Growing up, both in school and at home, I was told many of the same things you were. Perhaps faith, geography, socio-economic background, and other factors unique to each family altered the message somewhat, but I bet said message was cut from a similar cloth. The message I'm talking about is our right to self-determination. It probably wasn't dressed in that exact wording or spoken in such terms; maybe it was heavy in Americanese with a big emphasis on buzz words such as "freedom" and "liberty" and topped with fiery, patriotic cherry. Maybe it was a more ethereal, wistful tone of "follow your dreams" and "passions" if your household and upbringing fostered a more creative side. Either way, the underlying ethos is the same; go out into the world and worry only about controlling your destiny. The history books paint a picture of morality, human decency, and democratic governance being saved for all eternity when the Allied powers were victorious in WWII. Our economic engine which took off when the soldiers came home portrayed a continuous exponential growth in both wealth and opportunity under the reign of capitalism. Essentially, we were led to believe the hard work had already been done. Our military is more than capable to handle whatever current and future skirmish may come, and our economic vitality is such that any recession is but a drop in a bucket. All we need to do, is just live our lives.
Slight problem with all that; it's entirely a pile of fetid bullshit.
What our parents, teachers, and other elders growing up failed to inform us is that in totality, the generations immediately before us completely fucked our world to shit. Every place of civil unrest, overthrown regimes, or even outright war in the world today can be traced to years of foreign interference and meddling from a powerful, wealthy country like us. Every economic and widespread financial hardship to outright collapse can be traced to greed and deceit from our elders. Our environment, experiencing an appreciable rise in global temperatures and sea levels, is left to only grow more inhospitable to our species thanks to decades of neglect by our elders in spite of growing scientific study and public attention. Outside of technological advancements and innovation, often of products and utilities yet fully harnessed and yet to have reach their potential (including especially the internet), I have a hard time finding one damn thing our elders did right or have truly left for my generation as an asset. I'm serious, fucking find me one. I'll wait.
In America at least, our infrastructure is failing. Opportunistic real estate developers build shiny condo developments alongside crumbling highways and bridges first built during the 1950s with little to no sizable improvements and modifications made to them since. In America at least, we find it more important to fill private, for-profit prison and detainment centers with non-violent drug offenders and continue to wage an inept, flailing War on Drugs which in reality no better than a modern day pogrom targeting the lower socio-economic "undesirables" in our country (let's not even touch how the War on Drugs affects our international neighbors), than to actually rehabilitate those clearly afflicted with addiction. Meanwhile, wealth inequality continues to widen but most of our elders, who are still in power by the way, continue to take the fuck less given. Oh, and of course those elders who created these clusterfucks and plenty more I have yet to discuss will wipe our social security safety net clean, rendering what you and I pay into the system utterly meaningless. But hey, we commit just under $700 billion a year to our military, affording themselves and us taxpayers such luxuries as building a $34 million facility on foreign soil that will do nothing but collect dust and attract spiders, so...AMERICA, FUCK YEAH.
Globally, the problems are even worse. An entire swath of Europe is awash with angry youth resisting harsh austerity measures caused in part because of the economic collapse, but mostly at fault are the previous generations for raiding generous pension and entitlement plans. For a country like Greece, tax evasion had become an Olympic sport in of itself, yet who gets to pay? Those in our generation. The so-called "Arab Spring" we're still watching unfold produces a wide range of emotions; on one hand, I'm proud a mostly young (in age of the participants) revolution in individual countries rose up to throw oppressive regimes, but as we've already seen in Egypt, power vacuums attract unseemly figures and groups. The common thread tying issues across international boundaries together is the age group leading the charge of unrest; the youth. The power structures in place for several decades have raped and pillaged the earth, our financial system, and our societies to the point where we're left with a much smaller slice of opportunity than we were promised. Factor in decades of ever-freeing markets through globalization, and you see there are no national boundaries anymore when it comes to the shit state of affairs we get to live in. We're all in it, regardless of ethnicity and national identity, and pretending otherwise when virtually every resource is traded globally and the price of every commodity is dictated beyond localized supply and demand is ludicrous.
Perhaps the scariest thing of all is the realization which I dread to even say; despite the glaring issues in front of us, there are no easy answers. The collective effort needed to painfully yet thoroughly unfuck what's been fucked on a line-by-line basis is massive, and it some ways, said effort goes against the grain of how we have been wired to think. For the vast majority of us, engagement with the political system involves little more than tableside chatter with friends over current events, passive attention paid to various media coverage, and then checking a few boxes on a ballot come election day. Some of us may actually stump for a particular politician during an election cycle, others may take individual issues and causes to heart and become an evangelist for them. Regardless of your personal involvement, politics and being agents of change don't come close to actually defining the significant majority of citizens. Ideally, that's how it should be; any acceptable definition of The American Dream doesn't entail tirelessly running your own political and social beliefs up flagpoles. We're supposed to be carving out a life for ourselves under the guise of fulfilling whatever personal desires and goals we have to be enjoyed specifically by ourselves first and foremost. The monetary and physical cost of living doesn't exactly lend a hand, either. Once you're on your own, you have to work for a living, and to keep yourself from otherwise going insane, you have to fulfill the need for social interaction which will understandably include doing lots of things that won't directly improve the standard of living in third-world countries, or break the glass ceiling in regards to women in the workplace, or any other of the umpteen million problems in the world today. It is simply not in our innate being to spend such an exorbitant amount of time thinking and acting on the behalf of others outside of yourself.
But, that all may have to change...at least somewhat. The "Greatest Generation" that fought in WWII and laid the basic groundwork for what good still exists today may have earned that moniker, but considering the multitude of smoldering bush fires scattered around our communities and the globe at large that could turn into blazing infernos at any moment, we millennials without question MUST become the unquestioned greatest generation to ever exist to even keep our world afloat. There is no "tweaking", "altering" or "adjusting" to our societies and culture that will do any good, as entire fucking paradigms and zeitgeists need to be overhauled. Voting every four years for the "less bad" alternative and spending a majority of the time in between captioning pictures of cats and masturbating is most likely not an option for this all to take place. It will require a much more intensive level of engagement, but unlike the shrill polemic that passes for nuanced political discourse these days, all talks have to be fruitful and informative. Even how we think about our beliefs will need to change.
So, good luck everyone. I'm in this boat with you, and while it's slowly sinking now, we have enough material to plug the existing holes and any new ones provided we don't fuck this up like the previous generations. Well, to be honest, we really don't have the room to fuck up even a little at this rate.
Like I already said; I hope you're ready.