Today the Weekend Reader brings you The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown by The Pew Research Center’s executive vice president, Paul Taylor. Taylor, with the help of Pew Research, dives into the growing generational gap between Millennials and Boomers and the new phenomenon of young, educated Millennials returning home to live with their Boomer parents due to the struggling economy.
Taylor illustrates precisely how American demographics have drastically changed from several decades ago and have reformed into four generational categories: Millennials, Gen X’ers, Baby Boomers, and The Silent Generation. The data presented in The Next America is optimistic — it proves that the U.S. can support the aging population without driving younger generations into bankruptcy.
You can purchase the book here.
Millennials and Boomers are the lead characters in the looming generational showdown by dint of their vast number and strategic location in the life cycle. But what gives the drama an almost Shakespearean richness is something more: they’re also each other’s children and parents, bound together in an intricate web of love, support, anxiety, resentment, and interdependence. Every family, on some level, is a barter between the generations—I care for you when you’re young so you’ll care for me when I’m old. Every society needs to strike a similar intergenerational compact, then renegotiate the terms if the underlying demographics shift.
That’s the challenge ahead. To understand it better, and to explore how these dynamics will play out in both the family and public realms, let’s start by concocting a prototypical Boomer. We’ll call her Jane Smith. She turns 65 in 2014, one of 10,000 members of the jumbo-sized Baby Boom Generation who’ll cross that threshold every single day from now until 2030. If the actuaries have her pegged right, Jane’s got 20 more years ahead, most of them in good health, during which time she’ll collect about half a million dollars’ worth of benefits from Social Security and Medicare. Like most people her age, Jane worries about her health, her finances, and her family. But thanks to these programs, she can take comfort in knowing she’ll never be penniless in her old age. She’ll never fully “outlive her money.” She’ll never go completely without medical care. And she has a good chance of never becoming a burden to her children and grandchildren. People don’t measure their lives in the vast sweep of history—they live in the here and now—so Jane probably doesn’t have much occasion to dwell on her good fortune. She might even assume this is what getting old has always been like. She would be wrong. In fact, she and her progeny are about to become the beneficiaries of a radical improvement in old age that’s not much older than she is: a publicly financed social safety net that eases some (though by no means all) of the frets and dreads of the golden years.
Of course, nothing in life is free. Some back-of-the-envelope calculations show just who’ll be picking up the roughly $500,000 public tab for Jane’s old age. During the more than 35 years she worked in various clerical jobs and earned the median wage, Jane paid the equivalent of about $180,000 in Social Security and Medicare taxes, and her employers matched that with another $180,000 (though, by standard economic theory, that share also came out of Jane’s pocket in foregone wages). As for the unfunded gap of about $140,000, well, that’ll have to be covered by America’s taxpayers, today’s and tomorrow’s.
As it happens, one of them is Jane’s youngest child, John Jr., 29. Junior had the bad timing to start his work life just as the national economy went into a tailspin. After bouncing in and out of a run of low-wage, dead-end jobs, he’s scraping together a living as a freelance website designer. In 2014 he’ll take in about $22,000. Thanks to the deductions he qualifies for, Junior will owe no federal income taxes. Not a penny will come out of his pocket to pay for the nation’s soldiers, veterans, food safety inspectors, border patrol agents, diplomats, spies, or cancer researchers. However, Junior will have to fork over more than $3,300 in Social Security and Medicare taxes this year to help underwrite the social safety net that he hopes will one day support him in his old age—but that for now supports his mother and the more than 40 million other beneficiaries her age and older.
In his own small way, then, Junior is helping to bankroll Mom. But that’s only half their story. Mom is also bankrolling Junior. He boomeranged back to her home two years ago, when the mortgage insurance company where he’d been working as an appraiser’s assistant succumbed to the housing bust. He’s now living rent-free in his childhood bedroom, amid his faded soccer ribbons, creaky PlayStation, and zany graduation-day photos. This wasn’t Plan A, but it has been a pretty useful Plan B. He gets along fine with Mom, even better now than when he was growing up. The refrigerator is stocked, the laundry service free. Plus, he’s fortified by an almost eerie certitude that he’ll eventually land a good job, launch a career, move into his own place, find a wife, and start a family. In short, all of Junior’s dreams are still intact—but on hold.
Had he come of age a generation earlier, it would have been considered strange for Junior to be hunkering down at his mom’s home at this stage of life. Nowadays, there’s barely a stigma. Forty percent of all Millennial men ages 18 to 31 (and 32 percent of all young women that age) were living in their parents’ homes in 2012, the highest share in modern history. Call it what you will—post-adolescence, pre-adulthood—it’s become so hardwired into the zeitgeist of coming of age in the new millennium that it’s already the subject of its own genre of books, movies, sitcoms, reality shows, and PhD dissertations. But there’s not yet a settled take on the phenomenon. Millennial novelist Haley Tanner writes gloomily about her generation “wandering in the purgatorial landscape of postgraduate inertia, premarital indecision, and proto-careerist yearning.” Most commentators blame the wretched economy.