Behind the Scenes of ‘The Can Kicks Back’ Movement

Millennials explain why they want to kick the can back and tackle the national debt.

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Did you see the viral video of former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson dancing Gangnam Style with a guy in a can costume, urging young voters to press Congress to fix the debt? That video was from The Can Kicks Back, a nonprofit whose aim is to organize 20- and 30-somethings to force the government to get its financial house in order and stop "kicking the can." They're calling for, as the Simpson-Bowles Commission did, $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years. I met the young man in the can costume, Ryan Schoenike, recently, and was curious as to why any young person would get off the couch, stop going to happy hours, and get involved in trying to solve the national debt. Are there others like him, I asked? There sure are, he said. I spoke with three of them this week.

The first, Katelyn Williams, was a freshman last year at Hofstra University when her roommate—a former valedictorian on a merit-based partial scholarship—decided that being a pre-med major was economically unsustainable. Given the looming changes to the healthcare industry and the bleak employment prospects for young people, making a good living as a doctor was going to be difficult. On top of that she would be saddled with a crushing debt: the years of student loans that she would accumulate through the end of medical school. The young woman switched to majoring in business management.

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Young people today face a tough job market, which will make paying back student loans even more difficult. Williams points to the website for The Can Kicks Back, which tells students that prolonged negotiation in Washington over the debt leads to uncertainty. "Uncertainty leads to fewer jobs; by some estimates the unemployment rate would be 2 to 3 percent lower if we had more certainty. That's between 3.1 million and 4.6 million more jobs." While other kids were decorating their dorm rooms, Williams created a Facebook page detailing the implications of the debt for each college major. After attending a Q&A session on campus with Alan Simpson and former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles, she joined The Can Kicks Back.

I spoke with Sean Bayley, a former Marine who is heading to Cal Poly in the fall to double-major in math and engineering. "I'm looking at the entire system and saying, this is not sustainable at all," he says. He sees the "insanity" of uncontrollable entitlement spending as well as the largest single defense budget on the planet. This week the Congressional Budget Office projected that in 10 years, if nothing changes, the debt will reach a whopping 77 percent of GDP. "You could likely raise our generation's tax rates to 100 percent and it still wouldn't cover the projected growth of government spending," Bayley speculates. "Reform is long overdue." After watching Simpson on The Daily Show, he signed up to join the cause too.

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There's also Aaron Tucek, a sophomore at Emory University who is double-majoring in political science and economics and is planning to go to law school. Like many of his friends, he'll have to take on a lot of debt to continue his education. When those student loans are combined with a tough job market and higher taxes because of spiraling interest on the national debt, he gets pretty alarmed. "There simply isn't a future where this is going to go away by itself. We have to find ways to come together and actually solve the problem," he says.

The problem, Tucek notes, is that many "millennials" like him—young people born between 1980 and 2005, a generation bigger than the baby boomers—have been disgusted by the tone of politics and chosen to disengage. Bayley agrees: "We don't believe everything the Republicans on TV tell us. We don't believe everything the Democrats on TV tell us." I can't blame them.

While others were signing up for fraternity rush last year, Tucek was a campus leader for Americans Elect at Emory, then joined the movement to draft former U.S. comptroller general David Walker for president as an independent. Friends from both parties asked him to join The Can Kicks Back. He jumped right in.