Are We On the Road to a Generational War?
'The Next America' author's surprising views on boomers and Millennials
There’s a showdown looming between the young and the old, according to demographics expert Paul Taylor, author of The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown.
Unlike the last time America grappled with a generation gap and the rallying cry was: “Never trust anyone over 30,” boomers today aren’t on the youthful side of the barricades. And the flashpoints aren’t sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and the draft.
Now the fight between the generations will be over Social Security and whether America's young adults (the Millennials) will be saddled with an unsustainable burden paying for the boomers’ retirement, according to Taylor, 65, executive vice president of special projects at the Pew Research Center.
(MORE: Are You More of a Boomer or a Millennial?)
A Nation of Paradoxes
In his book, Taylor describes an America whose future will be full of paradoxes. It will be older, more diverse, more mixed race and more tech savvy than in the past but less married, less religious, less mobile, less confident and less middle class.
He profiles the boomer generation, which came of age in economic boom times, yet seems downbeat, and compares them to the Millennials, who might become the first generation in U.S. history to have a lower standard of living than their parents but who remain stubbornly optimistic about their future.
Other paradoxes: The country is both more polarized and more tolerant, according to Taylor. The nuclear family is losing its dominance, yet there’s been a dramatic rise in multigenerational households.
Loming over these future changes, according to Taylor, is one big question: “How do we keep our promises to the old without bankrupting the young and starving the future?”
Here’s more of what Taylor had to say in a Next Avenue interview about the Next America:
Next Avenue: You write that “if ever there was a moment to gird for a generation war, now would seem to be it.” Are we inevitably on the road to generational conflict?
Taylor: The answer is no. There is a generational chasm if you look at voting patterns, if you look at racial and ethnic identity, if you look at social and political values. And there is a looming demographic challenge to the two most important domestic programs we have — Social Security and Medicare. The Social Security trustees have been saying year after year we’ve got a problem down the road and the longer we wait to fix it, the harder it will be to fix,and the more the burden of the solution falls on today’s young.
But the other thing the book tries to do is to note through data that actually, at least through the prism of family — the oldest and original social safety net, the oldest and original compact between the generations — there’s a lot of evidence that the generations get along very well.
You mention boomers, whose relationships within families seem today much less conflictual, if you will, compared to 30 or 40 years ago when they were coming of age with an accusatory finger pointed at their own parents and grandparents. You don’t have that today, despite these differences.
The hope is we bring the same kind of generational good vibrations you find in families to the public square for what will be a very, very difficult public policy challenge around modernizing Social Security and Medicare, so it does work for tomorrow’s young, as well as it has for today’s old.
It won’t be easy.
Why aren’t we seeing more conflict or hostility between the generations as we did when the boomers were young?
I can offer a couple of theories. The boomers came of age in the '60s and early '70s, when the country was booming economically, standards of living were rising, the middle class was growing. It gave them the freedom to engage in some of the countercultural protest because you got out of school, you found a job — that was the natural order of things.
I think the reality, and the attitudes that flow from that reality, are very different today.
People of all ages feel economic insecurity, they feel rising inequality. And one of the things that happens in bad economic times is people use the social safety net that families have historically provided. It’s a safe port in a storm.
I focus on the rising share of Americans who live in multigenerational households. In many cases this is because you’re thrown together because you can’t find a job, your parents can’t find a job, your adult children can’t find a job. I think I quote the line from Robert Frost: "Home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in."
Another explanation has to do with the parenting norms over the last several decades that most young adults have been raised by.
It is a very nurturing set of parenting norms. You’re a precious child, you’re a special child, everybody gets a trophy. And they have led, broadly speaking, to young adults that get along with mom and dad.
The joker in the deck is this same nurturing parenting generation has delivered unto its now grown children a very, very tough economy. This has got to be the toughest economy for any young adult to work his or her way into. You’ve got to go all the way back to the Great Depression.
Why are the Millennials so optimistic and the boomers so glum?
I think a lot of it is life cycle. We do a lot of surveys of happiness, and happiness is a U-shaped curve, where people in their early adulthood tend to be happy, and then they go into a valley, and then they get happier as they get older. So boomers, I think, have been in the valley for a while.
Today’s Millennials aren’t the first generation of young adults to be optimistic. That’s just part of being young. You think it’s all going to work out.
What I think is distinctive is that even in the face of very challenging economic circumstances, they continue to feel this way.
Why the boomers are a little downbeat is interesting. I have a personal theory: The boomers were arguably the first generation in history, modern history, that became famous for being young, or became famous for being born. Witness their name.
(MORE: Boomers: Hug a Millennial Today)
One of the things that’s true of the boomers 40 years later is they’re not young any more. It’s never easy to come to terms with getting older. But I think the generation that has celebrated itself for so long for its youth may be having a tougher time than other generations with the inevitable reality that you’re not as young as you used to be.
Will the differences that we’re seeing and are going to see — between old and young, between a whiter older population and a more mixed race, immigrant population among the young — make it harder to reach an agreement on the sacrifices everyone is going to have to make to fix Social Security?
Quite possibly, yes. The grace note in the book is pointing out how well the generations get together through the prism of their families. But when we move to the public realm, we’re outside the intimacy of family and now we’re in the nation.
One of the things that so powerful and successful about Social Security is it doesn’t pit group against group. It is a universal program. And it is an expression of the idea that as a nation, we are a community, and that we are all in this together and our fates and our destinies are bound up with each other. People understand that within their own families.
In a heterogeneous society such as ours, particularly at the moment we are in now, given how polarized our politics are, this is the challenge. The hopeful note to strike is that all Americans, despite all their differences, believe in the notion that every generation should try to leave things as good or better for the next generation, whether it’s for our own kids or for our country’s children.
That’s a very appealing notion, and I think more and more people recognize the fact that that’s not happening right now.
It sounds like Millennials aren’t eager to cut government benefits of older people, even if they have to be saddled with paying for it. And they aren’t optimistic about getting those benefits themselves. Are they doing enough to speak up for their needs?
Young adults typically don’t start to “speak up for their needs” until they cross the familiar milestones of adulthood — job, marriage, kids, house, taxes, etc. — and realize what a big personal stake they have in public policy.
All this is happening later for Millennials than for previous generations. But the tick tock of generational churn will soon put their generation right in the middle of the political and policy fray.
In 2012, Millennials cast 18 percent of the votes for president, even though they were 27 percent of the age-eligible electorate. By 2020, they will be 38 percent of the age-eligible electorate, and if history is a guide, their turnout rates will go up as well.
If half of Millennials continue to feel that Social Security won’t be able to pay them a penny when they retire, this is a generation that will soon be speaking up, no doubt.