Help Wanted: Why Public Service Is More Crucial Than Ever

December 18, 2018

When President George H.W. Bush died in November, the many tributes he received invariably framed him as the prototypical public servant, a throwback to a bygone era when people entered politics because they felt compelled to offer something to enhance society’s greater good. Indeed, one of the late president’s signature quotes, uttered during a 2011 tribute to Ronald Reagan, was, “There could be no definition of a successful life that does not include service to others. Find something to do. Get off the bench. Don’t sit there whining, sucking your thumb, get in the game.”

Cynics might note that it’s a lot easier for those who come from privileged backgrounds—such as the Bush family, or the Kennedys—to make the economic sacrifices that public service often demands. They might further argue that our political systems have become so corrupted by money and outside influence that the very term “public service” has become hopelessly quaint.

On that point, we at The Dime would argue that public service careers have not only always been cool, they’re also making a comeback. Consider the following: In 2018, voter participation hit its highest level in a midterm election since 1914. That turnout rate was only 50.1%, so we as an electorate still have some work to do toward engaging with our fragile democracy. (But we Coloradans can go ahead and give ourselves a high-five, because almost 65% of our voting-eligible population showed up to the polls last month, another example of our typically lofty participation rates.)

Consider also these headline-makers over the past year: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Gillum, Stacey Abrams, and—last but surely not least—public schoolteachers. Although three of those four pols lost their respective races, their campaigns made such positive and wide-ranging impacts that they’re all landing on “ones to watch” lists, and O’Rourke just placed (rather astonishingly) third in a poll of potential Democratic presidential candidates in 2020.

None of these public servants is older than 46, and Ocasio-Cortez—at 29 years old and the one rising star in the group who will actually be in Congress next year—is already making it clear that she’s in Washington to work and be heard. She won’t be alone, as the 2018 wave wasn’t just blue, it was young: Come January, there will be 25 newly elected members of Congress who are under 40 years old, effectively lowering the average age on Capitol Hill by 10 years.

This infusion of youthful energy is just what public service needs, and that brings us to the teachers. This past year witnessed educator activism across the country, as the people to whom we’ve entrusted our children’s futures rose as one and demanded that, at long last, they be given the resources to do their jobs well. It’s likely that this movement will only intensify in 2019 now that teacher activism and enthusiasm is achieving results at all levels of government.

Today’s early- and mid-career professionals have spent much or all of their lives either coming out of the last recession or heading into the next one. They’ve never or have barely experienced a sustained economic boom. Millennials in particular are facing the reality that they might be the first generation in U.S. history to be financially worse off than their parents. The reasons for this are myriad, systemic, and decades in the making. So if we’re seeing an influx of young talent and brain power into our public service arenas, it’s likely because these unapologetic “whippersnappers” (Google it) have realized that not only do their ideas for fixing these problems deserve a platform, they’re the ones who are most ready to complete the repairs.

If the still-nascent 21st century has taught us anything, it’s that American public service needs a makeover. And who better to do that than our energetic, entrepreneurial, tech- and policy-savvy young people? Don’t want to run for office? Maybe you’d like to work for an inspirational legislator. Don’t want to be a teacher? Perhaps you’d be better suited to lead a school or be a guidance counselor. Or a State Trooper patrolling Colorado’s mountain roads. Or a snowplow driver clearing them.

The sheer number of ways you can give back to your community, your state, and/or your country are practically endless. So are the rewards. These aren’t necessarily monetary—although a robust public pension like the one Colorado PERA administers is a definite perk—but they’re tangible and empowering. So if you really want to be a part of this wave of change, to reset our systems and help point them toward a stronger future that benefits everyone, consider a career in public service. You’ll wake up every morning knowing that what you do, in its own small but significant way, is strengthening the kind of honor-bound call to duty that President Bush and those like him felt was an essential component to civic life.