The Baby Boomers’ Unfinished Business

We haven’t been paying our way. It’s time we cleaned up the ledger.

By Paul Taylor

Tagged Baby BoomersGenerationspoliticsPoverty

Why should I care about posterity? What has posterity ever done for me?”

In an era when sweeping demographic change has created a racial, economic, cultural, and political chasm between the generations, that old Groucho Marx riddle illuminates a paradox about America’s 74 million Baby Boomers.

We are generous parents and grandparents. In record numbers, Boomers (ages 53 to 71) are supporting Millennial offspring deep into their 20s and 30s, or helping to raise grandkids who belong to America’s poorest living generation. Some are doing both.

But when it comes to public policies that support posterity writ large, Groucho has been our muse.

On our watch, the federal government has steadily scaled back on spending that favor the future—from education to infrastructure to basic research. Half a century ago, as the first wave of Boomers entered the job market, the Feds spent $3 on such investments for every $1 on entitlements. That ratio has slowly and steadily flipped. It’s now $3 to $1 the other way, and by the time all Boomers retire, it will be $5 on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid for every $1 on investments. Some of this is the result of the aging of the huge Boomer generation, but much of it stems from a shift in priorities away from investments and toward a more robust safety net for older adults.

During this same period, the national debt ballooned from below $1 trillion to above $20 trillion, every penny of it a drag on posterity. The Congressional Budget Office projects that under current policy, the debt will grow another by $9.4 trillion in the coming decade—and by at least an additional $1 trillion if Congress passes the tax bill it has been considering. Plus, we’ve put Social Security and Medicare on a fiscal glide path that will keep our benefits whole, but will then start running out of cash around the time younger Americans are ready to collect theirs.

These marvelous programs have massively reduced old age poverty in America. They are the crown jewels of liberal social policy. But their financial architecture has become increasingly flawed, for it fails a basic test of generational equity. As the math now works, the older you are, the more likely your benefits will exceed your contributions; the younger you are, the more likely your contributions will exceed your benefits.

This dichotomy between Boomers’ generosity toward their own progeny and parsimony toward the rest of posterity has played out at a time when America’s great modern immigration wave has produced a population in which older adults skew whiter and more conservative; younger adults browner and more liberal. Nearly three quarters of Boomers are white; nearly half of young adults and a slight majority of young children are non-white.

This “gray-brown divide” is already roiling our politics. The question for Boomers (especially white ones like me) is whether we’ll let it tarnish our legacy. In our remaining years, will we continue to support fiscal policies that mug a future America whose population no longer looks like us?

We’ve got the time, means, and clout to change course. Boomers are the healthiest, wealthiest, and most politically wired generation ever to reach the cusp of old age. We still occupy the White House 24 years after one of our own first set foot there; we hold nearly two-thirds of the seats in Congress (where the median age has never been older), and four-in-five governorships.

But as our generation rounds third and stampedes toward home, we’ll need to cast aside a lifetime of putting our own interests first. This will not be easy. The policies required to bring our entitlements into alignment with our aging population are all politically unpalatable. They’re also highly divisive. Republicans favor benefit cuts; Democrats prefer high-end tax increases. The only place where the two parties find common ground is in their mutual fear of offending older voters—thus the bipartisan conspiracy of silence that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton brought to this issue throughout their 2016 campaign.

Eventually, generational turnover and the unsparing arithmetic of an aging society will force the hand of timid politicians. The same holds for other policy challenges that have a generational component, from climate change to infrastructure to education. Unfortunately, the longer we wait, the deeper the policy holes and the more the burden of any eventual solution will fall on the future.

Assuming the tax cut clears final passage, that hole will only get deeper. Journalist Ron Brownstein (who coined the term “gray-brown divide”) says the measure will “bury younger generations in debt to fund the current consumption of their elders.” He accuses Baby Boomers of “trash[ing] the place” before a new generation comes along to evict them from “the penthouse of American politics.”

However, all is not gloom and doom. Even as the gerontocracy in Washington, D.C. has become ground zero for boomer selfishness, my generation (I’m 68) has become more inclined to “give something back” or “pay it forward” in other important realms of our lives.

Twentieth-century psychoanalyst Erik Erikson coined the term “generativity” to describe a late-stage-in-life urge to create something better for future generations. Across the country, millions of Boomers are hearing that trumpet, whether at a Methodist residential community for seniors in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where older whites mentor at-risk students from nearby schools that are serving a growing minority community; or at a Rotary Club in Oakland, California whose members volunteer for pre-kindergarten programs in poor neighborhoods; or at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, where a small army of self-described “pushy moms” from nearby middle-class neighborhoods help immigrant students navigate the application steeplechase to transfer to four year colleges.

These volunteer efforts, no matter how worthy or widespread, will never replace the need for government action; the scale of challenges facing the next generation is too vast. Nevertheless, they’ll help make things better, for old and young alike.

I’m a senior fellow at Encore.org, a nationwide non-profit that is seeking to mobilize adults over age 50 to serve in such programs. I’ll come back to this grassroots campaign later on. First, though, let’s take a quick look at Boomers’ long track record of political combat with all generations, very much including our own. And then let’s review our more benevolent relationships, especially in recent years, within our families and communities.

As we came of age back in the Sixties, Boomers waged a war of young against old. From sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, to civil rights, women’s rights, and Vietnam War protests, we were pretty convinced our elders had screwed up on pretty much every front. Thank God we came along to make things right—a point we delighted in driving home with placards (“Never trust anyone over 30”), lyrics (“I hope I die before I get old”), and chants (“Hell no, we won’t go”).

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love, the psychedelic San Francisco phenomenon that celebrated alternative lifestyles, racial diversity, natural foods, a habitable planet, peace, meditation, great rock music, and plenty of weed. Half a century later, the question arises: Did the hippies eventually win? Maybe not everywhere, but it’s hard to miss those sandal prints on plenty of outposts of contemporary America.

In the 12 presidential elections since 1972, how often did a majority of Boomers support the Democrat? Once. Jimmy Carter, in 1976.

Now most of us Boomers are in our sixties—and it’s become increasingly hard to dodge the accusation that, in our political lives, we’ve been waging a war of old against young. “So what if Social Security faces partial insolvency after 2034, or that climate change has scientists and generals fretting for the world circa 2040. By then, the median boomer will be dead,” writes venture capitalist (and Gen Xer) Bruce Cannon Gibney, whose take-no-prisoners book, A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America, was published a few weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration.

The Trump presidency has elevated Boomer bashing to new heights, as many pundits wasted no time seizing on him as a symbol of everything to dislike about us. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank calls the President “a bright orange symbol of what went wrong with this massive generation… narcissistic, impulsive and uncompromising.” Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio calls him the “‘Me generation’ boomer-in-chief.” Veteran social justice activist Marian Wright Edelman says the new President’s first budget proposal amounts to a war on children, who on a per capita basis already receive just one federal dollar for every six that go to seniors, the most lopsided age skew in the budgets of any of the world’s wealthy countries.

Trump, 71, isn’t our first Boomer President, though. He’s the fourth consecutive one in a quartet that also encompasses Bill Clinton, 71, George W. Bush, 71 and Barack Obama, 56—a lineage that makes folly of any attempt to wrap a tidy ideological bow around our sprawling generation.

With this in mind, here’s a pop quiz for you: In the 12 presidential elections we Boomers have voted in, from Richard Nixon’s victory in 1972 through Trump’s last year, how often did a majority support the Democratic candidate?

The surprise answer? Once. Jimmy Carter, in 1976. Bill Clinton won pluralities but not majorities of Boomers in 1992 and 1996; otherwise, the GOP candidate has always carried the Boomer vote or held even (1972, 2008).

The Woodstock generation, the flower children, the hippies—net Republican over the course of our voting lives! Who’da thunk?

It turns out we’re less liberal than our early press clippings had it. Always have been. The same generation that fought against the Vietnam War also fought in it. And we’ve gotten more conservative as we’ve aged, according to Pew Research surveys and election day exit polls. For example, last year Trump captured 52 percent of Boomer votes (then ages 52 to 70), compared with just 36 percent of the votes of Millennials (ages 18 to 34).

But there are some traits we Boomers have stuck with over the years. No matter what our partisan leanings, our generation has always had a thirst for political power and an appetite for cultural combat. Be it a byproduct of idealism or self-absorption (or both), we tend to be unyielding in our certitudes. From the culture wars of the Sixties to the identity politics of today, from the provocations of Michael Moore to the fulminations of Rush Limbaugh, from Watergate to Monicagate to Russiagate, we’re devotees of the political cage fight. If they happen to pit Boomer against Boomer (as many do), so much the better.

And so how, exactly, has that worked out for America? Well, during our long reign, confidence in all branches of government has sunk to record lows. Ditto for confidence in the other core institutions of society we’ve been running for decades—the media, religious denominations, big businesses, banks, higher education, public schools, and so on.

Trust is the grease that keeps the gears from grinding in our individualistic, entrepreneurial, fast-paced culture. It’s especially important to a self-governing democracy. “If you have contempt for government,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying, “you will get a contemptible government.”

All the Boomers’ fault? Of course not. Our tenure in power has coincided with the dawn of the digital era, a tumultuous period in human history that has created wondrous new ways to acquire information and communicate, but that has also fostered inequality, weakened traditional institutions, undermined social cohesion, and eroded shared truths. Not just in the United States—in all the world’s advanced economies.

This period has also corresponded with the migration of economic well-being toward the later stages of the human lifecycle. In other words, throughout the developed world, young adults and their children have been the generations hardest hit by the disruptions of globalization, automation, and digitization.

Consider: In 1983, the median American household headed by an adult over age 65 had eight times the wealth of the median household headed by someone under age 35. By 2016, that ratio had soared to 22-to-one, according to an analysis of Federal Reserve Board data. In constant dollars, today’s old are 92 percent wealthier than yesterday’s old, while today’s young are 29 percent less wealthy than yesterday’s young.

As those trend lines attest, Boomers (especially the older half of our cohort) have had a pretty good economic run. We entered the workforce when the middle class was still expanding; we bought our houses when prices were still low; and we started our 401(k)s as the stock market was at the front end of a decades-long bull run.

To be sure, most Boomers aren’t living on Easy Street. According to experts, only about half are financially prepared for retirement. But thanks to Social Security and Medicare, far fewer face the dread of abject poverty in old age. The official poverty rate among adults 65 and older today is 8.8 percent (the lowest for any age cohort); without those two programs, it would be more than 40 percent.

By contrast, Millennials have had trouble finding their way into a modernizing economy that’s wiped out whole categories of middle-class jobs. Throw in the millstone of student loan debt, the economic hardships linked to the cultural shift away from marriage, and the challenges associated with their racial minority status and you wind up with a rising generation of young adults that’s the first in American history to be downwardly mobile.

As parents and grandparents, Boomers have responded to these trends with a big-heartedness toward their own that affirms Margaret Mead’s description of families as “the only faithful human institution.” Some data points:

Nearly six in ten Americans live in families in which an older adult is providing some form of assistance (be it financial, housing, or caregiving) to a younger adult. Just a third live in families in which support flows the other way, according to a nationwide survey by Encore.org.

A third of Millennials (ages 18 to 35) are still living with a parent or older relative, a 50 percent increase over the share of their same-aged counterparts who did so a generation ago.

The United States now has a record 70 million grandparents, who comprise a record 22 percent share of the population. Most are boomers. About six-in-ten provide financial help to their grandkids and four in ten help care for their grandchildren on a regular basis. A growing share of grandkids—10 percent—reside with a grandparent.

An ancient proverb says nations became great when old men plant trees they know they will not sit under. We need more of that now.

These downward flowing intra-family exchanges typically persist until the oldest family member has entered his or her 80s. This represents a break from the intergenerational compact that prevailed throughout most of human history—I take care of you when you’re young; you take care of me when I’m old. This shift has occurred among all racial groups and social-economic strata. It’s a nimble adaptation to the changing economic, demographic, and cultural patterns of family life in the twenty-first century.

So what could possibly be wrong with this picture? Just one thing: For society as a whole, it allows us to widen the already sizable rich-poor gap in America—which it then thrusts forward onto a new generation. As Richard V. Reeves argues in his new book, Dream Hoarders, wealthy and upper-middle class parents are, not surprisingly, best positioned to do the most for their off-spring. The ticket to the American Dream isn’t supposed to be punched in a parent lottery. But, increasingly, it is.

As more young adults age into the electorate and more old adults die out, it seems likely that a more liberal, diverse, and consensus-seeking America will embrace policies designed to mitigate these growing class imbalances.

Of course, it’s possible that Millennials will follow in the Boomers’ footsteps and tilt conservative as they age. Possible, but not likely. For one thing, Millennials have started out in life being much more liberal than young Boomers ever were, despite the misleading perceptions about the breadth and range of the 1960’s counterculture. For another, nearly half of Millennials are non-white. That’s a demographic trait that won’t change with age, and for the foreseeable future it’s likely to remain the sturdiest predictor of liberal voting patterns.

In time, this record-sized, 80 million strong liberal generation of Millennials will be running the show. But for now we’re on a slow walk to that long run. In part because they recoil from Boomers’ bellicosity, most Millennials are turned off to public life. Their voter turnout rates are low; their appetite for seeking elective office scant. Most see technology, not politics, as the vital platform for changing the world.

Moreover, as the 2016 election so dramatically reminded us, demographic change always produces social and political backlashes. We’re in the teeth of one now, with the forces of the future and past colliding in rough equilibrium—with one tribe controlling the government, the other controlling the culture—giving everyone ample cause for grievance, and ensuring that gridlock will be the likeliest short-term policy outcome.

As Washington stews in its own dysfunction, what can Boomers do in their personal and community lives to build a better future for tomorrow’s America?
Intergenerational activism isn’t a new movement, but it has been gathering momentum as 10,000 Baby Boomers a day hit retirement age, many driven by a desire to leave the world better off than they found it. The movement takes assorted shapes and forms—foster grand-parenting, volunteering in schools, mentoring in recreational and social service programs. And in some cases, the explicit intention is to bridge the gray-brown divide.

When Hal Garman, a retired pastor, moved into a gated community for seniors in Gaithersburg, Maryland in 2011, he took an interest in “the kids living just outside our fence.” His outer suburb of Washington, D.C. was in the midst of rapid demographic change, driven by an influx of Hispanic, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern immigrant families.

Garman has since recruited more than 100 of his fellow residents of Asbury Methodist Village to serve as after-school mentors to at-risk third, fourth, and fifth graders. The children visit the senior center every other Friday afternoon throughout the school year for a dinner and activities such as nature photography, music, art, poetry, and conversational English. “We see our role as helping with their social skills, building up their self-esteem,” Garman said. “The feedback we get from their teachers and parents has been excellent.”

Garman has a kindred spirit in Karen Dubinsky, 64, an empty-nester from Queens, New York, who was dismayed to learn that just one in seven students at nearby LaGuardia Community College goes on to get a four-year degree. Many come from immigrant families baffled by the complexities of the application process, for starters. So she created “Pushy Moms,” a program that matches aspiring students with mothers like herself who “have an untapped reservoir of experience” from helping their own kids get into college. “It’s a way to level the playing field,” she said.

The benefits of these intergenerational programs flow in both directions. “I always seem to get more out of my volunteer activities than those I set out to help,” says Wiley Huff of Miami Shores, Florida, a retired school teacher who now works as a mentor for Best Buddies International. “They are a window to the future. And they remind us of the beauty of our own youth.”

These rewards are “more pronounced as we reach the age when there are fewer years ahead of us than behind us,” says Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Encore.org. “The passage of time brings us inescapably to the realization that humans are designed to pass the torch from generation to generation.”

A host of organizations—including Encore.org, Generations United, Experience Corps, AARP, America’s Promise, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Eisner Foundation—are stepping up efforts to mobilize older adults. For now, the growth has been incremental, but movement leaders believe there’s much more to come, if for no other reason than a coming explosion in both supply and demand, resources and need.

Right now there are 48 million Americans ages 65 and older, comprising 15 percent of the population. By 2060, according to Census Bureau projections, that number will more than double—to 98 million—and the share will rise to 24 percent. Happily, older Americans are also more active than ever. According to self-reports, a 69-year-old man today is as healthy and active as a 60-year-old reported being in 1970. (Yup, 70 really is the new 60!) For most of us Boomers, graying so far has been more dividend than burden.

So now let’s return to Groucho’s riddle: Why should Boomers care about posterity, present and future? What has posterity ever done for us?

One answer is hiding in plain sight. Demographers project that between 2010 and 2030, as our giant pig-in-python Boomer generation migrates from work to retirement, America’s prime age labor force will lose 15 million whites. But at the same time, it will gain 26 million non-whites—a kaleidoscope of Hispanic, Asian, black, and mixed-race young Americans, many of them immigrants or their grown children.

What has this first wave of non-white posterity done for Boomers? They’re paying taxes and holding the jobs that will keep our Social Security checks coming and our economy humming. The modern immigration wave has arrived “just in time,” says Brookings demographer William H. Frey, to rescue an aging, low-fertility white America from economic stagnation. Surely it’s in our self-interest to fortify them with the tools and training to be productive workers in a knowledge-based economy.

And surely we owe them and all future Americans the simple decency to start shoring up the finances of Social Security and Medicare now. The former will start running out of money to pay full benefits in 17 years; the latter in 12 years, according to the latest reports from the programs’ trustees. How can it be fair to ask low-income young Americans to pay regressive taxes to support benefit levels for current retirees that they themselves have no chance of receiving when they’re ready to retire?

Fixing this problem sooner rather than later would require a measure of sacrifice from all Boomers except the neediest (be it in the form of tax increases, benefit cuts, or both), which explains why Boomer politicians across the ideological spectrum have been so eager to pass the buck. Last year, all four major party candidates for President and Vice President were Boomers. Between them, they uttered nary a realistic syllable about entitlement reform.

Instead there was much talk on the campaign trail about American greatness. Well, there’s an ancient proverb that says societies become great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit under. For most of our history, we’ve been a nation of planters—intercontinental railroad, interstate highway system, Internet; Erie Canal, Hoover Dam; land grant colleges, GI Bill, Headstart; TVA, NASA, NIH. It’s a very long list. Lately, there hasn’t been much new.

But even in this season of political tribalism and demographic upheaval, most Americans accept the wisdom of that proverb. At a gut level, they know that the destinies of our different-looking generations are braided together. According to a nationwide survey I conducted last year for Encore.org, two-thirds of Boomers say that America’s generational diversity can be a source of national strength as long as we acknowledge our interdependence.

That survey finding is probably best understood as describing an aspiration rather than an assessment of the dreary gridlock that flows out of today’s identity politics. But it’s the right aspiration for a changing America. Our new demography will make us stronger if we let it. In our remaining years, while we still have spring left in our step, we Boomers need to do our part. There are Republican and Democratic ways to step up to this challenge. By all means let’s have a serious debate about the best policies. The only thing we can’t afford is what we’re doing now—which is ignoring reality and shortchanging posterity. Down that path lies a lesser America, not a greater one. And an abysmal final report card for the Baby Boom generation.

Read more about Baby BoomersGenerationspoliticsPoverty

Paul Taylor is the author of The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown. He is a senior fellow at Encore.org, the former executive vice president of the Pew Research Center and a former Washington Post politics reporter. 

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