September 17, 2014

Dear Millennials, We’re Sorry

Bob Kerrey, a former senator and co-chairman of The Concord Coalition, is quoted in a recent New York Times op-ed by Frank Bruni that discusses some of the challenges facing the millennial generation. The column quotes Kerrey on the budgetary pressures created by the aging population and the rising costs of federal retirement and health care programs. The column can also be found here.

Concord New England Regional Director Chase Hagaman sounded some similar themes in a recent op-ed in Seacoast Online detailing the challenges facing the millennial generation. That op-ed can be found here.

Among Americans age 40 and older, there’s a pastime more popular than football, Candy Crush or HBO.

It’s bashing millennials.

Oh, the hours of fun we have, marveling at their self-fascination and gaping at their sense of entitlement! It’s been an especially spirited romp lately, as a new batch of them graduate from college and gambol toward our cubicles, prompting us to wonder afresh about the havoc they’ll wreak on our world.

We have a hell of a lot of nerve, considering the havoc we’ve wrought on theirs.

For decades they’ll be saddled with our effluvium: a monstrous debt, an epidemic of obesity, Adam Sandler movies. In their lifetimes the Atlantic will possibly swallow Miami Beach (I foresee a “Golden Girls” sequel with dinghies and life preservers) and the footwear for Anchorage in February may be flip-flops. At least everyone will be saving on heating bills.

The Obama administration did unveil a bold climate-change measure last week. Or, rather, it signaled its intent to act: We’ll have to wait and see whether Congress figures out a way to foil the president or the courts gum things up. The plan as it stands would cut carbon pollution from American power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

But that may be too little, too late, according to an assessment last year by John Podesta, now a counselor to President Obama, in an interview with Harper’s Magazine before he joined the White House staff in late 2013.

In the interview, excerpts from which were released only last week, Podesta apparently reviewed what had been proposed and actually done in terms of carbon emissions and the like.

“But 50 years from now, is that going to seem like enough?” he said. “I think the answer to that is going to be no.” And that’s chilling, given the stakes. As the title of a book by Al Gore observed, the earth itself is in the balance.

The country’s slowness to deal with swelling seas and melting glaciers is just one manifestation of our myopia, just one metaphor for our failure to reckon with the future that we’re visiting upon today’s children, who get more lip service than legislation from us.

“If you’re going along with the status quo, it should be a crime to say that you care about our children and grandchildren, because you’re not putting your money where your mouth is,” Bob Kerrey, a Democrat who governed Nebraska for four years and represented that state in the Senate for another 12, told me recently.

This subject haunts him more and more. “If we’re trying to figure out how to advance the next generation’s future, we need to be spending more on the next generation, and we’re spending it on yesterday’s generation,” said Kerrey, 70. “I am not the future. My 12-year-old son is. But if you look at the spending, you’d think I’m the future.”

Kerrey is referring mostly to Social Security and Medicare, which, along with Medicaid, are the so-called entitlements that claim a larger and larger share of the federal budget.

He’s fixated on those sorts of numbers: According to the Congressional Budget Office, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid totaled 6.7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 1990. By 2010, they were 10 percent. And by 2038, such spending may represent 14.3 percent. It’s hard to see how that leaves much money for discretionary spending on infrastructure, on education, on research, on a range of investments that safeguard or improve the America that today’s young people will inherit.

And there’s too little money for that even now. Talk to physicians and other scientists who have long depended on research grants from the National Institutes of Health to keep the United States at the forefront of invention and innovation and they’ll tell you how thoroughly that spigot has closed over the last 10 years. They’re defeated, despondent.

The Urban Institute released a report in 2012 that looked at figures from 2008 for the combined local, state and federal spending that directly benefited Americans 65 and older versus spending that went to Americans under 19; the per capita discrepancy was $26,355 versus $11,822. Julia Isaacs, a senior fellow at the institute, told me that while data for subsequent years hadn’t been analyzed yet, it wouldn’t show a significant change in that gap.

Isaacs also drew attention to a follow-up report released by the institute last year. It projected federal spending in 2023 and envisioned that entitlement payments to older Americans would rise to 46 percent of the budget from 40 percent now. Interest payments on the debt would be another 14 percent. That would leave well under 50 percent for everything else, including the military.

She noted that the population was aging. Meanwhile, there’s a resistance to tax increases. “That makes me very worried that children will be squeezed out,” Isaacs said.

“I’m glad that my parents are living longer,” she added. “But it’s creating this budgetary math problem that we’re unwilling to look at.”

That unwillingness includes the predictable pushback from many members of Congress, from voters and from various advocacy groups when proposals are made to limit the growth of Social Security by, say, fiddling with cost-of-living adjustments. Older Americans, who would be instantly affected by such a change, turn out more reliably on Election Day than any other age group. Lawmakers are loath to cross them.

Younger voters need to assert themselves. Perhaps they’re poised to do just that. A recent poll by ABC News and The Washington Post showed a significant rise — to 66 percent now from 53 percent two months ago — of voters between the ages of 18 and 39 who said they definitely planned to vote in November.

In Washington last week, hundreds of concerned young leaders gathered for an inaugural Millennial Week conference, devoted to youth-oriented policy discussions. And I’ve noticed more bulletins and agitating from organizations like Generation Opportunity, which crunched May’s employment figures to confirm a much higher rate of joblessness among Americans ages 18 to 29 than among the whole population.

We millennial bashers of course have our stock responses to that. We quibble with the college majors that millennials choose. We question their willingness to hunt for work outside their comfort zones.

We conveniently overlook how much more they’ve had to pay for college than we did, the loans they’ve racked up and the fact that nothing explains their employment difficulties better than a generally crummy economy, which certainly isn’t their fault.

They get our derision when they deserve our compassion and a political selflessness we’ve been unable to muster. While we’re at it, we might even want to murmur an apology.