TEN thousand baby boomers will turn 65 today. Another 10,000 cross that threshold tomorrow. This will keep happening every single day between now and 2030.
I’m one of them. And while none of us knows what our golden years will be like, demographers and economists have a pretty good idea what this gray tsunami means for our country as a whole. It will be one of the most politically fraught population shifts in American history.
By the time everyone in this giant pig-in-a-python generation is collecting Social Security and Medicare, those two programs will be consuming about half the federal budget — and they’ll both be insolvent.
That’s because the ratio of taxpayers to beneficiaries will have fallen to its lowest level ever. The system’s trustees say that by 2033, Social Security will only be able to pay 77 percent of promised benefits.
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So we’re going to need to figure out how to rebalance those hugely popular programs in a way that keeps faith with the aging population without bankrupting the young and starving the future. This will be quite a political challenge, because these days, young and old in America don’t look, think or vote alike.
The young — America’s so-called Millennial Generation, currently ages 18 to 34 — are the most racially and ethnically diverse cohort in our history. More than four in 10 are nonwhite; many are the children of the great wave of Hispanic and Asian immigrants who began arriving a half-century ago.
Compared with their elders, millennials are social and political liberals, they’re digital wizards and social media carnivores, they’re slow to marry and have kids — and they’re broke.
It’s also the biggest generation since the boomers, who came of age back in the 1960s and 1970s and are best remembered for leading the countercultural protests of that turbulent era.
As the boomers have aged, many have grown more conservative. Nowadays, their big obsession isn’t sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. It’s having enough money for their retirement, which is why they don’t want anyone messing with Social Security and Medicare.
But the economic anxieties of today’s old pale by comparison with the financial troubles of today’s young. Until the middle of the 20th century, the old were the poorest age cohort in the population. Now it’s the young. Millennials have lower incomes, less wealth, higher unemployment, more poverty and greater debt than boomers had at the same stage of life. They’re on track to become the first generation in modern American history to do less well economically than its predecessors.
Some political observers worry that there’s a giant Battle of the Ages looming. It’s one that pits old against young, whites against nonwhites and conservatives against liberals in a fight over how to bring our entitlement programs in sync with the new economics and demographics of the 21st century.
However, a war needs combatants, and if there’s one thing that’s clear from years of polls taken by the Pew Research Center and other survey organizations, it’s that these two generations aren’t spoiling for a fight. They get along too well. And they’re living too interdependently.
In a hostile economy, more than four in 10 millennials have at some point in their young adult lives boomeranged back to their parents’ homes, where the refrigerator is stocked and the washing machine doesn’t take quarters. It ain’t easy launching a generation war from your childhood bedroom.
Those intergenerational good vibrations should help with the hard political bargaining ahead over entitlement reform. According to the latest Pew survey, just 6 percent of millennials believe they’ll get the same level of benefits from these programs when they retire that their parents and grandparents are getting now. Half say they expect to get nothing.
Nevertheless, Social Security and Medicare remain the nation’s most popular domestic programs. Nearly nine in 10 Americans of all generations say they are good for the country.
Understandably so: Without those programs, about four in 10 seniors would be poor. Because of Social Security and Medicare, only about one in 10 is poor. This is a blessing not just for seniors, but for everyone who loves, supports and depends on seniors — which is to say, everyone.
These programs are also the purest expressions we have in public policy of the idea that while we Americans may be a heterogeneous people, we have a shared destiny: We’re all in this together.
The challenge of modernizing them needs to be based on three principles: progressivity, universality and urgency. As gaps between rich and poor in America have widened to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, Social Security’s complex benefits formulas should be rejiggered to ensure that it continues to provide a floor of dignity for seniors who are at or near poverty.
At the same time, Social Security must remain faithful to the genius of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s founding principle — it needs to be seen not as a welfare program but a universal program. Otherwise, it will divide us rather than braid us together.
Striking the right balance between those competing ideals in a new century will be exceedingly difficult, which is why we need leaders from both parties to rediscover the lost art of political compromise.
And the sooner the better. The longer we put off making the needed fixes, the deeper the fiscal hole becomes and the more the burden of any solution will fall on today’s and tomorrow’s young, who are already slated to get the worst deal of any generation from these great programs.
One more thing: As we modernize these entitlement programs, how about also rediscovering our gift for making great public investments that favor the future in realms spanning from education to infrastructure to scientific research?
Each new generation is an arrow launched into the future. When boomers like me grew up, we had a chance to soar, thanks to the sacrifices and investments made by those who came before. We owe no less to those who follow after.
Paul Taylor is based in Washington, D.C., and author of “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown,” published by Public Affairs.