Generation Gap

Why The Screwed Generation Is Turning To Paul Ryan

Boomers don’t want to give up their sweet deal, but the rest of us have reason to embrace Ryan’s “radical” plans, writes Kirsten Powers.

Marc Piscotty / Getty Images

We’ve finally been vindicated: Members of Generation X have a representative who is anything but a slacker.

GOP Congressman Paul Ryan—the tireless, wonky, 42-year-old workout freak—has made history by becoming the first member of our generation to join a presidential ticket. It should come as a surprise to no one that his calling card is reforming entitlements.

We hear incessantly about how members of today’s screwed generation face the prospect of less prosperous lives than those lived by their parents. But the maiden generation to stare down that gloomy prognosis was Generation X, the tiny slice of America born between about 1965 and 1980. (Ryan was born in 1970.) We were the first generation to be told we would never get Social Security or Medicare even though we would be forced to pay into these programs.

When many X-ers graduated from college, stocking shelves at the Gap was considered a career choice, as jobs were few and far between amidst a major economic downturn. I won’t bore you with the horror show of the low-paying and miserable jobs I had for the first three years after college.

Unfortunately, the future looks as bleak for today’s young people. No amount of coddling by their well-provided-for Boomer parents can save Generation Y and the Millennials from the dire economic conditions they face, including criminal levels of educational debt. Pensions have gone the way of the horse and buggy. You want to retire with health-care benefits, as both my professor parents did? Good luck. As the 1994 movie turned Gen-X mantra has it: Reality Bites.

Generation X chronicler Jeff Gordinier, has written that Gen-Xers suffer from “athazagoraphobia”—“an abnormal and persistent fear of being forgotten or ignored.” Except it’s not really a phobia; it’s been reality for a long time. Maybe that is about to change.

Enter Ryan. While Democrats attack his Medicare plan as “radical” and portray him as pushing granny off the cliff, young people don’t seem to be buying this caricature. Or maybe “radical” is what they want.

A Zogby/JZ Analytics poll Tuesday showed increased support among voters 18-29 for the Romney ticket, which pollster John Zogby attributed to the Ryan pick. President Obama received just 49 percent of the youth vote, versus Romney’s 41 percent. (Obama took home 66 percent of the youth vote against McCain in 2008.)

For those who think those numbers are an anomaly, take a look at Pew’s 2011 polling that found that among 18-29 year olds, 46 percent supported Ryan’s proposed Medicare changes with only 28 percent opposing (the rest had no opinion). Among 30-49 year olds it was 38 percent approving and 36 percent opposed. The strongest opposition to Ryan’s plan comes from those over 65, who ironically won’t even be affected by his plan since it would only apply to those 55 and under. Pew found that age, not party identification was the biggest predictor of how a person would feel about his plan.

Jon Cowan, the CEO of the centrist think tank Third Way told me, “Ryan is doing the country a huge service by putting this on the table.” Cowan is the former founder of Lead or Leave, a Gen X group that gained prominence in the 1990s as it rang the alarm bells for reducing the deficit and dealing with entitlements. He doesn’t believe Ryan’s plan is the best way to reform Medicare, though he concedes that it is a serious plan. He cautions that Democrats may find themselves in political peril in the next 10 years if they don’t come up with a substantive alternative plan. He says, “There are a lot of younger voters who say of the Ryan plan, ‘at least I get something… at least there is a plan’. If you don’t get in there and offer a plan you give up the high ground on policy.”

Yes, our expectations for government benefits when we retire have been lowered so much that the idea that we would get anything at all seems like a bonanza. Ryan’s plan also seems a lot less scary when you consider that his partner on it is the liberal Oregon Senator Ron Wyden.

Still, the attacks by Democrats on Ryan and his plans for entitlement reform are scaring Boomers—who don’t want to lose the good deal they have and don’t realize Ryan’s plans wouldn’t impact anyone collecting Medicare now or who will start in the next 10 years—and could indeed cost Romney in November.

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But Ryan is young and is poised to be the intellectual leader of the conservative movement for the next generation. He will be a force to be reckoned with. Name-calling and distortions of his plan by Democrats is not an effective long-term strategy, nor is it good for the country.