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Moral Redemption for the Wrong Generation : PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE

March 28, 1993|RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR. | Ruben Navarrette Jr. is the author of the forthcoming book "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano, " (Bantam).

SANGER, CALIF. — Twenty-somethings beware; your elders have chores for you.

Leave it to the baby boomers to have devised a plan to address a laundry list of societal ills and, at the same time, save the souls of the next generation. They call it: national service.

The plan, estimated to cost $7.4 billion over four years, has two professed objectives: to alleviate the financial burden of attending college so that higher education is more accessible to more Americans, and to provide workers for socially beneficial public-sector jobs, part of Bill Clinton's prescription for what ails America. Under the plan, high school and college graduates could borrow money for college directly from the government and repay it after graduation either as a percentage of their income or--the preferred alternative--by doing a 1- or 2-year stint in one of those low-glamour, mediocre-paying jobs that parents always want someone else's kids to have: police officers, drug counselors, teachers, nurses, etc.

Criticizing the idea of public service is a bit like taking on mom and apple pie, to be sure. But it has its critics. Some liberals contend the college-for-service premise undermines the altruistic spirit of public service. Labor unions representing the potentially affected jobs are worried that college kids will displace their members.

My growing objections to national service stem from the motivation behind it. Besides the two-birds-with-one-stone appeal of widening access to college while creating a young army of public workers, there is, I suspect, another reason the Clinton Administration is pushing the program. The initiative deals not with the future of my generation but, rather, with the past of its middle-age proponents.

National service is Clinton's nostalgic ode to the Peace Corps. Leaving nothing to subtlety, he announced the idea on the 32nd anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's executive order establishing the corps and invited Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to join him at Rutgers University, where he outlined his plan.

But the 1990s are not the 1960s. My generation has little in common with the baby boomers who want to remedy our weakness for materialism with a dose of national service. Boomers would be wise to remember that my generation, nursing the clearest memory not of John F. Kennedy but of Ronald Reagan, was baptized in the waters of conspicuous consumption.

After 12 years of standing by as crime and drugs plundered our cities, the environment decayed and the U.S. education system wallowed in underfunded mediocrity, baby boomers now appear ready to atone for an orgy of economic excess and social neglect. The problem is that in searching for worker ants to build their model cities, they have overlooked the droves in their own generation and have instead foisted the task of rebuilding America upon mine.

Truth be known, those ringing the service bell do not even like those whom they are summoning. Clinton's generation wrote off mine long ago, ridiculing us with condescending generalizations. "Twenty-nothings," someone joked. Oh, how the elders are disappointed in us.

As precocious children ravaged by divorce, we talked back to our parents in tones that they would never have dared use with theirs. As defiant adolescents, we listened to loud, horrible music, dropped out of high school and marred what should have been carefree teen-age years with high pregnancy rates and bizarre suicide pacts. Later, as troubled college students, we introduced the unsavory term "date rape" into the national vocabulary; backlashed against our liberal professors and the best intentions of political correctness, and somehow could not even manage a decent campus protest or find the polling place. Now, as bewildered young adults, we float aimlessly from job to job with college degrees that were losing value even as our parents were scribbling hefty checks for tuition.

National service offers us a redemption of its own: a chance not only to do good, but also to do good by our elders.

But my generation is not ready for serfdom. Though recent polls suggest that teen-agers expect to make at least $30,000 a year by the age of 30, census data provide the sobering reality that, in the age group of 25-29, there are for every one person who reaches that goal, eight people who do not. Living the American nightmare, we are reversing the American ethic and underdoing our parents. And now, against that windstorm of financial insecurity, Clinton wants me to take my degree and become a policeman or teacher--professions his generation devalued in favor of CEOs, investment bankers and savings-and-loan presidents.

Well, I have no interest in being an indentured servant. There is somewhere in Arkansas a wealthy middle-aged businessman who gorged indiscriminately in recent years and needs redemption. The President can give my chores to him.

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