A few of us are old enough to remember the battle cry of the 1960s youth movement, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” College campuses saw a lot of turmoil in that era as students marched about feminism, civil rights and the Vietnam War. Much of that anger was aimed at the “establishment,” which at the time was any adult, especially those over 30-years-old.
It was called the “generation gap” and social scientists at the time worked themselves into an academic lather trying to explain what it meant. Long hair vs. crew cuts; The Grateful Dead vs. Frank Sinatra; free love vs. sexual repression; LSD vs. the martini; burn the bra vs. wear it. It was an era when everything was being defined by the great generation gap.
But in time, that youth generation — my generation of Baby Boomers — grew up. Overnight, the protesting stopped, hair got shorter and the protesters found themselves adults, juggling kids and a mortgage. The world looked differently on the other side of 30.
That Baby Boom generation is now in its 50s and 60s, retiring and settling into the twilight years. We have become the “establishment.”
But what’s amazing now is that there isn’t a new generation gap washing over the American political and social culture. We Baby Boomers are perhaps the most selfish generation in history, certainly more selfish than our parents and grandparents who survived the trauma of the Great Depression and WWII. Compared to that era, we Baby Boomers are a spoiled generation.
One has to wonder, however, if we can remain spoiled in the coming decades as our ranks swell into old age and we all become dependent on the younger generation to provide for our needs. The most obvious example of that is Social Security, a system that is facing a financial struggle in the coming decades as more people retire and there are fewer young workers to pay the bills.
Although a lot of people believe they just get back from Social Security what they’ve paid in, the reality is very different. There is no giant bank account where our Social Security money is stored; what retirees draw from the system now is being paid by today’s workers. And because of improved health care, Americans are living longer and drawing out much more money than they ever put into the system. At some point, that will become financially unsustainable.
And today there is Obamacare, a giant new entitlement program that will further strain young workers to provide for older workers.
Because of the structure of Obamacare, older workers won’t have to pay as much for health insurance. The burden will be shifted to younger workers to pay more into the system, although they’re generally much more healthy than older workers. In effect, the healthier younger generation will be subsidizing the older generation of workers who generally need more health care.
That’s the theory, anyway. What remains to be seen is if younger people will actually buy health insurance. If they don’t, Obamacare will collapse.
All of that sets up what may become a new generation gap that could have profound political and cultural implications. If I were a 30-year-old worker, I’d be protesting in the streets about having to pay higher taxes to subsidize older workers’ health care and higher taxes to keep Social Security alive for those who have retired.
Obamacare represents the greatest generational shift in our society since Social Security was created in the 1930s. It has huge economic, political and social implications for the long term. For example, the increasing burden on younger workers to subsidize older workers and retirees will take money away from younger families. Will that suppress housing sales as younger families have less financial resources to buy a home? Will that impact how younger workers spend their money in the retail marketplace? And will there someday be a political backlash as younger workers rebel against a system that has made them indentured servants of a large welfare state?
My Baby Boom generation, unlike most previous generations, feels little compulsion to leave our children and grandchildren better off than we have been. Historically, older generations have sacrificed their own personal desires so that their children might have more opportunity and a higher standard of living than they enjoyed.
But not my generation of Baby Boomers. We want our Social Security and we don’t want anyone to mess with that system. We want our healthcare and we want someone else to pay for it. We want a break on our taxes, especially local government property taxes. We want our entertainment, but we demand a Senior Citizens’ discount. We Baby Boomers are a generation of takers and we will whine loudly and punish those at the ballot box who refuse to give us what we want when we want it. And we frankly don’t give a damn if our own selfishness piles up a huge debt for our children and grandchildren to pay for.
It will be interesting to see if in another decade or two, our children and grandchildren talk about a new generation gap and if they will push back against an establishment that has left them impoverished.
I wonder if their slogan might become, “Don’t trust anyone over 50.”
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He is over 50 and can be reached at email@example.com.