People over 50 may have felt their blood pressure spike while reading recent headlines casting them in the role of aggressor in a war against their children and grandchildren that they never declared, and had no intention of fighting.
The outlines of this perceived conflict are captured in the writings of economic journalists like Robert Samuelson, a 68-year-old syndicated columnist who gazed into the future and delivered this roundhouse punch to his own generation: "Older Americans do not intend to ruin America, but as a group, that's what they're about," he wrote. "The essential budget question is how much we allow federal spending on the elderly to crowd out other national priorities."
Samuelson is hardly alone in filing frontline dispatches from the war between generations.
"Young and Old Are Facing Off for Jobs" declares a headline in the New York Times. "Will Surge of Older Workers Take Jobs From Young?" the Associated Press asks. The wonkish National Journal presents "The Case Against Parasitic Baby Boomers." Staunchly libertarian Reason magazine screams in an online article, "Hey, kids, wake up! … Old people are doing everything possible to rob you of your money, your future, your dignity, and your freedom."
Your freedom! Who knew?
The basic arguments made in "seniors are selfish" articles follow a similar pattern. Social Security, launched in 1935, when the average life expectancy in the United States was 62 years, is now inadequate to handle an aging population that is living nearly two decades longer and growing in size. In 1940 there were 159 American workers supporting every Social Security recipient. Today, fewer than three.
As a result of an aging population, a far bigger cut of taxpayer dollars is being used to cater to the needs of the aging, critics note. Social Security and Medicare gobbled up 38 percent of the federal budget in fiscal year 2012. That percentage is growing. The latest government projections show Medicare's hospital insurance trust fund will be depleted by 2026, and Social Security's trust fund by 2033.
At the same time, many workers are staying on the job well past what was considered retirement age a generation ago. Some commentators have seen that as crowding younger workers out of the job force.
Alarmists use those statistics to paint a portrait of generational warfare. But are they mounting that picture in the wrong frame?
To paraphrase a slogan from the '60s peace movement, "Suppose they gave a generational war and nobody came?"
Paul Taylor, executive vice president of special projects at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., explores that question in his book released in March, The Next America. He isn't convinced battle lines have been drawn.
Taylor and his Pew colleagues conducted opinion surveys and pored over decades of demographic data. Yes, there is a palpable anxiety about the lingering recession and long-term problems associated with entitlements, plus the runaway national debt. Yet Taylor notes this angst transcends age barriers. He found no signs of an intergenerational bloodbath brewing. It's all media smoke and no fire.
"The generation war just feels like a nonstarter," he says. "Look at the attitude of the combatants. … On these much deeper levels of whether they represent each other's values and get along, we found very little conflict."
Taylor's conclusions jibe with the anecdotal experience of Elfego Gomez, an organizational training consultant in Colorado Springs. It has become fashionable, he says, for business consultants to cater to the supposed challenge of integrating multiple generations in the workplace. "I think it's b.s.," he says.
Occasionally a client will insist that Gomez conduct a workshop devoted to generation gaps. He starts by asking participants a range of questions. Are you comfortable calling superiors by their first names? Do you prefer chunky or smooth peanut butter? "I'm trying to get people to see if age really is the defining thing, or are we just different people," says Gomez, a 56-year-old boomer. "We have more similarities than differences. And that's not determined solely by generation."