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Class of 2016, I have one word for you: Reagan

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Dear Class of 2016,

When I began college 36 years ago, the new President was a former B-list entertainer who many thought was a simple-minded warmonger.

Let us pray that history does not repeat itself three-and-a-half decades later.

I spent the year insisting to my friends that America would not elect a man who was a bad entertainer, who spoke in simple clichés, who talked about building up our military so we could go to war against our enemies abroad.

I was wrong.

Now, we are still suffering the consequences of that fateful election.

Before there was Trump and Bush the second, there was a man called Ronald Reagan, who many Republicans today think was the best president of the 20th century.

They are wrong. His “trickle-down economics” is what has led to the corrosive income and wealth inequality that is tearing apart our society today.

Your generation faces the same crossroads today. Your civic engagement, your vote, your advocacy on behalf of a candidate and progressive ideas will have far-reaching consequences for the next few decades. Who you elect will pick Supreme Court Justices whose decisions on abortion rights, campaign finance, equal rights for women and minorities, and other important cases will affect your life daily.

Do not sit on the sidelines. Speak up, write Facebook posts, tweet, use Instagram — do whatever it takes to spread the word that this election is one that your generation must rise up and own.

As you now look to the future and the long, winding path through adulthood, marriage, children, careers, middle age and, hopefully, a fulfilling retirement — now is the time to still dream of ways you can change the world.

Don’t get caught up in the pragmatic advice of your parent’s friends.

To quote a famous one: “Benjamin, I have one word for you: Plastics.” That is the classic line delivered to the newly graduated character played by Dustin Hoffman in the timeless film, “The Graduate,” of 1967.

Yes, at some point you’ll need to be pragmatic and choose a career or a job that is well suited for your talents so you can support yourself and your family.

But like “plastics” was in the 1960s and finance or law or marketing was in the 2000s, you should first figure out what your passion is and where you can channel that to repair the world.

Dream big, get out of your comfort zone, travel to a faraway place and volunteer to build housing for the poor of that country — these non-pragmatic things will allow you to get in touch with your soul and with the better angels of your heart. You will realize that life is not a linear path from college to job to wedding to first home to children to big career promotion to second home to middle age and graying temples and beyond.

By witnessing poverty or thinking about ways you can use your skills to improve the world, you will gain the empathy and resilience you will need to weather the inevitable slings and arrows that will littler your path to the retirement party you envision surrounded by your perfect spouse and successful kids and loyal friends.

For many of you, there will be periods of joblessness or divorce or illness that will derail that perfect American Dream. Or there will be a sick child, a dying parent, a friend who becomes mentally ill, or a business idea that fails profoundly.

This is not meant to take the wind out of your shiny sails. But it is meant to stiffen you against the headwinds of life that will inevitably try to knock you down. As the Chinese proverb goes: “Fall down seven times. Get up eight times.”

It’s not just getting up off the floor that will define you — it’ll be what you learned when you were on the ground. Did you become more tolerant of those who you disagree with? Do you now have empathy for those in society who need government help to keep themselves housed and fed?

The next election is momentous. Don’t underestimate that.

The rest of your life is this amazing blank canvas with a character — you — in search of its author.

Yes, you are the author of this exciting roman à clef.

Always remember that despite what happened in the last chapter, you can change the narrative.

Tom Allon, president of City & State NY, was a Republican and Liberal Party-backed mayoral candidate in 2013 before he left to return to the private sector. Reach him at tallon@cityandstateny.com.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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