Friday, March 07, 2008

Ready for Another War between the Generations?

Let's end the generational war -- yet another relic of the traditional partisan political culture that many Americans are trying to relegate to the trash heap!______________________________________________________________

By Jean Johnson and Scott Bittle
Authors of Where Does All the Money Go? Your Guided Tour of the Federal Budget

In primary after primary this year, journalists have remarked on the tendency of older voters to support Senator Clinton while younger voters flock to Barack Obama. On the face of it, this suggests that older and younger Americans have different ways of thinking about the country’s problems. Fair enough – the two groups are at different life stages. It’s reasonable enough that they’d be focused on different issues and concerns.

Meanwhile, the DC speechifying set is pointing out how much of the federal budget is spent on programs for older Americans compared to how little goes to benefit the young. At $586 billion in 2007, Social Security now takes up the largest slice of the federal budget. We spend more on Social Security than we spend on defense – and that’s with two wars going on. And Social Security dwarfs the $24.6 billion the federal government spent on higher education.

With 78 million boomers starting to receive benefits beginning this year, there’s no question that Social Security and Medicare costs present a major financial challenge for the country. To headline writers and the chattering classes, who often confuse conflict with genuine policy debate, this new “war between the generations” colors everything from the 2008 elections to how to tame entitlement spending.

The country went through a generation war back in the sixties and seventies, and a lot of boomers are probably surprised to find themselves painted by some as a bunch of greedy has-beens soon to be a millstone around the neck of the young. But leaving aside the feelings of the boomers themselves, we can’t help thinking that revving up a new war between the generations is such a patently bad idea. If younger people and older people begin to see each other as automatic political adversaries, it could well derail a lot productive ideas for solving our problems.

For one thing, the two putative “sides” in the supposed generational war actually have a lot in common, especially when it comes to their initiation into national politics. Both entered adulthood in the wake of shocking national tragedy – for one generation, the assassination of JFK (and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy not too long after); for another, September 11. Both have had to contend with a deeply unpopular, costly, mismanaged war (feel free to insert the adjectives you prefer). This time around at least, we’ve avoided blaming the soldiers for the errors of their elders. Some members of boomer generation were stupider and crueler back in the day. Even so, can we really say that the two generations are such political opposites?

But beyond this, setting up political discussions as a war between the generations seems a bit odd. Nearly all members of both generations have someone they dearly love in the other camp. Based on the opinion research we’ve seen, most parents recoil at the idea of saddling their children with humongous Social Security and Medicare debt. Most young people don’t want to see their parents anxiously scraping by in old age and failing health.

We suppose families view these things differently, but most probably want a choice about whether 30-something junior lives upstairs or whether to renovate the garage so grandma can move in. Having to make these choices because younger workers can’t make ends meet or because widespread elderly poverty has once again spread across the land isn’t what most of us are aiming for. A wealthy country like this one can avoid these scenarios if we just stop procrastinating and start working on this problem now. And not every solution needs to be either-or. For example, controlling rising health care costs is vital for dealing with Medicare, but it’d be good for everyone.

So let’s stop the generation war hyper-ventilating. The boomers and the “next’ generation live together in the same country, and as individuals, we mostly care a lot about each other. Realistically, both groups are going to have to do a little adjusting and rethinking to reach any kind of consensus on what to do. There are a lot of ways to talk about what our options really are, but this war between the generations thing isn’t a very good one. It’s so been there, done that.

Crisis and editors of
Copyright © 2007 Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, Authors
Jean Johnson and Scott Bittle are authors of Where Does the Money Go? Your Guided Tour of the Federal Budget. For more information, please visit

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