We are locked in a generational war, which will get worse before it gets better. Indeed, it may not get better for a long time. No one wants to admit this, because it’s ugly and unwelcome. Parents are supposed to care for their children, and children are supposed to care for their aging parents. For families, these collective obligations may work. But what makes sense for families doesn’t always succeed for society as a whole. The clash of generations is intensifying.
Last week, a federal judge ruled that Detroit qualifies for municipal bankruptcy. This almost certainly means that pensions and health benefits for the city’s retired workers will be trimmed. There’s a basic conflict between paying for all retirement benefits and supporting adequate current services (police, schools, parks, sanitation, roads). Detroit’s retired workers have swelled, benefits were not adequately funded and the city’s economy isn’t strong enough to do both without self-defeating tax increases.
The math is unforgiving. Detroit now has two retirees for every active worker, reports the Detroit Free Press; in 2012, that was 10,525 employees and 21,113 retirees. Satisfying retirees inevitably shortchanges their children and grandchildren. Though Detroit’s situation is extreme, it’s not unique. Pension benefits were once thought to be legally and politically impregnable. Pension cuts in Illinois (last week), Rhode Island and elsewhere have shattered this assumption. Chicago is considering reductions for its retirees.
What’s occurring at the state and local levels is an incomplete and imperfect effort to balance the interests of young and old.
This is Robert Samuelson, a writer I read with interest and respect. And he’s not wrong.
But he is incomplete. To be sure, the Welfare State (literal and metaphorical) robs from the young and gives to the old—that’s the textbook definition of Obamacare. But what were the old thinking? I first heard the expression “demographic tsunami” 20 years ago, and was familiar years before that with the concept of baby boomers retiring en masse. And that in their narcissism or misguided generational self-loathing, they refused to reproduce in numbers necessary to see to their long, self-indulgent retirement. What made them think that deals with public sector unions could include retiring before the age of 50 on 100% of their last salary?
When Social Security was passed, 65 was old (older than average life span). Now, it’s the speed limit. I loved Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny (still do), but I had to let go of them. But I would believe in the Tooth Fairy before I would have believed in these the whole preposterous notion that we could support the masses of Seasoned Citizens for decades in their Golden Years. Shame on them for thinking it, and double-shame for demanding it.