BY ELIAS STAHL (Guest Contributor)
I was born in 1991, two weeks before the fall of the Soviet Union. I have no memories of the Cold War, but I do remember September 11th, the wars that followed and the Great Recession in 2007. In January 2008, the restaurant I worked at went bankrupt, joining the other third of storefronts downtown that were shuttered. Those are my generation’s memories.
Now that I am a graduate student studying economics in Washington, D.C., I learn about the 49 percent of the federal budget that goes to entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security) and then I go to work and pay into that system. Around 10 percent of my income is taken by the Federal government to pay for someone’s Medicare insurance or social security payments (the pay-as-you-go funding model). This transfer of wealth from my generation to the retiring Baby Boomers is part of the contract of Social Security. The problem is that this contract is breaking down. Since 2010, Social Security has been paying out more than it is receiving, drawing on its reserves to pay the difference. These reserves will be fully depleted by 2029 or 2035, depending on which forecast you believe.
My generation will have to pay more for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, but we will almost certainly receive less as well. While the Baby Boomers inherited the wealth and stability that their parents fought and won for them, we inherit a different world. The Baby Boomers were preceded by the Greatest Generation, who fought fascism and communism, and endured the Great Depression at a time when the Western world struggled with modernity. They knew how to fight but also how to build. As their legacy, they left us institutions that have fostered an educated and inclusive middle-class and strengthened our democracy.
The Baby Boomers had it too easy. They presided over spectacular growth – the U.S. economy grew almost 25-fold while per-capita income grew 15-fold – in the half century following 1964. This rapid growth also came with some negatives such as rising inequality and carbon emissions. These are externalities, unpaid side effects of production, that my generation will have to confront and finance. A report by NextGen Climate found that my generation will lose $8.8 trillion in lifetime income due to climate change, and that our grandchildren in 2100 will be making 23 percent less than our parents.
It is hard not to be angry or frustrated at my parents. Every generation has strived to leave its children better off. What changed with the Baby Boomers? I don’t mean to be ungrateful nor to suggest that we are not in any way better off than our parents. We are wealthier, more educated, healthier, and have made great strides towards gender and racial inclusiveness. But as a millennial, I see an exhausting amount of work before my generation. Rising inequality, crumbling infrastructure and climate change are just symptoms of a much deeper illness. Our political and cultural institutions have weakened, and our politics serve to magnify our divisions rather than to advance our shared interests. Even at this time of reflection, when the challenges we confront are so visible, powerful voting blocs of retirees are working to preserve Medicare and Social Security in their present form, offering up Medicaid as an unwilling surrogate sacrifice. Why are our parents fighting to push still more of their debt onto our backs? Where is the self-sacrifice, patience and foresight of their own parent’s generation?
So much of the tension I feel in America today stems not from race or class, symptoms as they are of our political dysfunction, but from this generational conflict of priorities. That’s what politics is – the movement of wealth from one generation to another. My generation’s mortgage is being signed by my parents at the polls and we’re left with whatever terms to which they have agreed.
So, Mom and Dad, read this letter before voting. And I hope your children read it and vote, because their negotiating power over the terms of this deal is only as strong as their voter turnout. Whatever challenges we face as a generation, we can overcome. And in the convulsions of creativity and debate which will surround our own solutions, we can emerge a generation that values foresight, patience and self-sacrifice, anchoring our own progress in the world we leave for our children. Because that’s not just good politics, it’s good parenting.