TIME world affairs

Why Every American Should Adopt a Second Country

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

A modest proposal for changing the way we see the world—and ourselves

About 10 minutes into the soccer game, Sebastian’s cries of “here,” “behind you,” and “cross it” became cries of “aquí,” “atrás,” and “al centro.” I’d never heard so much Spanish voluntarily pour out of my 10-year-old. There is nothing like a hunger for the ball. And nothing like full immersion in a foreign language.

I brought Sebastian to the quaint colonial gem of San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico for a couple of weeks of Spanish and art classes. But mostly, I wanted him to soak up the atmosphere of his other country, the one where his dad was raised. The one his dad feels guilty his son doesn’t know better.

I grew up in Mexico, in a split household – American mother, Mexican father. Two languages, two passports, two sets of cultural mores; two favorite sports; two historical narratives; two kinds of humor; two culinary traditions. I grew up always synthesizing, comparing, navigating, blending mischievously. Toggling between two worlds is what experts in bilingualism call it. My parents did what I haven’t done adequately for my son – they forced me to speak the other language (in our case, English) at home to make us fully bilingual.

Only in retrospect do I appreciate how much effort that took on their part, and what a phenomenal gift it was. In real time, it was more of a pain – and a mortifying one, at that, when Mexican friends would come over and my mom would speak to them in English.

North of the Rio Grande, generations of immigrants have struggled with the challenge of keeping in touch with their other country, and handing down its language and culture to their children. It’s never been easy, especially because prevailing notions of American supremacy and exceptionalism create a disincentive to studying other languages or cultures. My own son generally goes about his fourth-grade, suburban Maryland existence fairly confident he lives in the center of the universe, with little need to learn from the rest of the world.

The dirty little secret is that the more Sebastian steps out of his comfort zone, and the more he learns about his other country and culture, the better he will also come to understand the United States and his American identity. People are constantly extolling the study of foreign languages and cultures because it helps us better understand the rest of the world, and because it turns out that being bilingual is good for the brain (thanks, ma!). But one of the corollary benefits of spending time immersed in a foreign culture – as important as any other benefit – is that you gain a better understanding of your own.

Imagine if you spent your entire life going out to only one restaurant. Would you really know its essence? Doesn’t your appreciation and understanding of a place require some comparative context?

I remember when growing up in Mexico, looking into the U.S. from the outside, being struck by the disconnect between the tenor of news in the two countries. Mexico, for all its wonders, was clearly the less democratic and less prosperous of my two countries. But you wouldn’t know that from comparing the press in both countries. The copies of Time that made their way to Chihuahua weeks late described a country that was falling apart, while the front pages of the local papers all extolled the achievements and virtues of Mexico’s revolution. I thus acquired a deeper appreciation for how freewheeling criticism is a hallmark of a society that is never complacent, always moving forward. But you can’t know what’s distinctive about one place until you’ve sampled others.

That’s why all Americans should adopt a second country, if they don’t already have one. Recent immigrants and their families shouldn’t be the only ones to benefit from toggling between cultures.

Here’s how it would work: Every American second grader would be assigned a second country. School districts would organize annual festivals around a lottery that matched kids with their second countries, with which they’d establish a long- term relationship. Thanks to the ubiquity of interactive learning software and video conferencing, hundreds of kids in a school could be learning dozens of languages during this “global hour” by connecting to their fellow Pashtun or German or Vietnamese students and teacher remotely. (Occasionally kids and guest speakers in the foreign country would join the conversation.) Now that distance learning is a reality, kids shouldn’t be limited to choosing only between French or Spanish, or whatever languages their schools manage to find instructors in.

Under my proposal, kids would study their second language and culture through high school, and be provided creative exchange and entertainment opportunities within their bi-national community. Students would belong to strong networks connecting them not only to their assigned country, but also to others across America assigned to the same country. The result would go beyond creating a far more cosmopolitan and informed citizenry. This would be the most ambitious public diplomacy ever deployed by a great power.

America’s economic competitiveness and security interests would also be served by having a deep bench of regional experts, of people invested in other cultures. As Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan noted in a 2010 speech on foreign language education, 95% of college students enrolled in a language course study European languages, but fewer than 1% study a language the Defense Department considers critical to national security. Even when language study is influenced by market-based reactions to what’s in the news – the post-Sputnik spike in Russian study, the post-9/11 spike in Arabic study – the results tend to be transitory and scattered.

By contrast, my second grade students-to-countries matching lottery would guarantee a more rational distribution of interest and knowledge. We need Americans who understand and appreciate Indonesia, Kenya, and even countries like the Netherlands, regardless of whether or not they happen to be in the news. These long-term relationships with their second countries would be among the most rewarding and fun educational experiences for American kids.

That’s my proposal, anyways. Back here in the real world, however, the trends are heading in the opposite direction. Less than one in five Americans speaks another language (compared to slightly more than half of all Europeans) and many of these Americans, in immigrant families, wouldn’t have picked up the language in school. Only a quarter of all elementary schools offered foreign language instruction in 2008, compared to about a third a decade earlier. In our schoolyards, it’s as if the rest of the world were shrinking in economic and strategic importance to us.

Meanwhile, I will continue trying to expand Sebastian’s horizons, and appreciation for his other country. A Father’s Day lunch in San Miguel was a modest score along the way. Sebastian blurted out, “They should do this in the States,” referring to the sliced limes routinely served at meals here. I smiled. The boy was thinking comparatively, assessing how restaurants, and countries, vary – and can learn from each other.

Provecho.

Andrés Martinez is the editorial director of Zócalo Public Square and a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

Here’s How a Selfie Stick Ruined a Roller Coaster Ride

A passenger's urgent need for a photo shut down a Disney California Adventure roller coaster for nearly an hour

The selfie stick, one of the great menaces of modern technology, briefly felled another American institution on Wednesday when the California Screamin’ roller coaster at Disney California Adventure was ground to a stop after a passenger used the elongated rod mid-ride. Passengers were reportedly stuck on the ride for less than an hour, according to a park spokesperson.

Though not banned from Disney California entirely, the use of selfie sticks on rides and other attractions is strictly forbidden for safety reasons.

[The O.C. Register]

TIME society

Obamacare Victory Shows Failure of Scalia’s Conservative Revolution

Justice Antonin Scalia at the "Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor" evening program at the Library of Congress on Nov. 6, 2014.
Kevin Wolf—AP Justice Antonin Scalia at the "Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor" evening program at the Library of Congress on Nov. 6, 2014.

This is clearly not the Scalia Court

By upholding a key provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in King v Burwell, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court demonstrated that while the conservative revolution led by Justice Antonin Scalia may have had a strong impact on the court (and on the nation), it has not succeeded in winning over Justice Anthony Kennedy or Chief Justice John Roberts. Thus, while Justice Scalia has won many battles, he has not won the war. And in today’s King v Burwell decision he lost a major battle.

Justice Scalia has fought tirelessly both to limit the court’s focus in interpreting statutes (in other words, to look only at the letter of the law and not at the broader purpose of the legislation) and to limit the power of the national government.

King v Burwell seemed tailor-made to vindicate both goals.

The basic question in King v Burwell was whether the phrase an “exchange established by the state” included health care exchanges established by the federal government in states that refused to create their own. The plaintiffs in King v Burwell argued that “established by the state” means that health insurance subsidies could not be offered in states that had chosen to use the federal health insurance market instead of their own. This is, indeed, a very strict interpretation.

For Justice Scalia, the answer was easy: “established by the state” could not possibly mean “established by the state or the federal government.” Had Justice Scalia’s textualism prevailed, the decision would have gutted the ACA. Six million people in the 34 states where the federal government runs the insurance marketplace could have lost subsidies, and premiums could have skyrocketed.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, Chief Justice Roberts wrote an otherwise unremarkable opinion that invoked traditional principles of statutory interpretation and examined the meaning of the phrase “established by the state” in context.

The chief justice looked beyond the plain language of the clause at issue. He insisted that a court should interpret the language of the law in light of the overall legislative purpose. As the chief justice wrote:

Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.

And a contrary interpretation would have defeated the central purpose of the statute. In this approach, the court acts as Congress’s partner, not its censor.

In his dissent, Justice Scalia was clearly furious that Chief Justice Roberts refused to endorse his revolutionary approach to statutory interpretation.

From Justice Scalia’s perspective, Chief Justice Roberts’ heresy was magnified by the fact that the chief justice cast the deciding vote to validate the Affordable Care Act in NFIB v Sebelius in 2012, in which the legality of the individual mandate was upheld.

When Justice Scalia gets mad, he does not hold back. He has often adopted fairly sharp language in his dissents, but even by that standard, his dissent in King v Burwell is extraordinary in tone:

Normal rules of interpretation seem always to yield to the overriding principle of the present court: the Affordable Care Act must be saved.

His vituperation reaches a crescendo in the conclusion where he snipes, “We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.”

One can debate the appropriate moniker for the ACA, and one can debate whether we should call this the Roberts Court or the Kennedy Court, but what is beyond debate is that this is not the Scalia Court.

This article originally appeared on The ConversationThe Conversation

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME society

California, Where Brown and Gray America Collide

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Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Two of the country's fastest growing populations are learning how to embrace change

It was like being in a foreign country. Having never lived anywhere but California, I arrived at Brandeis University in the 1970s to study gerontology and geriatrics. I was a grandson of migrant farm workers, a polio survivor, and one of the first Latino students from the Southwest to attend a Boston-area college.

I found myself assigned to interview retirees in New Hampshire as a part of a survey of long-term care facilities. The subjects were Anglo, God-fearing, patriotic men who found it strange for a young disabled Latino to inquire about their personal lives. I later learned that the Brandeis faculty also had qualms about sending me into this uncharted territory. However, after shooting pool with me, these elderly gentlemen invited me for a snowmobile ride (my first-ever). We were soon like good friends, and thus the surveys were completed successfully.

Looking back now, I can see this experience was a prescient microcosm of one of the greatest challenges America faces today: addressing the sometimes conflicting needs of the two fastest growing population segments in the country—the elderly and ethnic minorities. It also shows us how California can lead the way.

The U.S. is facing two key milestone years: In 2030, the last of the aging baby boomers all will have turned age 65, and in 2045, we will have become a majority-minority nation. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that in 2044, non-Hispanic whites will drop below 50 percent of the population, and Hispanics—America’s largest racial/ethnic minority—will surpass 25 percent.

These years can be benchmarks by which to measure how we respond to a changing demographic landscape. Between 2015 and 2055, the Latino population will double in size, from 56.8 million to 112.3 million. In the same time period, the number of adults over 65 will have nearly doubled (from 47.8 million to 92.5 million), creating the largest “senior citizen” group in our history. Fifty-seven percent of those individuals will be non-Hispanic white, and 21 percent will be Hispanic.

What does this mean for the future of our country? Will fear and insecurity create racial discrimination and ageism, or will we have the foresight to prepare for, invest in, and embrace this new America?

The current state of our political discourse isn’t promising. Social Security could become a defining issue in the 2016 election. Its solvency hangs over politicians and the public on both sides of the debate. Immigration reform, meanwhile, is stuck in limbo, hampered in part by an undercurrent of nativism. Are we destined to forever have these conflicts, or can we find common cause, accept the reality of the demographic changes, and use them to our advantage? I believe my personal journey, and recent California history, provide insight into the path forward.

My mother, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, raised nine children on her own in Salinas, California. We were fortunate to have the benefits of public housing, a robust social welfare safety net, and of course, a mother with strong values. As a result, all nine of her children are college graduates with professional careers. If there is a message in our personal journey, it is to recognize and accept that America is a nation of immigrants, and the true task will be to adapt to a future, which holds the promise of reconciliation rather than generational and racial conflict.

I saw first-hand how my grandmother (who came with her family to California fleeing the Mexican Revolution) and mother faced discrimination, and now that I am an “elder,” I have seen how the Mexican community here acquired political and economic influence over the past half century. Yet I also see how other parts of the country (particularly New England, the Midwest, and the South) are only now coming to terms with waves of immigrants and facing the discomfort we once had in California.

We faced immense struggles (deportations, riots) in adapting to constant demographic shifts, but over many years, Californians became accustomed to change. California, which became a majority-minority state by 1999, continues to be a harbinger for the nation. Our struggles with propositions 187 (to deny social services to undocumented immigrants) and 209 (to end affirmative action) galvanized undocumented persons to naturalize and vote, giving impetus to a powerful set of Latino and Asian elected officials. California is the world’s seventh largest economy in part because of the interconnections of its immigrant groups. The Korean, Persian, Central American, Mexican, Chinese, and Armenian diasporas in California are second in size only to their home countries. These and other factors can show the nation (and older voters) that notwithstanding unsettling demographic trends, in time, regions can and will benefit from the presence of these groups.

With time, acculturation, and intermarriages, we have reached an equilibrium where a majority of Californians today feel that immigration is good for the state. This gives me hope that, as immigrants assimilate, the rest of America can adjust and adapt to these demographic changes.

Indeed, demographics suggest that America will be forced to adapt. Anglos make up 76 percent of baby boomers, a large proportion of whom will require long-term care assistance, whether in institutional facilities or at home. A rising percentage of their caregivers (currently 27 percent) are minorities and immigrants.

And it’s not just the caregiving where these two groups will have to learn to work with each other: As these same baby boomers sell their homes, who will the buyers be? The aging Anglo population is having fewer children. But will the growing, younger minority populations have the education, jobs, and financial resources to buy those homes?

The United States is aging, but with fertility rates above replacement levels, thanks largely to Latinos and Asian-Americans, many of whom live in California. These are groups inherently loyal to the U.S. and able to acculturate thanks to a civic culture that fosters engagement in our democratic processes. In turn, Latino culture and Asian economic investments enable cities such as Los Angeles to remain viable, and the cultural infusion of foods, new ideas, popular music, and capital investments keep the our country and state vibrant.

We must recognize that all Americans have a common stake and self-interest in our mutual success. As I learned in working with New Hampshire retirees decades ago, by drawing on our personal backgrounds, understanding individual concerns, and appealing to our good sense and compassion, we can forge unlikely bonds with one another.

Now is the time to make this compelling case to the baby boomer generation. I know that my children and grandchildren will grow and age in a nation that is much different than it was in the last century. By embracing and supporting who we have been and who we are becoming, we can be confident that America will continue to prosper and be a beacon for the world.

Fernando Torres-Gil is the director of the UCLA Center for Policy Research on Aging, the principal investigator for the Ford Foundation-funded Latinos and Economic Security project, and a member of the board of the American Association of Retired Persons. He wrote this for “Reimagining California,” a partnership of the California Endowment and Zócalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Humor

Political Correctness Is Not Ruining Stand-Up Comedy

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xoJane.com is where women go to be their unabashed selves, and where their unabashed selves are applauded

Feedback and constructive criticism are what help comedians and the art form to grow

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Jerry Seinfeld is the latest comedian to insist that political correctness is ruining stand-up comedy, but I contend that people with this mentality are the ones doing more harm to the art form because they’re trying to shut down criticism.

When I started stand-up comedy, I was very outspoken against this so-called “PC culture.” I’d go onstage, say the most offensive things I can think of, and then get angry at the crowd for not laughing.

“This is a comedy show!” I’d yell. “Get a sense of humor!”

Not once was it ever my responsibility to be funnier.

My philosophy at the time was simple: “Say whatever you want, and people who get offended are always wrong.” I’d go on tirades about SJWs (Social Justice Warriors), a pejorative term to describe people who engage in arguments about social justice on the Internet, and I’d rant about how people getting offended were ruining my right to say whatever I wanted. I’d scream and accuse everybody else of being emotional while claiming that I was the only calm one in the room. (By the end of these discussions, my blood pressure rose more than anybody else’s.)

I realized years later that by engaging in online arguments about the “holy sanctity of comedy,” I was actually acting like an SJW myself, and my “cause” was gallows humor. I felt like the only real truth in life was the ability to tell offensive jokes without repercussions. But I never owned my emotions. I was the one shouting about how little I cared when it was obvious that I very much did.

Since I was so angry, I couldn’t take criticism, and this was very harmful to my comedy. Feedback and constructive criticism are what help comedians and the art form to grow. With stand-up comedy, the comedian receives feedback right away. If an audience doesn’t laugh, it could be due to a number of factors: the venue wasn’t right for comedy; the comedian wasn’t a right fit for the room; the joke isn’t finished yet; the joke itself isn’t funny; or the audience simply didn’t find the comedian funny. Ideally, this is when the editing process would take place, like figuring out a puzzle. “What went wrong with this joke? Why did this punchline not work? Did I deliver it correctly? Maybe this crowd didn’t like it but I should try it somewhere else?”

The worst reaction a comedian can have is lashing out at an audience for not laughing. Even though it can be frustrating and hurtful when an audience doesn’t laugh, it’s not their job to laugh at your jokes; it’s your job to make them laugh. Whenever I see comedians lashing out at an audience, I’m reminded of how ego-driven and angry my comedy used to be. I automatically assumed they didn’t laugh because they were “oversensitive” and “too PC.”

Shouting into a microphone with the sole intent of being carelessly “edgy” is not art. It’s stroking your own ego to feel powerful, and some audiences have had enough.

I know lots of comedy fans who are just yearning for something new and different, and they’re tired of hearing the same old clichés and stereotypes. There are only so many times you can hear jokes about black people stealing, Asians’ inability to drive, and heteronormative dating jokes where “women do this but men do that” before it gets exhausting, boring, and unfunny. These comedy fans are generally progressive-leaning, and they’re oftentimes unfairly accused of being humorless.

Many progressives love Inside Amy Schumer, a show that is not “PC” at all, and more liberal-leaning websites are constantly posting articles about what a genius Louis CK is. A few of these liberal comedy fans may take some jokes too personally, but to brush this entire group as humorless and PC is dishonest and lazy.

Just because some comedy fans want something new doesn’t mean that other pre-existing kinds of comedy are going to disappear. There is room for everyone! There are spaces for politically incorrect comedy, clean comedy, liberal comedy, conservative comedy (although let’s be honest, Bill O’Reilly probably isn’t the greatest stand-up in the world), club comedy, and alternative comedy. This is a good thing! Having a diverse variety of comedy styles and hearing different perspectives means that the spectrum of comedy is continuously getting broader, and this opens opportunities to explore even more topics that haven’t yet been talked about. Many of these new spaces opened up due to criticisms of old comedy tropes, and there was a demand for something different. Comedy is better than it’s ever been because so many people have voices now.

This fear that there is no more room for politically incorrect comedy is just untrue. This year, The Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber had several comedians tell jokes about Bill Cosby, Ferguson, and 9/11. Louis CK released Live at the Comedy Store where he uses the N-word on several occasions. Chris Rock did a monologue on SNL about the World Trade Center and the Boston Marathon bombing (on network television!). Amy Schumer produced a sketch on her show about a football team that couldn’t grasp the foreign concept of “no raping.”

None of these topics are “politically correct,” yet the comedians that produced this provocative material still have careers. These jokes are still being aired on NBC and Comedy Central. If anything, the publicity actually helped the comedians gain even more visibility.

The main problem with people who complain about political correctness is that they’re thinking lazily. I’ve voiced my disdain for hacky stereotypical jokes about trans people (and I have a vested interest in this since I am transgender), and some people have angrily asked me, “Oh, are you not allowed to make fun of transgender people anymore?”

I never said that. I’m just curious about how hard the comedian worked on the joke.

Last year, I heard Dave Chappelle tell three different iterations of the same joke about transgender people, and it evolved every time. The first iteration was that he refused to gender trans people correctly because he didn’t feel like he had to participate in somebody else’s self-identification; the second iteration was Chappelle reluctantly agreeing to gender trans people correctly because he wanted to be more accepting, but he was still confused about trans people’s body parts; in the third iteration, Chappelle completely scraps the entire first part of the original joke, genders all trans people in his story correctly, learns more about the LGBT community, and jokes about almost getting into a fight with a trans woman at a club.

The final iteration was by far the funniest with the most receptive audience reaction; it was the most complete and well thought-out version of the joke and it still pushed boundaries. It wasn’t “PC.” He listened to the feedback and kept working on the joke. Dave Chappelle did NOT get upset at people for either disliking the joke or getting offended.

In fact, here’s what he had to say on Inside the Actor’s Studio regarding a woman who was offended by a sketch from Chappelle’s Show: “There was a lady from Texas who called Comedy Central damn near 100 times. She was furious with me. I wasn’t mad at her for being mad at me. I was like, ‘Okay, that’s good.’ It’s not good that she’s mad at me, but she’s entitled to her opinion. And maybe she’s right, I don’t know, I just thought it was funny and that’s why I did it… people I love tell me I go too far sometimes. Maybe I went too far, but I did it. And plus, the only way you know where the line is is to cross it, and I think about what it’s like if nobody is crossing the line? You just wanna be on the right side of history, and sometimes what’s going on in the immediate present is not as important as the long-term. The truth is permanent, and everything else falls by the wayside.”

If I’m making stand-up comedy sound like too much work, that’s because art is supposed to take hard work. Otherwise, comedy would just be egomaniacs screaming into microphones hitting any and every target without regard to anybody else’s feelings and then getting upset the second someone hits them back. That hardly seems fair, because stand-up comedians shouldn’t be immune to criticism, and stand-up comedians are not above the art of stand-up comedy.

Robin Tran wrote this article for xoJane

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Courts

Anesthetized Patient Accidentally Records Doctors Insulting Him During Surgery

His phone's voice recorder was inadvertently left on during the entire procedure

A Virginia man has been awarded $500,000 in medical malpractice and punitive damages by a jury after his phone’s voice recorder, accidentally left on during a procedure, captured cruel and mocking comments his doctors made about him while he was under anesthesia.

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In the recording, which jurors heard as part of the three-day trial that took place in mid June, anesthesiologist Tiffany Ingham can be heard with other doctors and assistants calling the man (who remained anonymous in the case) a “wuss” and a “retard,” the Washington Post reports. “After five minutes of talking to you in pre-op, I wanted to punch you in the face,” Ingham says.

The recording also caught the doctors calling the man names, mocking his health, and planning how to avoid him after the surgery. At one point, Ingham calls the patient “annoying” and suggests that the gastroenterologist performing the surgery fake an urgent summons in order to escape a post-op discussion.

Farid Khairzada, one of the jurors in the case, told the Post that the man had asked for $1.75 million and that the $500,000 was a compromise between a juror who did not believe the man deserved to win any money and at least one who felt he should receive more.

“We finally came to a conclusion that we have to give him something, just to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” Khairzada said.

[Washington Post]

TIME society

2015 Will Be the Year of the Gender-Neutral Baby Name

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Thanks Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds

Well, 2015 is only half-over, but it’s apparently shaping up to be the year of unisex baby names.

BabyCenter.com noticed this emerging trend in its midyear report. Though gendered names like Noah and Emma remain super common, gender-neutral names like Amari, Karter, Phoenix, Quinn and Reese are rising in popularity too.

“As usual, baby names are reflecting a larger cultural shift,” says BabyCenter’s Global Editor in Chief Linda Murray. “Millennials are an open-minded and accepting group, and they don’t want their children to feel pressured to conform to stereotypes that might be restrictive.”

Celebrities are, of course, contributing to the gender-neutral trend by giving girls traditionally male monikers like Lincoln (Kristen Bell/Dax Shepard), James (Blake Lively/Ryan Reynolds) and Mason (Sara Gilbert/Linda Perry).

The real question here: are Ruckus and Legendary gender-neutral names?

TIME society

How to Break the Millennial Debt Spiral

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'We need to go beyond financial knowledge'

Finding ways to increase an entire generation’s wealth is a messy business.

That’s probably been the case for decades, but this time around things are even more complicated because millennials—those born between the early 1980’s and early 1990’s—had the unenviable task of coming of age in the wake of the Great Recession. Despite having the distinction of being America’s largest working generation, millennials have been entering one of the worst job markets in recent history while carrying unprecedented levels of debt and are struggling to attain the same levels of wealth achieved by previous generations.

“Financial capability is the opportunity to put knowledge into practice,” noted Dr. Terri Friedline during a recent event at New America, where she spoke with Parker Cohen of the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED), Sunaena Chhatry of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Vox education reporter Libby Nelson about how millennials could change their financial fortunes for the better.

For Dr. Friedline, the best way to accomplish this is by giving millennials the chance to practice financial decision-making. In her research, she has found that “the combination of having received financial education and being financially included via a savings account” is the most effective way to improve outcomes and help millennials prepare for financial emergencies or work toward long-term purchases. “We see that savings accounts and credit cards perform pretty consistently [as tools for financial experiential learning],” Friedline explained.

The “financial capability as key to stability” argument is certainly an attractive proposal for a generation that has resorted to using the oft-mentioned “sharing economy” as a way of circumventing large expenses and unmanageable debt, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that knowing what an IRA is or having a small amount of savings will solve every financial struggle. Friedline acknowledged this tension by explaining that economic inequality adds enormous complexity to the goal of increasing financial capability because it creates larger burdens for people with lower incomes. When financial emergencies arise, millennials with access to higher incomes and family support are often able to use already-amassed savings to keep themselves afloat while their lower-income peers have to draw upon things like credit cards and payday loans just to get by. The discrepancy between high-income and low-income millennials’ access to resources shouldn’t mean that pursuing financial capability is a less worthy endeavor, but it does point to the need for a conscious effort to address the unique challenges lower-income individuals face in an economy where assets matter.

If financial capability is the gateway to financial well-being for lower-income individuals and families, how can financial knowledge be made accessible to the people that need it most? When asked this question, Cohen identified the education sector as the perfect breeding ground for increasing financial knowledge and opportunity. “That time when a youth is starting to get their first paycheck and make different sorts of financial decisions on their own is an excellent time to get them educated so they make informed decisions,” he noted, highlighting Live the Solution’s AZ Earn to Learn initiative (which supports high school students by using financial education in conjunction with matching funds in order to teach the importance of saving money up for college) and the financial coaching program at New Mexico Community College as examples of how educational institutions could leverage their influence to improve the financial futures of students.

But even the fact that education can be a very important step towards financial stability for lower-income millennials lacking an inherited stockpile of assets is itself a distraction from a paradoxical reality. Going to school isn’t simply a tool for reducing financial insecurity; it is oftentimes the very factor that exacerbates that insecurity.

“One of the things most people don’t realize is that although getting a bachelor’s degree is still a minority experience, going to college is actually an increasingly universal one,” Nelson explained, pointing out that “college is a major financial decision” for students and their families. Less-than-optimal systems of notifying students about their financial aid have only served to make concerns about rapidly accumulating student loans and appropriate borrowing amounts even more confusing, especially when they create scenarios where a student must drop out of school due to insufficient finances.

“I am a financially capable 28-year-old woman, and if someone had told me ‘I am going to give you your salary for the next six months now, good luck with that,’ I hope I would still have something to eat in December, but I don’t really know,” Nelson joked when commenting on the common higher education practice of sending students financial aid notifications only once a semester. She emphasized that finding ways to get financial information to students “at the right time” is an important step in ensuring that millennials can keep their heads above water. She commented that Indiana University came up with a particularly good way of accomplishing this task when it opted to notify students of their cumulative debt through an annual letter. While a letter may not seem like much, Nelson explained that the correspondence gave students a way of monitoring their borrowing and avoid the pitfall of crushing student debt.

Ultimately, the panelists agreed that sustainable solutions to debt will require a complete overhaul of how our society approaches financial education. Dr. Friedline’s report suggests that a universal system of child savings accounts could be a catalyst for vastly improving financial capability if account access were paired with financial education. The panelists were optimistic that building greater financial capability was possible with the right combination of early education and access.

“We need to go beyond financial knowledge,” Chhatry urged. “Young people are developing their understanding of financial matters very early on.”

P.R. Lockhart is an editorial intern at New America. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

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Meet the New World’s Oldest Person

Joseph C. Lin for TIME Susannah Mushatt Jones in her home in Brooklyn on June 11, 2014, a few weeks before her 115th birthday.

She eats four strips of bacon at every breakfast and has a soft spot for high-end lace lingerie

A 115-year-old Brooklyn resident is now the world’s oldest person.

Susannah Mushatt Jones’ new title was confirmed by the Gerontology Research Group after the previous record-holder, Jeralean Talley of Inkster, Mich., died at 116.

Speaking to TIME in a brief phone call on Thursday, Jones said she felt “fine,” having just finished a hearty dinner of steamed chicken, a baked potato, collard greens and raspberry JELLO. And when told that she was now the oldest living person, she started laughing: “Is that so?” Her home attendant, Audrey Palmer, said “Yes! Can you believe it?” Jones simply replied, “No.”

Neither can her 75-year-old niece, Lois Judge, who also lives in Brooklyn. “I can’t grasp it at all,” she says. “It’s something that’s unexpected. It’s overwhelming.”

Since TIME visited Jones at her home last year, she still eats four strips of bacon for breakfast every morning, along with eggs and grits. Though Jones goes to bed around 7 p.m. every night and sleeps for about 10 hours, she still spends most of the day napping on and off in the living room.

“She doesn’t communicate much,” Palmer says. “I guess she just doesn’t want to be bothered?” But she always perks up when family members come over on Sundays for dinner, which is usually a BBQ feast.

Jones was the third-oldest of 11 siblings, born and raised in Lowndes County, Alabama, about an hour southwest of Montgomery. An aspiring teacher, she moved to New York City in 1923, where she ended up taking care of the children of wealthy families. Though married for a short time, she didn’t have kids, and so she always treated the ones she watched over as if they were her own.

These days, Jones is generally in good health, considering her age. Although she has been blind from glaucoma since she was 100, Jones only takes a multivitamin and a pill for her blood pressure every day. She never drank or smoked, but lace lingerie was her main vice. “She would save her money and then go to Bloomingdale’s,’” her niece, Selbra Mushatt, told TIME last year. “One time, when she had to get an EKG, the doctors and nurses were surprised to see her wearing that lingerie, and she said, ‘Oh sure, you can never get too old to wear fancy stuff.’”

Jones has also been a participant in the New England Centenarian Study at Boston Medical Center, the largest study of centenarians and their families worldwide. Its director, Thomas Perls, said last year that genetics likely explain why super-centenarians live so long: “You have to have some relatively rare combinations of a whole bunch of genes, probably hundreds, that will help people age more slowly or protect people from age-related diseases [dementia, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer].” In fact, he added, most super-centenarians are female, and that could be because this rare combination of genes is on the X chromosome, of which women boast two.

But to Jones and her family, how she has managed to live to 115 will always be a mystery. “How did she live this long?” Judge said Thursday. But Jones has usually attributed her longevity to faith in God. She turns 116 on July 6.

TIME society

World’s Oldest Person Jeralean Talley Dies at 116

Courtesy of Michael Kinloch Jeralean Talley and godson Tyler Kinloch pictured with one of the seven catfish she caught at the Spring Valley Trout Farm in Dexter, Mich., on June 16, 2012.

The woman in Michigan had claimed the title in April

An American woman who became the world’s oldest person earlier this year has died at 116, a family member said Thursday.

The death of Jeralean Talley was confirmed to NBC News by Thelma Holloway, Talley’s 77-year-old daughter. Talley’s title had been verified by the Los Angeles-based Gerontology Research Group, which tracks supercentenarians. The Inkster, Mich., resident celebrated her birthday on May 23 and was fêted by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in Inkster, which also gave her $116—a dollar for each year of her life.

Talley was named the world’s oldest person in April after the two women who held the title before her died within the same week—Misao Okawa of Osaka, Japan, at 117, and Gertrude Weaver of Camden, Ark., at 116. Friends and family told TIME in the past that Talley had many hobbies, including fishing, bowling, making quilts, sewing dresses and—toward the end of her life—watching Jeopardy! and The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

A lover of comfort foods like chicken wings and Hog Head Cheese (a combination of pigs’ ears and feet), Holloway did note that her mother stayed away from butter and cheese recently, though not for health reasons; Holloway added that a doctor said Talley was in good health during a check-up the week she turned 116.

Asked at the time about her secret to long life? Being kind to others and having faith in God.

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