KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Twenty-two-year-old Mike Payne inserts the topic into conversations with his family, with colleagues at the sandwich shop, classmates, even his skateboarder friends: Social Security (search).
"Anyone that's willing to listen to me," he said, "and even if they're not."
Nationwide, discussion of an issue that once seemed confined to bingo halls and AARP (search) offices is now coming from the lips of people a half-century away from retirement.
Teenagers gather at a local coffee shop to discuss the Bush administration's reform plan. College students surround a congressman to discuss possible benefits changes. Some young people are even sporting T-shirts and caps professing their love for Social Security.
"There are some possible outcomes that are so dramatic," said Hans Reimer, political director of Rock the Vote, which has joined forces with AARP to oppose the Bush administration's Social Security plan. "We're talking about a very substantial impact on the standard of living for young people."
As Bush travels the country trying to sell voters on his proposal to allow younger workers to invest some of their Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market, Rock the Vote is trying to make its opposition heard by dispatching its representatives to events, launching an Internet campaign and advertising.
The de facto political voice of the MTV generation (search) tries to project a nonpartisan voice in its voter registration campaigns, though conservatives argue it doesn't. But Reimer, who formerly led the 2030 Center, which criticized Social Security privatization efforts, said Rock the Vote felt it had to take a stance on the administration plan.
"To us, it's totally black and white," he said. "This is the first generation ever that would be asked to pay for their own retirement and Social Security at the same time. This is what private accounts do. They saddle young people with an unfair burden."
Others vehemently disagree.
Nicholas Tyszka, a Chicago-based Republican strategist, said despite the difference in their demographics, it's not surprising AARP and Rock the Vote are on the same side.
"Both are extremely liberal organizations that use scare tactics to affect public policy," he said.
At a Social Security rally this week in Liberty, Mo., the reasons that attracted young people to attend were varied.
Nineteen-year-old Monica Henderson thinks there's no reason to change the current system. Twenty-two-year-old Sarah Swartz has a disabled brother. And 27-year-old Mike Sandbothe said he simply opposes the idea of privatization.
They stood alongside people of all ages who oppose the Bush plan, but the under-30 crowd did not represent a majority.
At the large-scale meeting in Kansas City a week earlier, young people represented an even smaller share of the crowd. Payne stood among several hundred people, most whose faces long had given way to wrinkles and whose heads already became home to white and gray.
Payne, a senior at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, admitted it was disappointing that more young people didn't show, but he said that won't stop him from discussing the issue from his peers.
Mike Tanner, director of the Campaign for Social Security Choice at the Cato Institute, a leading proponent of private accounts, said Rock the Vote is arguing against something that would help the young.
"If we don't reform Social Security, young people are going to end up paying more and getting less," he said.
Young adults have been among the strongest backers of Bush's proposal for months, but a poll released last week by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that support slipping.
Support among those 18-29 dipped from about seven in 10 to just under half; a quarter of young adults now say they're unsure how they feel about such personal accounts.
Colleen Taylor, a Columbia University junior who went on the campaign trail as a political correspondent for CosmoGirl! magazine, said she's heard tremendous discussion from young people on both sides of the Social Security debate.
"The majority of people I know and I talk to aren't that scared of privatizing Social Security just because they trust their own ability to save, but a lot of people think we have an obligation to help the people who may not be responsible enough to save their own money," she said.