Richard Nixon photo

Remarks on the NBC Radio Network: "Today's Youth: The Great Generation"

October 16, 1968

You can learn a great deal, campaigning for President, if you'll just stop to look and listen.

This is especially true when it comes to understanding what is on the minds of young people.

I have had the chance to sit down and have deep discussions with student leaders; to study suggestions by young people in thoughtful letters and memos; and I have been on the receiving end of some pointed messages on signs carried by young people at our rallies.

One of those signs especially caught my eye. It was at a rally in front of a high school at Burbank, California. It read: "Talk With Us, Not At Us."

There are two major parts to this Presidential Campaign. One deals specifically with the issues of today, highlights the many failures of the policies of the past eight years and offers the voters a clear-cut choice.

The other part of the campaign—the one you hear less about—is just as important; it is the effort to unite, to redirect, and ultimately to lead the United States. Philosophy of government and the sweep of history are at stake in this longer-range campaign: it is concerned with tomorrow, and for that reason it should be especially relevant to our young people today.

This part of the campaign began some months ago with my discussion of the reasons for alienation, the sense of not belonging, as I called for an expanded democracy; it was developed further in a radio talk about my activist concept of the office of the Presidency, as a place for moral leadership. At colonial Williamsburg, I spoke of the yearning of the American spirit to recapture personal freedom. And recently I spoke of more specific ways that freedom could be gained through an enlistment of the powers of the voluntary sector.

Tonight let me discuss with you how our present leadership has failed Young America, and how new leadership can bridge and help to close the gap between the generations.

Too many of us get our impression of American youth from the yippies and the hecklers and the hotheads. These young radicals are no more than a tiny percentage of American youth today. Yes, they must be dealt with and not frozen out; but the vast majority of Americans in their teens and early twenties are accessible to understanding.

However, a great many of these young people are restive and disappointed. Many feel alienated. Not a few refuse to identify themselves with a society they believe is immoral and unjust.

We can begin by admitting that too many of our finest young people feel overpowered, over-patronized, and over-protected.

Overpowered in this way: they feel little or no participation in the decisions that affect their lives. Too often, they feel, government tells them what to do, the schools tell them how to do it, and their parents tell them what not to do. No wonder so many feel powerless and frustrated.

Over-patronized, I say, in this way: far too few of us really listen to what young people are saying. We defend their right to speak up and to dissent, we smile self-righteously at our own tolerance, and then we pay no attention to their message.

Overprotected, they also feel, in this way: the old leadership has offered no challenge, no cause to inspire young people to take as their own.

Understandably, an older generation tries to shield youth from repeating its own mistakes; we don't want youth to suffer the hardship we had to suffer. Sometimes we overreact by sheltering and coddling; some young people come away feeling that the world owes them a living.

What we really owe everyone is a hearing. So let's see how we can come to grips with the first problem—of overpowering our youth.

In high school and college students elect leaders of student organizations. Too often, these student leaders have no real weight with school administrators; students aren't fooled by mere trappings of democracy that have no substance.

We have to level with students. They are entitled to a voice in school affairs, not control of school affairs; they have a right to take part, not a right to take over.

More school administrators have to wake up to the healthy new needs of student participation, and incorporate that activity into the learning process. Unless effective student leadership can be exercised by elected student officials, the leadership will be seized by a noisy and unrepresentative minority.

State government also has a role in giving all young people—students and young workers alike—more of a voice in their own affairs. The states decide on voting age; I believe that all the states should carefully consider giving 18-year-olds the right to vote.

The reason the voting age should be lowered is not that 18-year-olds are old enough to fight—it is because they are smart enough to vote. They are more socially conscious, more politically aware, and much better educated than their parents were at age 18. Youth today is just not as young as it used to be.

This watershed political year of 1968 has shown us that young people need not be of voting age to have a real impact. In a sense, a young person can vote now with his enthusiasm and his political work. In my own campaign, the support of youth has added a tone and a life of immense value.

The Federal government, too, has an opportunity to serve youth; the greatest uncertainty of every young person is the possibility of being drafted. After Vietnam, I believe we should move toward improving the pay and other benefits of the armed forces and making military service entirely voluntary. I will discuss this in detail on radio tomorrow night.

There is a second wedge being driven between the generations, widening the gap: that is overpatronizing.

Some of this is unintentional. Many members of the middle young, aged 12 to 18, resent being called "teenagers" by older people. They react the same way as someone in his thirties or forties when he is called "middle aged."

By overpatronizing, I don't mean the boys-will-be-boys condescension of the past, bad as that was. I mean the cold, smug, dangerous patronizing of today. On one extreme, it dismisses dissent by its refusal to pay attention; on the other extreme, it caves into disruption with a smothering permissiveness.

Youth today has a right to demand that an older generation live up to two responsibilities: to guide and to listen.

We fail our youth when we let a university be shut down; we fail our youth when we permit a peaceful dissenter to be shut up; we fail our youth when we permit wonderment and impulsiveness to be shut out.

There are students today who think the way to make a mark in life is to scrawl a slogan on a wall; we have a responsibility to guide their passion into positive channels.

We must listen to the voices of dissent, sometimes strident, sometimes cool, because the protestor may have something to say worth listening to.

We must firmly guide the anarchists away from disruption. Not because we get any satisfaction out of repression, but because free inquiry can only exist in the framework of order.

But if we dismiss dissent as coming from "rebels without a cause", we will soon find ourselves becoming leaders without an effect.

We must replace patronizing with respect. There will be more respect for law when young people know that justice is not limited to those who are respectable. We will see youth respect its elders when we show some respect for the opinions of our youngsters.

A third problem is caused by overprotection. This is a kind of put-down by pacification.

The most important message I receive from young people today is this: "Don't try to hand us our lives on a silver platter. Don't prepackage our futures. Don't try to play God by making us over in your own image."

Young people today, more than ever before, need a challenge. If an established order cannot provide a worthy challenge, the established order itself becomes the challenge. That is what the old leadership has permitted to happen today. That is what we must change.

The old leadership has provided many of our young people with a fine array of issues to be against; an unending war and the draft; over-centralization of government and impairment of personal freedom; a value system that seems to count the individual merely as a cog in a machine.

Our future leadership must provide our young people with a cause to be for; a commitment to the right to be unique; a dedication to social responsibility on a person-to-person basis.

We are not talking here about a way to work off youthful enthusiasm; we are talking about a way to work in a sense of idealism and meaning that will grow throughout a person's life.

Let me be specific.

There are 7 million college students today. The universities they attend are often close to, and sometimes contribute to, urban problems. We have seen how government can make use of academic facilities as "think tanks" to move in on difficult projects. Every university must become a "think tank" for its local community.

In that way students will add realism to their education, as they bring needed services to their communities. A sociology student should have the chance to relate his work to the real problems within walking distance; a science student should be able to take advantage of extracurricular work with an anti-pollution unit; a mathematician into traffic control computers.

Some of this is well under way in pioneering colleges across the country; but now it should become a way of college life. I would hope to see colleges give recognition to students who devote time helping to solve urban problems.

This summer in New York 6,000 students participated in Mayor John Lindsay's Urban Corps, a summer intern program through which the city government and students work together to solve the problems created by poverty.

In Philadelphia about 800 University of Pennsylvania students are working in the ghettos through a variety of voluntary agencies.

Governor Dan Evans' program in the State of Washington, called "Action for Washington," has attracted many young people who are working with the problems of the cities and tutoring slum children. Students across the country —in Los Angeles, Vassar, at Michigan State University and many other places—are involved in similar programs.

Five hundred George Washington University undergraduates are tutoring prisoners, psychiatric patients, and slum children in the city of Washington, D.C. They are helping with recreational programs for retarded children and assisting teachers in music, art, and dancing classes. American University has a similar program in the same city.

More young people are applying for the Vista program every day.

Here are ways of preventing a generation gap of tomorrow.

All across the nation, the Federal government, working with the states, could encourage and help to finance training seminars for college students— and high school seniors as well—to teach them how to teach young children to better their reading and writing skills, as they work under local school teachers to open doors to learning for the disadvantaged.

The young people dealing with children in this way will experience all the frustrations and anxieties of every elder dealing with a member of a younger generation. When a youth encounters a child who doesn't trust anybody over 10-years-old, he will find it both infuriating and uplifting; this kind of service will then contribute toward an understanding of the sources of tension between himself and his older generation.

I have met with members of our student coalition, who are at work now to chart this type of activity in the next Administration. The idea of bringing the resources of youthful energy to bear on urban problems is beginning to take root; what is needed now is a national commitment to provide incentive and financing to the great challenge facing this generation of Americans.

Let me sketch the kind of program that the Federal government can and should undertake in its commitment to Young America:

I propose to establish a Youth Service Agency as an independent agency within the Federal government. It would have the mission of bringing together the separate and often duplicating functions dealing with the problems of youth that are now scattered all across the Federal system.

I am well aware that setting up a new agency is all too often an excuse for empire building within the Federal bureaucracy.

In the case of the Youth Service Agency, however, the result will be to focus what is now diffused; to change what is now a lick and a promise by many agencies to genuine performance by one. The goal is not to separate youth; the goal is to bring young people into the decision-making process.

This will be an agency pledged to marshaling the energies of youth to do much for themselves and for others; the byword will be challenge, not handout.

The new Youth Service Agency would encompass these functions:

1.   An Open Channel Section, to establish effective two-way communication with organized youth groups, such as student associations, the 4-H Clubs, Jaycees, Boy and Girl Scouts, Future Farmers, YMCA and YMHA groups, the Young Republicans and Young Democrats, ghetto youth (through the Urban Service Corps and similar organizations), and alienated and rebellious groups and individuals as well.

2.  A Sports and Fitness Section. The United States is one of the very few major nations without an emphasis on youth and sports. I am speaking here about general physical fitness programs for all young people, not only the gifted few. More than half our young people are rejected by the armed services for physical and mental reasons; right now, a half dozen Federal agencies are conducting research on physical fitness. This could be better handled in one place.

3.  A World Youth Activity Section. The youth leaders of foreign nations today will be the national leaders tomorrow; Communist nations wisely cultivate this area and we do not. At World Youth Festivals and sports events the U.S. should be well represented. Support should be openly solicited from private groups, coordinated by this agency; our goals should be full disclosure and full participation. I would include in this agency's charter student exchange programs and other international youth programs now scattered throughout the government.

4.   The young people's ombudsman. There should be a single section, staffed by young people well versed in government operations, where youth can turn for cooperation all through the Federal government. The departments of Defense, of HEW, of Agriculture, for example, have enormous influence on the future of young people in America; here too an ombudsman would provide a perceptive entry point for the views of youth and act as a champion and an advocate of complaints and new ideas.

This by no means fully covers the next Administration's commitment to youth: other fields such as education have been and will be discussed in later broadcasts.

But these ideas give some indication of the importance my Administration will be determined to attach to the legitimate demands of young people of America.

In the long perspective of history, one of the most crucial failures of the past Administration has been the breakdown in communications with the younger generation.

By its neglect, by its insensitivity, by its arrogance, our present leadership has caused an unprecedented chasm to develop in our society.

This is not merely a generation gap; not a slight lake of comprehension between the hip and the square; this is a yawning gulf of irritated boredom between the two halves of our body politic.

It is not for us to be patient with young people, waiting for them to grow out of their exuberance and settle down; it is for us to ally ourselves with their impatience, helping them to build the kind of world they want to live in.

We do not pretend to have all the answers, but we are listening to young people, gathering all the questions.

We will develop new ways to challenge the freshly forming minds of children; we will develop new ways to challenge the questioning minds of the "Middle Young" in their teens, and we will develop new ways to challenge the creative energies of the young adults in their early twenties.

These new ways will not be dictated by older Americans; they will be worked out with the young Americans.

I believe in youth; that is another way of saying I believe in America's future. The next Administration will be a young Administration, youthful in staff and young in spirit.

I have seen what young men and women can do in this campaign, when they are given roles of great responsibility they come through. The problems don't wear them down; they wear down the problems.

That is the spirit we need for tomorrow.

To all my fellow Americans I say: there is a new road ahead, a road wide enough for Americans of every age and color and creed to stride ahead together.

And to the young people of America, I say: that new and relevant road is your road. You will be part of the new leadership. The challenge of change is your challenge, because this land is your land.

What you do for your fellow man is the measure of what you do for yourselves. And as you accept that responsibility, the days of your years will not be labeled the "lost" Generation or the "beat" Generation of the "now" Generation.

If you choose to make it so, yours will be the Great Generation.

The times call out for the Great Generation, generous of heart, questing of mind, committed of spirit, to lift this world into the next millennium.

APP NOTE: From section five of the volume "Nixon Speaks Out" titled, "Unmet Needs and America's Opportunities".

Richard Nixon, Remarks on the NBC Radio Network: "Today's Youth: The Great Generation" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project