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We Need to Talk about the Generation War

Yes, there is a generation war. It nowhere resembles the right-wing myth that young people are victimized by funding senior welfare programs, or the left-wing myth that generation war is a privatization-pushing chimera. But it’s quite real.

Consider economic trends: From 1980 to 2010, real median household incomes of older Americans rose handsomely (up 25% for age 55-64 and 41% for 65 and older) but fell for younger Americans fell (down 23% for age 18-24 and 2% for 25-34).

Meanwhile, the median personal wealth of those age 65 and older leaped by 42%, while median wealth for Americans under age 35 fell by a staggering 68%. Thirty years ago, the median incomes of Americans age 18-35 and 55-and- older were dead even, though elders enjoyed 11 times more median wealth per household. Today, over-55 households have median incomes 35% higher and median wealth 50 times higher than young householders.

In 1980, children and youth were only slightly more likely to be impoverished than the elderly. In 2010, children and youth are 2.4 times more likely to live in poverty, including 4 times more likely to live in destitution (household incomes less than half of poverty level) than were senior citizens.

The elderly may not have made out like bandits from the trillions of Social Security and Medicare dollars benefitting them as child and young-family support was being cut or abolished in recent decades. But there’s no denying that conservative, post-1980 America has been very good to elders and very bad for young people.

What makes these trends a true “generation war” is that older voters increasingly have supported candidates and policies that have enriched themselves at the expense of the young. They have elected candidates and supported ballot issues that deny modern young people the opportunities and public aid elders were bequeathed by our (I’m 61) parents and grandparents.

It wasn’t always that way. In the 1980s, seniors and youngsters had common interests. The Reagan administration pushed cuts and more private control for welfare programs for both young families and the aged. Gallup Polls back then showed senior opinions of Reagan and Republicans fairly close to those of the young.

How, then, did we arrive at today’s exploding generation gaps in voting—16 points in favor of Democrats among under-30 compared to older voters in 2004, 30 points in 2008, 40 points in 2010, and widening to 50-60 points in 2011 polls? The biggest impetus, I argue, is that seniors (80% of whom are white) have become increasingly angry at and alienated from today’s more visibly multiracial, multicultural, diverse-lifestyle, globally-connected America with which younger generations (45% of whom are nonwhite) are far more at ease. Elders are far more vulnerable to racist, xenophobic, me-first, corporate-bankrolled Tea Party/GOP propaganda.

A second factor, which has been effective among lawmakers but surprisingly unconvincing to the public, has been the lavish privatization campaign to depict welfare, especially Social Security and Medicare, as debt-driving pyramid scams. The latest polls show younger people remain strongly supportive of senior welfare benefits—even more skeptical, in fact, than seniors of GOP epithets such as Rick Perry’s “Ponzi scheme” charge.

A third factor has been the (far less lavish) liberal/progressive campaign to defend senior benefits by recasting Social Security and Medicare as sacrosanct “entitlements,” as opposed to the unpopular “welfare” younger families and other beneficiaries received. The “beauty” of senior entitlement programs, its defenders argued, was that they’re not “means tested” (targeted to help the poor) but “universal”: everyone was or would eventually collect them, regardless of class or generation.

What made this “universal” argument flawed is, (a) the old, not “everyone,” receive the vast bulk of Social Security and Medicare, and (b) any generation can decide to deny younger ones senior benefits. In fact, today’s older generations are now saying it’s fine to spend one-third of the federal discretionary budget on us—just as it was fine for us to enjoy low-cost public universities and well-funded government services—but it’s not okay for today’s younger people to enjoy these same benefits.

The notion of Social Security and Medicare as self-funding is another myth. The hefty payroll tax used to fund these programs could just as easily be redirected to child and young family income, education, and medical support, with young-American programs then redefined as “self-funding entitlements” and senior benefits as deficit-ballooning “welfare.” Is there a rational argument that a 70-year-old is “entitled” to tax-funded benefits while a 7-year-old recipient is a dole-grubbing leech?

Unfortunately, this imaging—now cemented in Democratic politics—of elder “entitlements” as opposed to younger Americans’ despised “welfare” has been disastrous. It not only eased the Reagan-Clinton-era devolution of federal aid for destitute children and young families into 50-state block-grant messes, it contributed to nightmarish conceits among most seniors that only they deserve public assistance. Liberal insistence that senior benefits were somehow special and exalted helped create the divisiveness and contributed to the “generation war” many liberals (like conservatives who decry talk of “class war” against the rich) now insist we should not talk about.

Granted, liberal/progressive Social Security defenders in the beleaguered 1990s could not have imagined that sweet, grayhaired granny and gramps would so viciously turn against the young. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The ideal was that universal benefits for the aged would provide a model of success—and Social Security and Medicare certainly have been that—for extension to other groups in society.

“The happy experience of Medicare has made seniors less, not more, open to a generous welfare state,” puzzled Washington Post columnist and MSNBC contributor Ezra Klein. “It hasn’t created advocates for more single-payer health care; it has created advocates just for Medicare” and “fear that health-care reform will endanger Medicare.” “Greedy geezers?” asked The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki, deploring seniors’ “I’ve got mine—good luck getting yours” mentality.

The reactionary megalomania of seniors (shown in multiple surveys) toward racial, religious, and nativist superiority combined with the liberal notion that seniors are uniquely entitled to public benefits to yield Tea-Party wonk Paul Ryan’s declaration that only today’s—not future—seniors deserve public support. “One of the most fundamental tensions in our politics,” wrote The Nation’s Christopher Hayes, “is that senior citizens are, simultaneously, the demographic group that most benefits from the welfare state and the one most sympathetic to the right-wing push to abolish it.”

Senior attitudes today are divisive and punishing, and those who have advocated for preserving senior benefits need to move beyond reciting old arguments and look at new, disturbing realities. As well as  hopeful ones: younger people—despite a rising, 30-year attack by older voters on schools, universities, and the very idea that young people should enjoy privileges the old see as their special birthright—are not retaliating. Even though young people believe they’ll never collect the Social Security and Medicare benefits they pay heavy taxes to support (a fear that is absolutely justified), the young continue to support subsidies for their grandfolks.

So, here is my modest proposal. Democrats and progressives have an opportunity to correct an 80-year-old mistake that set up separate funding streams and programs to serve young and old. It is time to boldly propose a unified program to extend Social Security and Medicare to all ages with emphases on preventing poverty, securing health care and other basic services, and funding universal education access by extending equitable payroll and capital gains taxes to upper income groups.

Republicans will howl “European socialism” and “confiscatory statism.” Middle and upper income seniors will be outraged. But these aging groups are lost to Democrats anyway, young people desperately need a reversal of decades of generation war, and the 3 million seniors now relegated to poverty (the ones who mostly reject their age-mates’ reactionary tide) would benefit.

One thing that needs to stop is the Pollyanna attitude among progressives and Democrats that any criticism of seniors and age-based economic inequality is just negativism and “granny bashing.” When the old, by large margins, vote for Christine O’Donnells and Sarah Palins, say they’d elect Michele Bachmanns and Newt Gingriches, and tell surveyors they reject science, religious tolerance, and interracial marriage, it’s time to cut out the liberal/left self-delusion.

There’s one remaining question: are the elders, and the “culture war” that lionizes the past and demonizes the modern, right? Are older Americans heroic citizens and post-1980 generations too worthless and dissolute to merit investment? A fair question, given the left-right media depiction of youth as an unmitigated horror, to discuss in future blogs.

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Mike Males

Mike Males