My baby boom generation has always dreamed of transforming society. In callow youth, we felt a calling to bring a more enlightened consciousness to America.
That epic self-confidence has faded for many of us. And yet, the longing to do something large lingers somewhere in nearly every boomer heart.
Fact is, as the Woodstock generation enters elderhood, the spirit of the Sixties is hard to miss in, among other things, fast-changing attitudes toward gay rights, marijuana and America’s oversized role in the world.
For better or worse (or both), the boomers’ hour of maximum influence has come. And dead ahead lies a worthy challenge to our generational self-image as agents of unselfish change.
As the enormous weight of our generation’s retirement takes hold throughout America’s economy and public finances, it will fall uniquely to the boomer generation to transform the paralyzing politics of entitlement reform in America — if it is ever to be done.
This one really is about us, and an awakening to the need for a new generational contract could be a chance for true generational greatness. Maybe that’s why it’s a long shot.
Change, make no mistake, will come to the federal government’s gigantic programs devoted to supporting the aged — chiefly Social Security and Medicare. Arithmetic demands change, and its demands eventually get met.
But only a new attitude among the elderly would allow America’s political leaders to make the inevitable adjustments soon enough, and thoughtfully enough, to minimize the worst pain for those who can least afford it, and to head off bitter generational conflict.
We’ve already waited too long, and there’s no sign of imminent progress. In the budget proposal he released several weeks ago, President Obama abandoned a modest idea for reducing future cost-of-living increases in Social Security benefits, one he had offered in years past. Meanwhile, Republicans continue to denounce as “gutting Medicare” provisions within Obamacare to rein in some of that program’s ever-accelerating costs, while Democrats greet every GOP Medicare reform idea the same way.
In recent years, almost every discussion of entitlement reform has been accompanied by assurances that no changes will affect retired Americans or those “near retirement” — a guarantee that virtually rules out adequate adjustments.
Settling on the best combination of benefit reductions and tax increases will be traumatically difficult. But there is no doubt that some such combination will be necessary. Both Social Security and Medicare are on unsustainable financial paths. Medicare is ultimately the much bigger problem because containing its future costs means controlling health care costs generally, a riddle far from being solved. But for that very reason reform is essential across the whole system that supports the aged.
At least, it’s essential if boom generation Americans feel any duty to reduce the burdens bearing down on their children and grandchildren.
Only last Sunday, a front-page Star Tribune story described the damaged prospects economists see for young workers entering the labor market in the wake of the Great Recession. It’s only the latest signal that an era of slower economic growth, sluggish wages, soaring college costs, and the whole, well-documented squeeze on the middle class has left younger generations ill-equipped to keep every last promise their elders have made to themselves.
It’s not that boomers approaching retirement lack for problems of their own. Earlier this month these pages republished online a Bloomberg News editorial rightly warning that America’s “long expected retirement crisis” is “becoming a brutal reality” as inadequate savings, shrunken pensions, and disappointing investment returns and home values combine to confront many with pinched and postponed retirements.
This is all the more reason that the unavoidable changes ahead in entitlement programs ought to be undertaken gradually and carefully, not abruptly and in a crisis atmosphere that will only deepen if action is much further delayed.
It might even help to acknowledge something often overlooked: that the boomer generation has already sacrificed, where entitlement programs are concerned, for the well-being of another generation. Reports from both the Urban Institute and the Congressional Budget Office confirm that at least in the case of Social Security, World War II generation retirees have been receiving far more handsome returns on their lifetime tax contributions than their boomer offspring will, even without further changes.
But easing hardships for earlier generations of elderly was a key purpose of these programs when they were created. It is something the Sixties generation can be proud of. It is not a reason to delay lightening the load for those younger than we — who played little role in whatever errors may have been made over the years.
Could boomers really detoxify the politics of entitlement reform, giving politicians more freedom to calmly explore and debate solutions without facing a reflexive backlash from older voters? It’s hard to be optimistic, of course.
But few issues are more squarely in our hands. And as perhaps we’ve learned with other debates, transformations happen one change of heart at a time.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.