This recent piece by Ayobami Olugbemiga has much to recommend it, but the most striking thing about it may be this: Mr. Olugbemiga manages to discuss the retirement crisis faced by Millennials for seven paragraphs without once blaming older generations for their woes. The author’s photograph suggests he’s too young to be a Boomer. He nevertheless manages to observe that older Americans are also facing a retirement crisis, and cites an AP story which notes that this is a global phenomenon.
That’s a refreshing break from the onslaught of stories which try to pit one generation against another on this issue. Whether it’s the New York Times pitting “old vs. young,” or “men’s magazine” Esquire pushing bad economics to gin up a “war on youth,” the false narrative of generational war is constantly reappearing in our media. It’s like the Hunger Games, but with old people fighting young people.
None of this is an accident. There is a highly funded campaign to cut Social Security and Medicare while distracting us from the true sources of our multi-generational retirement crisis. This narrative can be traced back to the work of conservative billionaire Peter “Pete” Peterson and his foundation, who is sent minions like Alan Simpson out to stigmatize so-called “greedy geezers” for our country’s retirement woes.
The Peterson crowd has worked very hard to convince Millennials that the older generation has robbed them of retirement security, a strategy they’ve pursued with false-front organizations like “The Can Kicks Back.” A number of lazy journalists have bought into their narrative without consulting experts in the field are doing their own research.
The Peterson cohort’s goal was to convince Millennials that the best way to get even with their elders was by cutting Social Security – for themselves. (Most benefit-cut proposals exempt those who are about to retire, for political reasons.) It’s astonishing that they expected Millennials to fall for it – which, according to polls they haven’t. But then, it’s equally astonishing how many pundits and politicians have fallen for it.
That’s why Mr. Olugbemiga’s treatment of the subject is so refreshing. He was summarizing a study recently done by financial-planning website Nerdwallet which concluded that Millennials won’t be able to retire until they are 73 years old. The primary reason, according to the study, is the crushing burden of student debt.
Baby Boomers, on the other hand, are finding it difficult to retire for other reasons. For decades they were encouraged to invest heavily in housing and consider it a primary source of retirement income. That strategy enriched bankers. But the collapse of the bank-fueled housing bubble led to the destruction of much of that generation’s financial assets. At the same time, Social Security’s benefits have already been cut once during their working lives, even as the pension system which sustained their parents was being methodically eroded.
What’s more, both generations have been hit especially hard by an ongoing jobs crisis. Youth unemployment remains staggeringly high, with dire implications for young people’s lifetime earnings, while older Americans have been especially hard-hit by long-term unemployment. Unemployed people face a double hit: not only are they suffering today, but unemployment cuts into their lifetime earnings, lowering their Social Security benefits while depriving that program of revenue.
Wage stagnation has a similar impact. When wages remain flat for most Americans, so do their Social Security contributions and benefits. And when high earners – which for Social Security purposes means those making more than about $110,000 per year today – capture more of our national income, the program gets less in revenue. Economic inequality contributes to the retirement crisis.
What do all these problems have in common? All of them – the burden of student debt, the asset loss experienced by Baby Boomers, the decline of the pension system, and the multi-generational plague of unemployment – can be directly traced to the misbehavior of Wall Street and the ability of corporations and billionaires (like Mr. Peterson) to capture an ever-increasing percentage of our national wealth.
No wonder they want the generations fighting each other. If people really understood what was happening, Americans of all ages with unite with a common purpose and a common mission: to demand jobs, fair wages, and to strengthen system of retirement security which works for everyone.
The generational war is a hoax. In this global economy the fight for retirement security should unite us, not divide us, across barriers of age and race. The generations share a common agenda: for job creation, stronger Social Security, and economic equality; and against job-killing and wage-suppressing trade deals, usurious debt, and runaway banks.
It’s going to take all of us, young and old, to fight for an agenda like that.