Our future is apt to be squandered if we diminish the value of the lives of our youth.
We live in an age where greed is almost applauded, collateral damage is rationalized and divisiveness permeates the atmosphere. Our youth are being placed in terrible jeopardy. Young men and women are endangered to the extent that it questions how much we value them.
Young members of the low-income and minority population are particularly at risk. They are fortunate if they can be last hired; they are sure to be first fired.
Michelle Alexander's book "The New Jim Crow" speaks to the one pathway that is prison, which is just a modern version of Jim Crow laws. The book "War" by Sebastian Junger speaks to the military alternative and the physical and psychological dangers of war. Both of these options have too high a casualty rate for our youth. I served in the Air Force during the Korean conflict, and I am proud of that service.
When I entered the service, it was a real choice among many alternatives available to me. Now, young people have far too few career or employment choices. We need to provide many alternatives for them to develop and enjoy the full range of the resources available in order for them to make the maximum contribution to society. Entertainment and sports can't be the only career alternatives available to poor and minority youth. These professions come with an array of dangers and limited possibilities of success.
Young men and women in their late teens are prone to action. Educational, meaningful career alternatives must be made available to these young people, rather than more life-threatening alternatives.
In America, status is bestowed and assumed based upon a person's job. What young people are doing with careers has great self-esteem implications for them. A job is not just income. It communicates to them who they are. Too many unemployed youth define themselves as rappers or writers.
As I enter the twilight of my life, I have become conscious of not just my own mortality but also the future of the world. I have been fortunate to live a rich, complete life. Too many of our youth will never have the opportunities and the experiences that we who are participating in the decisions about their lives have enjoyed. I want all of our youth to benefit from the opportunities the world has to offer. I also want the world to benefit from the dynamic resource potential of all of youth.
The lives that are lost or endangered in prison or at war are all valuable lives. Our youth should all have value added to them by us. The value we add to young lives increases our contribution to the future world. Imagine how much value could be added to our youth and society by skill enhancement and community development training in the armed services, in prison and in industry.
We need to modify the destructive and insensitive attitudes, systems and policies that so effectively channel our youth to the troughs of minimal productivity, danger and potential destruction.
We must find ways to match our youth with their precious, oftentimes daring and unselfish lives with systems of opportunity and behaviors that develop and enhance them rather than endanger them. We must embrace meaningful development of our youth as a natural and necessary investment in the world's future.
A friend, who asked to remain anonymous, once said: "At least I'll have a chance in the Army."
William E. "Gene" Robertson is a Columbia resident and a professor emeritus at MU.