Generational Warfare

03.27.12

Nothing For You, Sonny

Stephen Marche writes in Esquire about how young people in America are getting the short end of the stick when it comes to how the government spends its money:

The youth vote still supports Obama, but in a chastened, conditional way. In hindsight, Obama's 2008 campaign looks like an indulgent fantasy in which the major conflicts in life simply don't exist. There may be no white America and no black America, no blue-state America and no red-state America, but one thing is clear: There is a young America and there is an old America, and they don't form a community of interest. One takes from the other. The federal government spends $480 billion on Medicare and $68 billion on education. Prescription drugs: $62 billion. Head Start: $8 billion. Across the board, the money flows not to helping the young grow up, but helping the old die comfortably. According to a 2009 Brookings Institution study, "The United States spends 2.4 times as much on the elderly as on children, measured on a per capita basis, with the ratio rising to 7 to 1 if looking just at the federal budget."

Even labor unions don't expect much to improve:

The nature of the generational setback for unionized labor can be summed up in a single devastating phrase: New workers will earn a "globally competitive wage." Manufacturing jobs, having been exported to the Third World, are now returning to America at Third World rates. Newer workers at unions across the country earn ten to fifteen dollars an hour less than established workers, and the unspoken but widely reported understanding with the AFL-CIO is that the wage of these workers will not increase. In other words, Boomer workers make almost double what their young counterparts do, and will continue to do so regardless of how long a young worker stays in the same job. As one older worker in one of these bifurcated factories told The New York Times, by the time the young reach their maximum earning, their elders "won't be here any longer to remind them of what they are missing."

In the interest of pointing out that this is not just an American problem, the story also has a side-bar which shows this is happening globally:

A generation now means an economic cohort — a moment in the cycle of rising and (mostly) falling economic data. The UK has 21.8 percent youth unemployment, France 22.8 percent, Hungary 26.1 percent, Italy 28.2 percent, Spain 47.8 percent. Around the world, young people are beginning to be defined by their unemployment: the mileuristas of Spain, "those who earn less than a thousand euros"; the NEETs of England, "not in employment, education, or training"; the hittistes of Tunisia, "those who lean against the wall." Revolutions or unmanageable riots have inevitably followed the rise of masses of bored, underemployed young people.

As someone who is living out parts of this story, it's striking how many young people have not put all the elements together. Many young people instinctively know the first part: they feel an increased sense of pressure and frustration with their job prospects and career options.

There is less common awareness of the second part: the extent to which the American fiscal state is directing its resources to subsidize the oldest (and least productive) members of society.

Speaking for myself, I suspect the American political system is too slow to really change its priorities and redirect its focus on my generation, but there is always time to refocus on the next one. We now know that the first two years of life are the most consequential for child's development. I would consider reduced Medicare spending now coupled with an increase in efforts to ensure adequate early childhood nutrition to be a successful policy trade-off.

Or we can just make the Ryan Budget law and protect the baby boomers with a firewall to preserves their benefits.

The question will be: how long can an arrangement like that last before the side which knows it is getting the raw deal protests it?