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No, Boomers Aren’t What’s Wrong With the Economy

The 'Unretirement' author's rebuttal to the latest boomer bashing

Here we go again. An all-too-familiar refrain is that boomers — also known as “greedy geezers,” “the silver tsunami” and “The Me Generation” — are destroying the U.S. economy thanks to the pressure they’re putting on Social Security, Medicare, pensions and other old-age programs. The latest version of this sweeping indictment comes from Washington Post economics reporter Jim Tankersley.

He just attacked baby boomers “and the way they’ve pillaged the U.S. economy,” saying the 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964 have “soaked up a lot of economic opportunity without bothering to preserve much for generations to come.”

The Boomer Condemnation Is Off Base

My response: No. Don’t buy into the blame-the-boomer snark attack.

Make no mistake: The U.S. confronts many serious, troubling economic and social problems, ranging from widening inequality to high incarceration rates. But the equity prisms of class, gender and race are far more illuminating than leveling charges of blind selfishness at the boomer generation.

To cite one such example of the finger-wagging, Tankersley censures boomers because, he says, “they opened up global trade and watched millions of manufacturing jobs vanish.” Yes, many U.S. workers — boomers, Gen X’ers and Millennials — live with heightened personal economic insecurity thanks to intense global competition. The problem isn’t with boomers, however.

What the condemnation of the boomer generation misses is that aging has become an opportunity for the economy to seize.

Instead, recognize that conservative legislators and their economist allies have often worked together to block a number of policy initiatives aimed at substantially boosting job training and job creation programs for people laid off and displaced as a result of increased global trade and job losses here.

A Question for the Boomer Basher

And here’s a question for Tankersley: If aging boomers have it so good, why do Social Security benefits comprise more than half of family budgets for 44 percent of leading-edge boomers, ages 65 to 69, who’ve filed for benefits?

Many of the younger boomers he rails against are among the 44 million+ Americans who care for their parents and relatives. As Sally Abrahms just wrote in her Washington Post piece about boomer myths, a 2013 AARP study found that about 1 in 5 workers age 45 to 74 had either taken a leave or quit a job to care for an adult family member in the previous five years.

The Rand Corporation estimated the value of unpaid caregiving at $522 billion annually, including the opportunity cost of not working, or working only part-time, which makes it that much harder to save for retirement.  The value of all this care exceeds the $502 billion in net federal outlays on Medicare in 2014. So much for the selfishness of The Me Generation.

Where the Bad Boomers Argument Goes Wrong

I could go on, but I want to shift to the truly troublesome core of the blame-the-boomer commentary: The solutions that typically accompany this perspective threaten one of the great economic and social opportunities in history created by increased longevity.

The basic fear in this argument is that the economy will falter with too few young workers supporting too many retired boomers. Truth is, aging boomers are reimagining and rethinking the second half of life to include work and engagement well into the traditional retirement years (what I call unretirement).

Boomers aren’t a deadweight loss on the economy. Quite the opposite. What Tankersley and his ilk miss in their blanket condemnation of the boomer generation is that, today, aging has become an opportunity for the economy to seize.

“The possibility of productive work lasting an additional decade will do more than supplement the workforce and can lead us to rethink the values and meaning of work,” writes Mary Catherine Bateson, the well-known anthropologist and author of Composing a Further Life. “Freud famously said that what gives meaning to life is to love and to work — lieben und arbeiten —and these are the keys to understanding the restless searches of today’s older adults.”

The gloom about aging boomers fails to take into account economic productivity, which trumps demographics every time. What counts is innovation, technology, the organization of business, investments in human capital and the animal spirits of capitalism.

The Workers and Retirees Ratio

A half-century ago, America had five workers for every retiree. This figure has since declined to fewer than three workers to one retiree. Sounds ominous, right? Well, the truth is that the U.S. is a vastly wealthier nation than it was in 1965.

Look at it this way: Between 2012 and 2035, aging alone could reduce American living standards by 8.5 percent, calculates Dean Baker, co-director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank. That would be due to the projected drop in the ratio of workers to retirees from about three workers for every retiree in 2012 to approximately two for every retiree in 2035. Yet if productivity growth runs at a 2.5 percent average annual rate — the pace of the first three decades following the Second World War and a realistic expectation going forward — the cumulative gain to American living standards is almost 58 percent, Baker figures.

Even if productivity only matches the anemic pace of 1 percent from 1973 to 1995, living standards will still rise by 26 percent.

In other words, according to Baker, even with the gloomiest productivity growth outlook, the gains dwarf the projected decline in living standards from demographics.

Here’s the kicker: Baker says his impact-of-productivity projections are too pessimistic because he isn’t factoring in the likely prospect of workers staying on the job longer than in the past.

A Better Idea Than Boomer Bashing

So, please stop the fear and loathing of boomers. The critical economic and social story of our era is really generational interdependence.

Instead of indulgent attacks on Americans in their 50s, 60s and early 70s, how about grappling with policies that encourage more women into the labor market, create robust job opportunities for inner-city residents and rural poor and keep aging workers employed?

While we’re at it, let’s devote more energy toward reforming Social Security and pensions in ways that reward earning an income and starting a business in the unretirement years.

I want to end my rebuttal with another quote from Bateson:

“Each of the liberation movements of the 20th century has had to struggle against internalized prejudices and negative images of the self or of other members of the same group, which had to be overcome in order to embrace a different vision and believe it could be achieved.”

Unretirement is a social movement that’s breaking down stereotypes and economic barriers, with boomers in the vanguard. The underlying vision is worth fighting for.

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