This article advocates for a national but state-administered social service draft, whereby youth between the ages of 16 and 21 would be participate in a variety of activities designed to develop personal skills and contribute to the social, economic and structural benefit of American society. Some hypothetical pros and cons of such a program are discussed along with rough-draft details on specific activities, rewards, rank hierarchies and placements.
The idea of a (nationalized) social service draft is not new. One of the more interesting versions was proposed by conservative William F. Buckley, which was addressed and critiqued in an article by Aaron Larson entitled The Draft, National Service and National Unity. (2013). Buckley referred to the “pulsation of consanguinity” inherent in such a program that could “unite the Laramie cowboy and the Greenwich Village Literateur” and… “ever so slightly elevate us from the trough of self-concern and self-devotion.” (1990)
Similar sentiments have been expressed by writer Michael Gerson, who envisioned a program, whereby, instead of giving 18 year olds a selective service number(as in military conscription), they’d be given information regarding the five branches of the armed forces along with the option of serving one year in a national service program, not mandated but “expected” (Larison, 2013)
The model here differs from both Buckley’s broad, patriotic vision and Gerson’s more detailed model. Here the rationale is more psychological/remunerative and geared more to improving concurrently, the skill levels, self-image, and pro-social mindset of the participants and the economic and social aspects of American life. In line with Larison’s criticism of a national service program, drafting services which he reasonably asserts could prove to be at the very least inconvenient and possibly aversive to the young draftees, this program is based on the notion that an effective social draft must be both rewarding to participants and beneficial to the nation. Prior to discussing programmatic details it might be helpful to consider some features of adolescent development.
RITES OF PASSAGE
There are several ways in which to view adolescence. One is as a hybrid developmental stage somewhere between a child and an adult, combining and/or confusing the need for independent decision making with the need for parental guidance. This view implies that guidance of an adolescent is an evolutionary process. With fingers crossed, parents, school personnel and society in general hope that just the right proportion of structure and latitude will not only help the teenager develop into a solid citizen but also ameliorate the stresses and strains on society often created by their awkward and at times antisocial behavior.
A second view is encapsulated in the famous phrase of sociologist Margaret Mead, to wit… “bury them at 15 and dig them up at 21.” This rather whimsical purveyed notion implies that society must tolerate, support and weather the ups and downs of adolescent behavior, based on the idea that this period of development is fraught with turmoil, and that the teenager’s actions and emotions are fairly similar to those of a psychiatric disturbed individual. This concept of adolescence seems extreme, until one considers that on tests like the Minnesota Multi-Phasic Inventory, even normal adolescents often present with quasi-pathological patterns.
There is another view of this quintessentially important time of life – not as a diversion from adulthood or an awkward period of semi-independence, but as a distinct temporal gateway (upon invitation) to society proper. It is typified by rites of passage and often involves a symbolic, watershed moment – fully approved by all members of the community, in which a pot-ceremonial teenager is finally pronounced a “man” or “woman.” From that moment on, he or she is expected to act like an adult, adhere to relevant responsibilities, and be eligible for relevant benefits.
It is easier to enact such a process in a small, technologically unsophisticated society because there is greater vigilance by all members and the necessity of having group cohesion (for example in nomadic groups) puts enormous pressure on all members to conform. In a more complex society, with less supervisory vigilance and more inter-group (and generational) diversity that is much more difficult.
Still, the idea of an event signaling formally to one and all that the child has become a man or woman would seem to have enormous psychological potential; both for the adolescent and society in general. For one thing it would alleviate some of the “sturm und drang” discussed initially by G. Stanley Hall (1904) by replacing teen confusion with circumscribed developmental timelines and a sense of purpose – irrespective of whether one is a “jock,” a “geek,” a “nerd” or a prom king or queen. One could also surmise that a rite of passage encompassing many and varied groups of adolescents might lead to their developing a more unified view of the world.
THE FOURTH WAY – RESOLUTION
Despite the complexities of large, complex, modern societies there might be a way to re-introduce the idea of a rite of passage, while still acknowledging the trials and tribulations of adolescence. It could happen in the context of a social service draft.
Such a program would not be symbolic. Rather, the program would solicit youthful energy as a means of administering to the work requirements, support, and other functional needs of the nation. Yet, while the benefits of such a program might be considerable, it would not be an easy undertaking. There are several things to consider.
A look at the mathematical/social impact of adolescent behavior in American society is revealing. For example, a recent study by the Urban Institute revealed that the age group with the highest rate for violent crime is between 15 and 25. A study conducted by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) showed similar patterns and a study on obesity indicated that more than twice as many teens and young adults are overweight than was the case in 1970. All of these trends create substantial behavioral overhead for the nation in the form costly social supports, drug rehabilitation programs and various activities within the criminal and judicial systems.
While parental supervision is not only extremely important and arguably the most effective mean of regulating such behavior patterns, the average parent has much less time to supervise their adolescent sons and daughters than in the past. That, combined with the teen culture that sprang up in the 50s and has since magnified in importance has served to reduce the disciplinary influence of parents and other authority figures. Our culture has provided teens with an anti-social option, which completely obviates the powerful influence of parental discipline, work responsibilities and social ostracism – contingencies that once reined in adolescent behaviors.
This influence is perhaps more problematic today due to functionally prolonged adolescence. For example marriage was once an ostensible rite of passage, signaling the end of vagabond immaturity and the onset of personal responsibility. Marriage obviously requires that spouses earn income, try to get along, compromise, work cooperatively – all those skills encompassed in Freud’s idea of the ego function. Data compiled by the Office of National Statistics indicates that in 1980 the average marital age was 23 for males and 20 for females. It is now 32.1 for males and 30 for females. That would seem to provide a greater time gap in which society must deal with potential egocentrism, non-productivity, lassitude and increasing levels of malfeasance among young people. All entail cost to society. Given those considerations, it might be possible for a social service draft to not only alleviate cost but to enhance the nation in a variety of ways.
PHYSICS AND THE TEEN PSYCHE
It is perhaps awkward but not unreasonable to apply Einstein’s general theory of relativity to adolescent development. According to the former, energy is a constant. It cannot be obliterated, only change form. Consequently the work it is capable of doing depends on how it is channeled. Interestingly, Freud developed a similar idea around the functions of the psyche. He described it as an energy system that could either produce art, science and helpful endeavors via an eros-driven mechanism or turn inward and diffuse via a thanatotic process. In simpler terms, both believed (and in Einstein’s case, proved) that energy can be either helpful or dangerous, used to produce miracles or disasters, and thus to be respected at every turn. Adolescence is not just a developmental stage. It is also a state of enhanced psychic, physiological and emotional energy. That energy has no neutrality. It is extant and can only help or hurt. That notion further supports the argument for implementation of a social service draft.