The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
There Are No Winners In The War Against The Young

That’s the reality, writes Matt Miller in the Washington Post:

You [younger Americans] are in big trouble. You don’t even know it. You’re busy trying to get a degree, land a job, start a family, save for a home. You don’t follow the news. But trust me—you’ve been taken for a ride by your elders. . . .

The job market for young people is a disaster, the toll of a burst financial and housing bubble that both parties let fester. The crisis has reached the point where years of unpaid labor (in the form of internships) have become a way of life for millions of Americans in their 20s.

Our K-12 schools have slid from the best in the world to mediocre under both Republican and Democratic presidents and governors. That’s largely because for decades we’ve embraced a bipartisan policy of recruiting middling students to become teachers.

Our roads, bridges, sewers, airports and power grids desperately need upgrades. Our investments in research and development as a share of our economy trail that of our peers. Republicans don’t seem to care. Democrats care enough to propose token sums that would fund a fraction of the need.

There’s no cash for such investments in the future because pension and health-care programs for seniors (plus a bloated Pentagon) take up so much of the budget. At the federal level, seven dollars go to programs supporting elderly consumption for every dollar invested in people under 18. Nationally (after taking account of the fact that most education is paid for at the state and local level), the ratio is still 2 1 / to one…

Want more? For years, states have let public pension managers assume their investments would grow 7.5 or 8 percent a year, when 3 to 6 percent has been more realistic. This bipartisan ploy hides trillions more in pension shortfalls, funds that will have to be forked over one day by (you guessed it) younger Americans.

Read the whole thing. Miller echoes arguments Via Meadia has been making for some time. The evidence is devastating, but as Miller concludes, young people haven’t woken up to the dangers, even as the policies that turn the screws on them have gone on for years.

In 1995, when I was a (younger) generational equity worrywart, I asked then-Sen. Alan Simpson how to fix what was clearly coming. Simpson told me nothing would change until someone like me could walk into his office and say, “I’m from the American Association of Young People. We have 30 million members, and we’re watching you, Simpson. You [mess with] us and we’ll take you out.”

Will the kids wake up one day soon? Will anything be done to save them from paying their elders’ bills in addition to the hefty bills for other responsibilities and desires like having a family or buying a home?

This is partly because we’ve had two generations of older people behave with extreme shortsightedness and selfishness: the Boomers and their immediate heirs have been chasing unicorns and building their self esteem while neglecting their basic duties. But as Miller acknowledges it’s also partly because the challenges we face today are unusually hard. Many of our core systems — government, education, health care — are becoming impossibly expensive and unproductive given the demands that contemporary life puts on them.

America needs an upgrade, and young people need it more than anybody else. The old ways of doing things are gradually choking the life out of the country and making it harder and harder for people to do very simple things — like starting a family, raising, kids, preparing for retirement.

Generational equity is one of the reasons America has to change the way it does business; but every generation — including those not yet born — has a stake in breaking the chains that hold us back.

The IT revolution and globalization shouldn’t be impoverishing us; they offer unparalleled opportunities to give Americans the chance to live richer, more interesting and more fulfilling lives than ever before. But it’s raining soup, and America is still standing there with a fork — a blue model fork, and it’s just not what we need.

Published on June 15, 2012 9:10 am
  • Eurydice

    Yes well, nobody asked for the Great Depression, or WWII, or the Korean War, or the Viet Nam war, or Iraq or Afghanistan – or pretty much anything else that’s happened in history. And selfish boomers didn’t ask to have to support both their parents and their children. Each generation has to suck it up.

    Yes, those pensions have been unrealistic, but they’ve also been the way to get older people out of the job market so that younger ones can move in. You could cut off everybody’s pension payments tomorrow and that wouldn’t change the job situation for the youth. We just don’t have enough jobs to accomodate all of our population. So maybe we should forget about health care and encourage all those old people to die. Then we can start fresh with a brave, new world.

  • Kris

    “Our roads, bridges, sewers, airports and power grids desperately need upgrades.”

    I know! Why don’t we implement a program to invest in this infrastructure, with the beneficial side-effect of promoting short-term growth? We could call this a “stimulus”.

  • http://Inthisdimension.com Alex Scipio

    It’s actually worse than that. Look at demographics of Blue v. Red states. Two Blue states have total fertility rates of 2.1 (NV, NM); one has TFR of 2.2 (HI). All other Blue states are below replacement. Even CA now is 2.09. Only 3 Red States are below 2.2. Net? Democrats demand enormous entitlements that only can be paid by future generations…. that Democrats refuse to populate. This debt load is coming down almost solely on the children of Conservatives who want to reform the entitlements, but who are prevented from doing so by Democrat voters not having kids.

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    @ – “This is partly because we’ve had two generations of older people behave with extreme shortsightedness and selfishness: the Boomers and their immediate heirs have been chasing unicorns and building their self esteem while neglecting their basic duties.”

    This blame-shifting is . Our elite trade and immigration policies and failure to adjust our wage-and-hour laws to reflect progress in labor-saving technologies — these are the root causes of our children’s poor prospects The collapse of the blue model is only a symptom.

    If I were to pick out just one individual who is most responsible for this collapse it would be a pre-Boomer named Samuelson who stood up in the East Room of the White House on the eve of the great NAFTA vote in Congress and disingenuously told the American people that “protection had never resulted in a net increase in the number of high-paying jobs.” He was technically correct of course; but by implying the American people had nothing to worry about he was betraying his President and his future countrymen.

    Read the whole thing here:

    http://tinyurl.com/7bboblp

  • Anthony

    The accumulation and multiplication of social problems and our ponderous attempt to band aid over them are finally telling via generational impact. What is most remarkable is that domestic indifference appears normal – the young are on their own.

    I think forthright political neglect is at root; confrontation of problems affecting the young encounter status quo interests opposition (consciously or unconsciously) – though our domestic problems are many and seem ever more intractable.

    In view of the rising tide of social problems (inter-generational debt and minimized youth opportunities being but one), were will it end WRM? To some extent nation’s core is its youth and future; are we complicit in eroding our core going forward?

  • thibaud

    Just when you thought Mr Mead had kicked the habit, there’s that ludicrous phrase again, sneaking into the last sentence.

    Again, there is no correlation at all between the degree to which a state or nation is “blue” and the solvency of that state or nation’s pensions.

    The deep blue nations of northern Europe have excellent pension plans managed by competent, responsible professionals. So does the state of New York.

    In fact – funny using that word which is absent from so many Via Meadia discussions – the Netherlands requires by law that its public pensions maintain funding ratios that are far higher than not just the US average but higher than that attained by any US state.

    Last I checked, the Netherlands had a very large safety net and a highly interventionist government.

    Another inconvenient fact: that deep deep “blue” nation, Sweden, shifted many years ago from defined benefit to defined contribution funding for its pensions.

    And still more inconvenient facts: highly interventionist, well-managed nations such as Sweden and Canada have been kicking our tail in terms of growth and fiscal soundness for many years.

    At the same time, those decidedly anti-”blue” American states, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kentucky and Alaska, have public pensions that are underfunded by 50-60%.

    Could we please stop dumbing down the discussion of the actuarial challenges we face with this silliness about some mythical “blue” non-”model”? We’re just talking about competent pension management, not some sweeping “social model”.

    The solution is good government, not less government. America is extremely badly governed. We need to look northward, learn from the example of generous and prudent nations like Canada, Sweden and Holland – all of which have cleaned up both their politics and their banking sectors and have managed to achieve sustainable growth without shredding the safety net. They all have universal health insurance; Sweden’s medical care is second to none.

    Mr Mead, please be part of the solution and stop spreading misinformation.

  • justaguy

    As a member of the maligned boomer generation, I take exception to the idea of chasing unicorns and rainbow power poured out. Boomers have just reached power in the last few years. Clinton was the first Boomer President, so our time is of power and wealth is now. we are the generation that worked harder, paid more taxes, and took care of the generations behind us.

    Too high gains expected on pensions? The 80 year average is still over 8%; So why was 8% when the average was over 9% bad? For a 50 year average, it still is above 8%. Clinton and the boomers in Congress balanced the budget and tried to fix the blue model– welfare and other aspects. Yes the Blue model is changing, and has to change, but don’t blame the Boomers. We are the ones trying to fix what our “greatest generation” left us set in stone, law, institutions, and almost everything else.

  • Richard Treitel

    I notice at http://www.ssa.gov/cola/automatic-cola.htm that when prices go up, pensions go up, but when they go down (hello, gasoline), pensions do not go down commensurately. So as long as oil and other commodity prices continue their roller-coaster ride, the old are playing “heads I win, tails I don’t lose” with the government’s money.

  • Kenny

    “Our K-12 schools have slid from the best in the world to mediocre under both Republican and Democratic presidents and governors. That’s largely because for decades we’ve embraced a bipartisan policy of recruiting middling students to become teachers.”

    Exactly. It is the dummies of the collegiate world who are teachers. Their main skill is in organizing like Teamsters and corrupting the political process with their money.

  • Russ

    @Justaguy:

    It’s not about policy. It’s your generation’s UTTER failure to save, under the unicorn-fart assumption that mortgages and an investment with counterparty and cyclical risk (those supposedly-bulletproof 401Ks you’re all so proud of) are a secure means of investing for retirement.

    As a GenX guy who’s been warning folks for well over a decade now that the crash was coming, I’d like to take exception to the Prof’s assertion, too….only I can’t. I know too many people who bought into these assumptions without ever examining them critically.

  • Jim.

    Put significant limits on who gets Medicare and Social Security (I.e., “means testing”) an watch Americans slash those programs back like public employee pensions. Benefits for the majority won’t survive mathematical pressure; benefits for the few won’t survive majority pressure. So dies th Blue Model.

    As far as Boomers being “heroes” for supporting (“unasked”) both parents and children, I have a reality check for them… many Boomers selfishly chose not to have children at all (see birth rates in the 70′s, particulary after Roe v Wade), and many who did foolishly decided to have them *late*, such that there was no way the kids could establish themselves in the workforce until long after grandparents retired.

    We’re headed for a world where grandparents won’t be able to retire until their grandkids are ready to work. In some ways, that’s where we’ve always been; one one generation at a time (at most) gets any leisure, and that typically in the cradle or the grave.

    That’s what every generation needs to “suck up”.

  • Eurydice

    @Alex #3 – I nominate you to be the one who goes out to tell all those women they should stay home and breed.

  • Heather

    Why is the Silent Generation, the generation of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, let off the hook. No one over the age 66 bears any responsibility for our troubles as well?

  • Eurydice

    @Russ #9 – Nobody said those 401Ks were bullet proof, but that’s what replaced the traditional defined benefit plan. In effect, the government allowed corporations to offload their pension liabilities onto the employees – it was a big boost for their balance sheets.

    @Jim #10 – Thank you for decoding what everybody’s been dancing around. When people say a generation’s been “selfish”, they actually mean women have been selfish. They mean women should have stayed home to have more babies and left the working world open for future generations of men.

    You know, it’s not like the boomers were plopped onto the planet with a silver spoon in their mouths. They were born into a system that was built for men to work in until they turned 65 – then they had to retire and then they had to die, unless they were killed in Viet Nam first (talk about a war on the young). Well what do you know, life has changed. And maybe it’s a good thing that young people are ignoring all this geriatric hand-wringing, because there’s no point to it – we can only live in the present.

  • Kenny

    Jim: “Benefits for the majority won’t survive mathematical pressure; benefits for the few won’t survive majority pressure. So dies th Blue Model.”

    Very well put!

  • JerryF

    Someday the young will get organized (The AAAYP?). Social Security and Medicare could easily enough be decimated. Much better to make reasonable adjustments now for everyone, including the current ‘winners’ in the Ponzi scheme, than to have things really blow up later.

  • Crocodile Chuck

    “Many of our core systems — government, education, health care — are becoming impossibly expensive and unproductive given the demands that contemporary life puts on them.”

    CORRECTION: these are expensive because they (housing, education, healthcare) have become ‘financialised’ and whose ‘asset values’ are subject to wild swings by corporations and Wall Street.

    Good try, though!

  • http://www.fiscalwars.wordpress.com Crazy Diamond

    I’ll be 34 this year, so maybe not exactly young anymore, but I still face many years of work ahead if that counts. I graduated in August 2001 with a degree in Finance and consider myself to be rather fortunate having chosen a hard science and having had 7 years experience in the work force before the crash in 2008. That said, the first decade of my career has had some low points already:

    - 9/11/2001; gas prices averaged $1.52 that year.
    - began putting 10% of my paycheck towards my 401k from day one – value slashed in half from 2008-2009
    - saved up for a down payment on a house; bought it in 2007 and now owe approximately twice what it’s worth.

    Where, exactly, is the incentive for these new grads to do the right thing?

    Why save money? Dollars are going down in value. Why get a diploma? Degrees are going down in value. Why buy a house? Housing is more volatile than ever. Take my advice and spend every dime you have at strip clubs, on cool rims for your car, stereo equipment, and other items of instant gratification. Let someone else worry about your future because you can’t do anything to improve it anyway.

  • gh

    It’s just the economic illiteracy of the left.

    Capitalism and free markets work if given a chance. See Peter Schiff on reason tv.

  • Jordan

    @Russ #9: I’m right with you. I have warned those my age and younger (GenX and even some GenYers) of the impending mathematical pain, and I’ve been met with blank stares.

    I would take issue with “those supposedly-bulletproof 401Ks you’re all so proud of” though. 401k’s are entirely under an individual’s control and can reallocate assets from stocks to bonds to cash overnight. It requires individuals to take personal responsibility of their investments and future, yes. And I certainly don’t understand why they are cast in such a negative — sometimes “evil” — light (not saying your comments imply such however).

  • WM

    Who the blazes is blaming the childless?! Blaming the nation’s fiscal problems on people not having children is an absolute obscenity. What, do you think human beings are slaves? Mind your own business and eff off! The truth is that if YOU hadn’t been TACITLY or EXPLICITLY SUPPORTING the entitlement programs all these decades, there would be no fiscal crisis in the first place. This situation is literally all YOUR fault, and you are trying to extract even more from the victims?! My god, you people are bat spit crazy.

  • a nissen

    I do not have children, so it took me a very long time to compare the public education I received with what passes for a public education today. Mine would definitely have ended at 12th grade (six years more than my fathers), instead after doing the comparison, I count my blessing every day that the times thought enough of me to give me a college education and the means to a thought filled life.

    What I wonder is why my cohort with children who must have made immediate comparisons put up with what they found until like the frog, the boiling water now cooking the life out of us is pretty much impossible to escape.

  • http://www.ulyssessrant.com Ulysses S. Rant

    Russ@9 hits the nail on the head. I was another of those Gen-X guys warning people all last decade that another crash was coming. Most thought that my kind was a bunch of Chicken Littles…until September ’08 proved us right.

    Baby Boomers have an unbelievable capacity to deny reality. I chalk it up to their rather relativistic worldviews. But that won’t change how ugly the consequences will be for them, especially later this decade when the money REALLY starts to run out.

  • rkka

    @justaguy
    ” Clinton and the boomers in Congress balanced the budget and tried to fix the blue model– welfare and other aspects.”

    No! No! No! The blue model is the focus of evil in the modern world, and is to blame for our financial disaster! We must continue with the Reagan Red Model because tax cuts raise revenues and are the best method for financing wars!

  • lhf

    There are those of us old people who agree with you, however, there is no organization of us powerful enough to counter the AARP.

  • http://dadshomeschool.net TomJ

    Hey hey, ho ho, retirement has got to go. It was an invented perk meant to attract constituents, and to force people out of the tight labor market that socialists always create.

    Real Americans work until they die and don’t demand government handouts. And a free economy is a full-employment economy. The finest hour of the boomers will come when they jump start the life extension industry by cashing in their houses to pay for early and experimental treatments.

  • Jim.

    @Eurydice-

    What basis do you have for the assumption that men are irrelevant from any discussion of whether and when to have and raise children? Does your species reproduce by fission?

    Men’s “lifestyle choices” are very relevant to this discussion, and men who refuse to take responsibility and help raise the next generation (and this includes those who refuse to be good husbands for one reason or another) are shirking just as much as women who decide not to be mothers (or good wives.)

    The childless-by-choice are shirking as much as people who decide not to be good workers for whatever reason, really.

  • http://theunfoldingcatastrophe.blogspot.com/ Michael Barger

    I revere you, Professor Meade, and you make the same error as most pundits. You post questions rather than issue calls to massive conservative and millennial activism, particularly on Twitter.

    You ask “Will the kids wake up one day soon?” The answer is “Of course not, unless you are willing to actively wake them up.”

    And you are not doing that. You can do it very simple by adding the hashtags #Millennials and #Resist44 to every relevant article you mention on Twitter.

    Even better tweet @JustenCharters and offer yourself as an adviser. Justen is the founder of the conservative resist.com for millennials.

    Learn from Ron Paul. @RonPaulsVoice always hashtags #OWS and #Anonymous. Though he is a Republican they respect him because he respects them.

    Unlike conservatives he has no interest in castigating them and only desires their enlightenment and conversion.

    At the margin this election will be won by millennials and Hispanics. Romney and the GOP at this point are completely clueless.