Sign up for our newsletter

That felt right. We’ll be in touch soon about our new secret handshake.

Sorry, something went wrong!

Let’s keep this relationship going.

post

We need a year of mandatory national service. Right now.

It’s your 18th birthday and the notice just arrived: you have four years to decide how you’d like to perform your year of mandatory national service. It could be the military, volunteering in rural schools or hospitals, job retraining in regions with low employment, working in prisons, urban development, building community gardens, or environmental cleanup. There are dozens of options. You can do it after high school, during a college gap year, or upon graduating. You can do it near home or in another state. But you do have to do it. You have to live in communal housing, with people you don’t know, who might be very different from you. You’ll receive a small stipend for expenses. You will, like your friends did, come out of it with a new perspective on life.

Which is precisely what this country needs.

The struggle is real

People have been talking about a year of mandatory national service for generations. Aside from the draft, we’ve always found a way to prevent it. Perhaps it wasn’t needed as much as it is now. But today we live in a world where ideas like duty and service have fallen so far out of favor Prejudice and self-centeredness are on the rise. Political and ideological divisions have us in rigid camps that don’t allow for dialogue.

Some of us struggle every day with discrimination, poverty, and unemployment, while others live in a world of privilege and rarely have to experience anything that isn’t of our choosing. Our reality is defined by our community, and the information and entertainment that confirms our ideas about the world. As a result, we have developed inbred thinking. We all live in an echo chamber of our own beliefs, which is the intellectual equivalent of marrying your cousin. We have lost the ability to empathize and compromise. We need to fix that–not by getting conservatives to think more like liberals or by getting liberals to stop whining, but by getting a diverse group of people together who have to work out their differences to solve common problems.

We have developed inbred thinking. We all live in an echo chamber of our own beliefs, which is the intellectual equivalent of marrying your cousin.

It has to be mandatory

That means mandatory service. Why mandatory? First, think of people who have gone through difficult situations where they had to adapt and grow, work hard and overcome adversity—and perhaps learn to see through another’s eyes. Most people describe these as the experiences that were both the most memorable and the most crucial to their development. And yet, almost everyone would have bailed on those difficult scenarios if they had the choice. Few of us willingly choose to struggle, and we generally try to avoid things that are going to be hard for us.

Secondly, even if we choose the difficult path, figuring out how to get there can be hard. It takes a lot of effort to set up your life so that you can spend a year serving and still be able to feed and house yourself. You have to really want it.

Mandatory service would make it much easier. You wouldn’t have to figure out how you’re going to pay your bills that year, you’d just have to figure out how you’re going to serve. We’ve already started building the infrastructure. Retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal noted in a piece he wrote in Time magazine that, in addition to AmeriCorps, YouthBuild, Peace Corps, Service Year Alliance, and state-run programs, many universities now have service-oriented components within their degree programs.

“In coal country in Kentucky, fifty Volunteers in Service to America helped put unemployed coal miners back to work in computer coding and telework jobs and connected more than 25,000 unemployed workers to job training and placement services, he noted. In Detroit, 150 national service members in an Urban Safety Corps are reducing crime and increasing public safety by engaging residents in boarding up vacant homes, expanding neighborhood watch groups, ensuring students get to school safely, and conducting home safety audits to protect residents from violence. Crime has declined in these neighborhoods and saved taxpayers millions of dollars… States like Iowa and Virginia are using existing resources… to boost literacy and alleviate child hunger."

Gen. McChrystal likened it to military service, where diverse people are forced to overcome their prejudices and rethink their assumptions in order to work as a team and fulfill the mission. Of course, it’s not a perfect system. Some people choose their biases over everything. But as humans, we have the tendency to adapt and make the best of situations in order to survive them, which means we’re likely to grow in ways we wouldn’t otherwise. There has been extensive research on how to overcome prejudice. The American Psychological Association has identified strategies that succeed, all of which could be accomplished through a year of service among diverse people, like making friendships and doing projects with people who are different from you. The onus, however, is on the participant to actively work to change their perspective and see things from someone else’s viewpoint.

As humans, we have the tendency to adapt and make the best of situations in order to survive them, which means we’re likely to grow in ways we wouldn’t otherwise.

Another reason it has to be mandatory is that there are inherent rewards to serving others that you can’t perceive until you’ve done it. Most of us would assume that we would reach our greatest happiness by doing exactly what we want for ourselves. It takes experience to learn otherwise. If you don’t have a habit of exercising, it seems counterintuitive to want to get off the sofa and go for a run. It’s not until you’ve experienced the rush of endorphins after a few miles that you really understand why people get out and do it every day.

Research has revealed tons of health benefits that come from serving others—reduced stress and lowered blood pressure, just to name a few. But until you have that experience and have the dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin rush it gives you, you may never think of giving as rewarding. Just like you’ll never understand why it feels good to work out hard until you do it, you’ll never understand how putting others first can feel amazing until you do that.

Our country needs this now

In a 2002 article from Washington research group and think tank Brookings Institution, they urged Congress to create a year of national service. They were making the point that people don’t seem to see it as their responsibility to preserve a free and healthy democracy.

“Service can become a form of cheap grace, a generalized call on citizens to do kind things as an alternative to a genuine summons for national sacrifice or a fair apportionment of burdens among the more and less powerful, the more and less wealthy. But when service is seen as a bridge to genuine political and civic responsibility, it can strengthen democratic government and foster the republican virtues.”

This idea that we all need to take responsibility for the success of freedom, of the republic, seems to have faded. We need to bring it back, and the best way to do it is by requiring people do something productive in the service of a greater cause.

This idea that we all need to take responsibility for the success of freedom, of the republic, seems to have faded. We need to bring it back, and the best way to do it is by requiring people do something productive in the service of a greater cause.

When we’re little, somebody makes us eat our vegetables, brush our teeth, do our homework and chores—because we’d never make ourselves do it. We’d eat candy and watch videos or go jump in the pool before we learned how to swim.

The selfish bickering in our nation shows that we need a little external motivation to work on our emotional maturity now, the way a kid needs to be told to brush their teeth. There’s a level of maturity, wisdom, courage, that only comes when you step into that place of being the one with something to give. As evidence, McChrystal pointed out that the volunteers who had been helping through various programs were being snapped up as full-time employees by the states where they worked because they have built skills in leadership, problem-solving, and teamwork.

We’ve reached this intractable place of negativity in a system designed to keep us at odds with each other. There are a lot of people who benefit from this, and none of them have the country’s best interests at heart. We need leaders who can cross cultures, who can serve others. In the past, these leaders were inspired to make a difference by war, by The Great Depression. We need something drastic to push people into the role of leadership. There should be no more whining about adulting. We’re the only adults there are. If we don’t step up, we’ll be crushed by our own selfishness and divisions.

It might be hard, and it might not work at first, but in the long run, it will make this country a better place.

So shut up and eat your vegetables, America.

Susan Lahey is a journalist who lives in Austin and writes about everything that piques her curiosity including travel, technology, work, business, art, sustainability and cultivating deep, messy, exquisite humanness in the digital age.

Ethan Kanat dabbles in many of the finer things: music, fancy bourbon, technology, writing, branding, and awkward silences. He also plays around with brand strategy at Zendesk.