason we are too hesitant to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Whether that is the case or not, conservatives can respond that punishing market success creates incentives that end up making society worse off, so we should at least be careful here. In contrast, gerontocratic policies that in effect favor older people are a kind of privilege, like racism, that advantages some individuals over others based on a trait they cannot control. It therefore has no redeeming value.
In addition to loss aversion, there is a natural tendency for democracies to protect interests that are concentrated over ones that are diffuse. This is perhaps the most fundamental lesson of public choice theory. Going back to the issue of trade, industries that might suffer under foreign competition have an incentive to block new entrants into the market. Consumers who make up the rest of society may benefit more in the aggregate from a government adopting pro-trade policies, but the gains to any particular individual are too small to motivate political action.
The tendency for the laws of political economy to favor concentrated interest and our psychological bias towards the status quo reinforce one another. So industries and labor unions that lose out due to free trade can seek to influence mass opinion, which is receptive to their message because people are in favor of preserving whatever the status quo happens to be. This makes concentrated interests even stronger, and better able to manipulate the public in the future.
As will be seen in each of the policy areas discussed below, some combination of psychological loss aversion and public choice theory is sufficient to explain policies that ultimately lead to gerontocratic outcomes. As Critical Race Theorists might understand, we can have gerontocracy without necessarily having many gerontocrats, because our society is embedded with systemic ageism.
The Welfare State Advantages Old People
As I’ve previously written:
Social Security takes 12.4% out of the paycheck of each worker, on earnings of up to $147,000. Half of that is covered by employers. The program gives money back to people when they retire, starting at age 62 at the earliest, though a minority of recipients are younger and disabled. Medicare, which provides healthcare coverage for those 65 and over, takes 2.9% of whatever workers earn, again split between an employee and his firm.
It is projected that this year about a third of the US federal budget will be spent on these two programs alone. Those 65 and over make up only 17% of the population. Of course, the elderly also benefit from other parts of the federal budget; the portion that goes to Social Security and Medicare simply represents what is earmarked for them. These programs together consumed 8% of GDP in 2021.
Social Security and Medicare can be seen as either redistributing money from the young to the old, or, in what amounts to the same thing, transferring money across an individual’s lifespan to their later years. This goes against the normal logic of the welfare state, in which we try to redistribute money from the rich to the poor. It’s not just total wealth, as age is also correlated with income for those of working age, meaning that future retirees are in a good position to save money in the years immediately before they leave the workforce.
What’s even more disturbing is that entitlement spending continues to grow, and may eventually eat the rest of the federal budget.
The US is actually quite moderate when it comes to transferring money to old people. The percentage of GDP it spends on pensions, which includes Social Security and similar programs, is slightly lower than the OECD average. France, Italy, and Greece spend twice as much, though we’ll likely come closer to them as more Baby Boomers retire.
Most pension programs started in an earlier era, when societies had a healthier age pyramid, and more workers engaged in physical labor that they could not continue into their later years. Once entitlements like Social Security were created, however, the status quo bias made them difficult to roll back. Most of the growth in US government spending is now automatic. Every year in which politicians do nothing, we head closer to a financial crisis. In countries where the state gives subsidies for fuel and bread, those are hard to get rid of, but nations that don’t have them rarely consider adopting such policies. Likewise, entitlements for old people become less rational as time goes on, but we are stuck with the choices of the past, as public opinion is partial to the current status quo.
The Greatest Crime Against Youth
There was recently a meme making the rounds asking whether you would rather have $10 million, or be able to start life over with all the knowledge you now have. I think even those who haven’t seen much self-improvement over the years would wind back time. Even if you haven’t actually gained any wisdom, and I think most people don’t get all that much, it is time itself that is valuable.
If I could give just one piece of advice to young people, it might be to realize that life is much shorter than you think. At 22, six years of graduate school might not feel like that big of a deal. Yet eventually you’ll find yourself approaching 30 and still never having made adult money. If you ever want to own your own home, it’s going to take a while to accumulate the necessary savings. None of this would matter much if youth lasted forever, but it is fleeting, and people often don’t understand this fact until it’s too late.
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One of the great sins of developed civilizations is how little value we place on young people’s time. Someone can write a book like Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education, and people will simply shrug and go, well that’s interesting, I guess it’s all a waste of time, lol. But learning that we warehouse young people in the prime of their lives into buildings for no good reason, to little benefit to themselves or others, should provoke seething rage.
When we spend money on old people, we just pay for their healthcare or directly give them cash. “Redistribution” to young people often takes the form of more money going towards education. This creates jobs for older people while depriving the youth of their best years, which could be spent beginning families or learning actual skills they can use in the job market. If the elderly had to take say classes on money management before they got their Social Security checks, nobody would stand for it. As college has over the decades become more heavily subsidized, employers are encouraged to use degrees as a way to filter out candidates thought to have lower intelligence or be less conscientious. To call education a waste of money would be too generous. It actively harms young people, because the signalling function of education means that subsidizing it requires them to jump through more hoops.
In the US, it takes seven years to become a lawyer, four spent in undergrad and three in law school. The entire process takes around 4-5 years in the UK and France. I don’t think anyone has ever seriously argued that Americans need more training than their counterparts in other countries. So why do aspiring attorneys sacrifice up to an extra three years of their lives here? One can find similar differences in other professions, and it is depressing that no one cares enough to remove barriers when there is no evidence that they do any good.
Even blue collar workers can’t avoid the curse of credentialism. The Institute for Justice has a map showing the burdens involved in becoming a barber in each state. In Nevada, it takes an estimated 896 days, compared to 28 in New York. Why should one state require you to train two and a half years for a job that another state requires only a month for? There’s a lot of variation across the country, and if barbers in states with low standards were cutting off people’s heads we would’ve noticed by now.
Taking Institute for Justice data and using Julius AI, I put together this graph showing how many calendar days are lost on average meeting requirements for various jobs across all 50 states, with the highest and lowest numbers highlighted. This takes into account how long someone must spend in school or getting a certification. For example, if a job requires a four year college degree, that gets counted as 1,460 days.
Such laws might have a purpose if they protect public safety or provide some other benefit. But there’s little evidence that they do, for obvious reasons. The way you would show that any of these regulations are worth it would be to do a randomized study and measure all relevant outcomes, but I’m unaware of any kind of occupational licensing regime that was adopted in this way. Recently, when they temporarily removed certification requirements for teachers in Massachusetts and New Jersey in response to the pandemic, researchers weren’t able to find any real costs to doing so. The programs, as one might expect, are a waste of time and money. As far as I can tell, no one has even attempted to prove that the states with more restrictive licensing regimes gain any benefit from their regulations, like people in Nevada having unusually awesome haircuts.
You might think that this is a red state/blue state divide, and it seems Republican states are slightly better, but not by much. IJ ranks states by how bad their occupational licensing regimes are across professions, and finds that the ten worst are Nevada, California, Virginia, Hawaii, Arizona, Louisiana, Oregon, Washington, Arkansas, and New Mexico. That’s 5 blue states, 2 red states, and 3 purple states. Wyoming has the lowest burden, but right behind it is Vermont, which for decades has been electing Bernie Sanders. The Obama White House published a report arguing that occupational licensing had gone too far and was harming the country. So this seems to be an issue where practically all smart people agree, but they don’t prioritize it enough and special interests are able to block necessary changes.
The Labor Market
Usually, anti-discrimination laws focus on groups that have worse outcomes. Blacks earn less than whites and are more likely to be unemployed, so government takes a special interest in making sure they don’t face any special burdens. Yet in 1967, Congress passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which prohibited discrimination against those between 40 and 70 years old in hiring, firing, and promotions. In 1986, Congress removed the age cap, and outlawed mandatory retirement ages in most industries. This is despite the fact that old people have higher incomes and more wealth than others. Like most kinds of civil rights law, so-called discrimination also includes disparate impact. The ban on age discrimination against old people has been particularly disastrous in the tech industry, where the young naturally tend to be better at learning new things.
Young people are the last hired, and often the first to be let go. Where there are labor unions, there is usually a seniority system, which simply rewards workers for being in their position for longer with higher pay, better benefits, and more job security. As one union explains, “seniority systems started with an attempt by workers to solve the problem of management favoritism and discrimination. This is a central belief of unions, that all workers should be treated equally and fairly.” The main reason of course that firms favor some employees over others is because they differ in their productivity, and organized labor has always existed to subvert meritocracy and treat workers as irreplaceable widgets, with no ambitions beyond holding on and waiting one’s turn.
Due at least in part to credentialism, anti-discrimination laws, and unions, adults just joining the workforce have worse labor market outcomes across the world. Below are the youth and overall unemployment rates by country for the 15 largest economies as of 2022, according to the World Bank.
The differences range from young people being 62% more likely to be unemployed in Japan to 242% more likely in Russia. On average across all of these states, 15-24 year olds are 2.4x more likely to be unemployed than the overall labor force. That’s comparable to what the black-white gap has been in the United States since the 1970s. Things have gotten so bad in China, which has one of the most extreme gerontocracies in the world, that the government has been adjusting its methodology to make the youth unemployment numbers look better.
Sometimes, older workers are actually better from a meritocratic perspective. They might be more responsible and have more relevant experience, and surely that explains at least some of the gaps in wages and employment. If old people in some cases make more money or are more likely to be hired because they are more productive, there is no problem. However, we see government and private institutions constantly putting their thumb on the scale against meritocracy, and practically each time it is to the advantage of the old over the young. Setting occupational licensing requirements protects existing workers from competition; labor unions, which exist due to government sanction, explicitly stick to the seniority principle; civil rights law keeps employees who are over the hill on the payroll when market logic and individual choice indicate they should be replaced; and funding for education provides jobs to older administrators and professors while creating negative-sum competition among young people.
Housing Costs Are out of Control
In my property class at the University of Chicago Law School, the professor was one day talking about how during the then recent collapse of the real estate market, the federal government took a series of steps to make sure people could maintain the value of their homes. I raised my hand and asked how this was consistent with another policy goal we often talked about, which was creating more affordable housing. She seemed taken aback and confused by my question, like she had never considered the possibility that there could be a tradeoff.
If houses are expensive, current owners are better off but they’re more difficult to afford. In contrast, when the value of a product goes down, it becomes easier for people to buy. Two broadly accepted public policy goals are therefore in direct conflict.
So should we want housing to be cheap or expensive? If we lived in a communist system, we would have to make a decision. Under a mostly market economy, it is the price system that determines how much things cost, since it is the only means we have to incorporate the necessary information and take into account the tradeoffs that exist in a world of scarce resources.
The fact that government puts its thumb on the scale to both make housing cheaper and more expensive reflects economic illiteracy on the behalf of voters and public officials. But no one can doubt that we do much more to advantage current homeowners over renters or those who might buy homes in the future. The collapse in housing prices in 2007-2008 was seen as a national crisis that required immediate and extraordinary levels of government intervention. The inability of individuals to become first-time buyers is also considered a problem, but not nearly as urgent. Historically, when governments have tried to “help” people afford homes, they’ve undertaken counterproductive policies like encouraging subprime mortgages that many end up being unable to afford. Below, we can see how as a result of such policies housing costs have not kept up with rising incomes.
As in the case of pensions, the US is far from a global outlier when it comes to its housing price-to-income ratio.
At the federal level, the government allows people to deduct their mortgages from their taxes. Also, when your house is sold, you need not pay taxes on the first $250,000 of profit, which means that buying a residence is favored over other kinds of investments.
More importantly, the main problem with regards to housing affordability is NIMBYism, or the roadblocks and regulations that prevent localities from building enough dwellings to meet demand. In recent years, YIMBYism has had some successes, usually by taking decisions about what can be built out of local hands. This is because there is a collective action problem inherent to local control, in that any one area might have reason to think it would be worse off under a more permissive regime, but a larger jurisdiction will tend to benefit from uniform standards that encourage more housing.
When economists try to calculate how much economic growth would result from land-use reform, they come up with massive estimates. Bryan Caplan has told me that he is working on a book on this topic precisely because the potential benefits are so unusually large. Again, as with many other issues, gerontocratic policies probably don’t even make old people better off and are therefore short sighted from a broader societal perspective, but political decisions tend to be made based on their most immediate effects.
Gerontocracy and Pro-Natalism
When I was in law school, I had a Mormon friend who was around 30. He’d had two kids while at BYU — this was apparently so common they had daycare for undergrads — and now was going to have a third. As someone who didn’t start a family until later, I regret that I’m never going to be able to raise a teenager in my 30s, instead of having to wait until I’m close to 50. And of course, starting to have kids early makes it more likely that you will be able to have more. Not only for the obvious reason that women are only fertile for a fraction of their lives, but because having multiple little kids around at the same time is really difficult, and being able to space births out allows one to wait until some of the children are able to mostly take care of themselves. This is probably the reason my Mormon friend stopped for about a decade before having a third instead of doing so right away. The global decline in birthrates is intrinsically tied up with people deciding to start forming family at later ages, which they feel compelled to do due to the education rat race.
Critical Age Theory understands that the ways in which modern society oppresses the young ultimately hinders their ability to get married and have children. Entitlements directly take money out of their pockets they could be spending on their families, high housing costs make it difficult to have enough space for them, labor laws lock them out of jobs on account of their age, and, most importantly of all, credentialism wastes a huge portion of the limited window in which women are able to reproduce.
Movements need a coherent story to tell about the ways different policies fit together, along with the link between politics and culture, but also some higher good that they are working towards. A message that youth should not be wasted becomes more appealing when combined with some ideas about what makes for a fulfilling and meaningful life. For most people throughout history, this has involved family, and collapsing birth rates is one of the greatest threats not only to human flourishing, but also to the possibility of people living today finding purpose in their lives.
Most anti-gerontocratic policies can be classified as anti-statist. If the new youth movement wants to broaden its appeal, it may advocate generous subsidies for parents to win over liberals, who might otherwise be hesitant to throw their support behind a movement whose answer to everything involves somehow cutting government spending or regulation. What’s important is the efficiency of policies, and their larger impact on prosperity and the kinds of life choices they facilitate. If you’re going to have government do something, it’s better to cut checks than set occupational licensing requirements. And if you’re going to redistribute wealth, money being sent to people during the time of their life when they can reproduce is superior to entitlements benefitting retirees, and certainly preferable to spending on education, which subsidizes a system of negative-sum credentialism. Some liberals have become convinced on issues like occupational licensing reform and YIMBYism, while practically none want to eliminate government spending to help the poor across the board. Those with libertarian inclinations should meet them halfway, and hopefully anti-gerontocracy can transcend the conventional right-left divide.
Appealing to liberals — and most other people for that matter — will require that anti-gerontocrats support abortion rights, and reproductive technologies. A pro-natalist movement must avoid any hint of coercion with regards to people’s intimate decisions or what the right kind of family looks like. The last few election cycles have made clear that opposition to abortion rights creates political vulnerabilities like practically no other position. It will doom anything associated with it, and is therefore a trap that anti-gerontocrats must avoid. People need to be convinced that family is a good thing that they should voluntarily choose. Recent history shows that attempts to impose social conservatism from above usually backfire, and the political reaction to Dobbs is only one demonstration of this fact.
A Popular Movement of Unpopular Proposals
The idea of a “youth movement” is of course not new, and young people have often had a collective consciousness that has been directed towards political ends. Unfortunately, when they protest or become politically active today, it is often to defend the gerontocracy rather than oppose it. For example, young people in France last year took to the streets to protest the government proposing to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 and put the country on a sound financial footing.
It is beyond question that gerontocratic policies are broadly popular, and this is of course why we have so many of them in the first place. At the same time, since at least the 1960s there has been a popular understanding in elite culture that young people have the moral high ground in any political debate with their elders. The way to make unpopular policies less so might be to fit them into a morally compelling larger narrative, one that provides explanations for many of society’s major problems, along with solutions to them.
Social Security reform as a way to reduce the welfare state doesn’t get a lot of support. Contextualizing entitlement spending as part of a system in which old people keep future generations poor and childless might have a different impact. Anti-gerontocracy has something for both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives can support it because it is pro-market, while liberals can position themselves as being on the side of young people, progress, and more government spending going to help people who need it most.
Even many old people may react positively to an anti-gerontocracy agenda. To assume that they can’t is to once again fall into the trap of thinking in terms of the self-interested voter hypothesis. Old people don’t want to be burdens on the young, and one can appeal to their better angels to convince them to support policies that will make sure they are not.
One might ask, if the status quo bias is so strong, why not just give in to it? Perhaps we should simply protect already existing jobs, maintain current entitlements, and preserve the values of homes because if they go down the sadness that current owners experience will outweigh the joy felt by new buyers. But the problem with submitting to the status quo bias is that it is the enemy of progress, and by looking back on history we can see that it is never the right choice for humanity. Economic growth and technological development always have costs and harm some existing interests. Nobody in 2024 thinks that we should have stopped at 1910, 1800, or 2,000 BC. Even those who want to “go back” don’t want to ever go back that far, and those who post memes of a time when things were supposedly better are almost always just wrong on the underlying facts. To stop progress now is treason to future generations. Tomorrow doesn’t care about the status quo bias of today, and we have an obligation to make sure things continue to get better.
In most policy areas of the agenda put forth here, the anti-gerontocratic position is also the pro-growth one. In a sense, Critical Age Theory is valuable as a heuristic that can motivate political action towards reforms that we should be undertaking anyway. A scholar working in this tradition wouldn’t analyze an issue like housing by simply looking at the relationship between land use policy and costs, but also put the focus on the distributional consequences of current practices across age groups, and potentially the resulting effects on fertility. Economic stagnation is a theoretical problem that is difficult to build a political movement around. The idea that old people are jacking up the costs of houses they own, not letting you place your first foot on the ladder like they did, and then taking money out of your meager paycheck to build a second boat creates a much more vivid image and is more likely to have an impact.
To be on the side of the youth is to be on the side of the future. A teleological view of history, the kind that has formed the basis of many political movements, is therefore combined with a demand that society become more vital, risk taking, and fearless in the present. Adding a cultural and policy-focused pro-natalism into the package can further increase its appeal.
Modern conservatism in particular needs to try something new. Across the Western world, the right can win elections but it usually repulses smart people and the young, giving it little ability to influence powerful institutions or have hope of seeing its values win out in the long run. I think that a major problem here is that conservatism hasn’t been able to tell a compelling story that gives people meaning. For many on the right a sense of purpose comes from religious faith, but this doesn’t scale in increasingly secular modern societies. While the left has stories like overcoming systemic inequalities and gaia worship, the closest thing right-wing politics in America has to a religious sensibility is Trumpism, which appeals to a comic degree to people who are old, stupid, and often senile.
Anyone who adopted an anti-gerontocratic agenda would find their positive feelings towards young people far from reciprocated in the short run. When I was at UCLA, I’d get my hair cut at a barber training school, where stylists had to get their hours before going out into the real world, because it was close by and cheap. At one point I talked to the girl working there about how many hours California required and when I said it sounded like it took too long, she seemed to get offended and replied this was for safety reasons. This was surprising, and made me realize that it’s probably too depressing to think that the government is making you waste years of your life jumping through hoops for no good reason, and so people justify this by coping and identifying with whatever the status quo happens to be. This is probably why there is no youth movement fighting to eliminate occupational licensing or make school shorter. It is a tragic fact that gerontocracy makes even those oppressed by the system sympathetic to it.
In most policy areas, young people are generally at least as pro-gerontocracy as their elders, which as already mentioned is just another demonstration of how the self-interested voter hypothesis is false. But in politics, people have a natural tendency to become more sympathetic to those who show them the most respect and claim to speak in their name. Forces hostile to progress on the left have done us a favor by creating a culture that equates youth with idealism and passion for justice, and age with a stodgy narrow-minded defense of the status quo. Now it is up to us anti-gerontocrats to make the case for a new politics that will actually help young people of today, provide them purpose, and protect the interests of future generations.