“The cynic might say young people are just too lazy to act on all those good intentions. I’d say we just need a push in the right direction,” writes Elias Wachtel. (Photo by Anda Chu/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

My Generation Needs to Do National Service

Young people would appreciate America a lot more if we stopped acting like tourists in our own country.

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Trump’s former acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller, recently said he thought mandatory national service should be “strongly” considered. Trump, however, has forcefully denied that it was part of his second-term plan, claiming that he had “never even thought of that idea.” Looking at the state of my generation, though, I’d argue there’s never been a better time for national service, no matter who wins in November. 

America is seeing a widespread decline in service among young people. In 2023, military recruitment hit a new low, falling 41,000 recruits short of its target across all branches, with the majority of America’s youth viewing the armed forces unfavorably. And in a 2019 report, University of Maryland researchers found “a significant gap between young adults’ historically high interest in helping others and actual volunteering among young adults.” In other words, young people are teeming with a desire to help others, but few of us actually do.

The cynic might say we’re just too lazy to act on all those good intentions. I’d say we just need a push in the right direction. 

And that’s where a national service program comes in. For many young people, this would mean training with the armed forces. For others, it would mean manning infrastructure projects; maintaining our national parks; supporting elder care, education, or border patrol. In any case, the assignment would be the same: spend a year after high school collaborating with a diverse group of peers on projects designed to make America better, stronger, and safer. 

The program could be mandatory or heavily incentivized—for instance, college scholarships could be issued, and student loans forgiven only after a service requirement is fulfilled. But the aim would be for the program to become desirable in itself, even for the rich kids who don’t need scholarships. National service could be a place to learn real skills, a résumé boost for serious employers, and a badge of honor for kids of all backgrounds. In Norway, national service in the military is so prestigious that kids actually end up competing for spots.

Of course, America’s last military draft was deeply unpopular, but there have been plenty of successful and bipartisan service programs since then, including Bush’s USA Freedom Corps and Clinton’s AmeriCorps. And based on the limited polling out there, around half of Americans actually like the idea of national service. 

It’s easy to see why. It would not only be good for our country but good for young people too, a balm for all the problems we’re tired of hearing about: loneliness, anxiety, polarization, and a distinct lack of patriotism. We’d appreciate America more if we stopped acting like tourists in our own country—enjoying what it has to offer without taking responsibility for its well-being.

Elias Wachtel is an intern at The Free Press. To support our work, subscribe today:

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