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Fixing a New Generation Gap

First of the baby boom generation turn 65

Celebrate their vitality, and especially their variety — a generation that spans the Beatles and Springsteen, that crusaded to end a war and stop the spread of nukes, that powered an explosion of new technology, fueled the feminist revolution and joined the battle for civil rights.

But recognize the challenges boomers foretell. This is a generation that has saved too little, eaten too much and borrowed beyond its means. This trifecta puts our health care system, our economy and the well-being of our children and our parents at risk.

We can choose one of two paths. One sets off generational conflict, requiring us to choose sides in future policy and budget battles: education vs. Social Security, children's health vs. Medicare, popular tax cuts vs. tax policy enabling people to work longer. At its extreme is the ugly confrontation forecast in satirist Christopher Buckley's 2007 novel, Boomsday. In the book, Cassandra Devine, a trendy 29-year-old PR whiz, touts a way to ease boomers' pressure on Medicare and Social Security. Give boomers incentives, she suggests — free Botox and no estate tax, for starters — if they agree to commit suicide at age 70. "Voluntary transitioning," she calls it, and it eventually inspires a presidential campaign. That in turn ignites fiery opposition from the religious right. And from boomers upset by demonstrations that block golf courses in their retirement communities.

Consider another path. The arrival of boomers at 65 in this grim economic time highlights the importance of generations to one another. No single generation caused the problems, nor can one solve them. A recent report by the think tank Generations United asserts that most Americans get it: "It's not a fight. It's a family."

That is the kitchen-table reality that American households, long before policymakers, have already discovered. A leading real estate firm reported that more and more home buyers in 2010 were looking for multigeneration homes.

The proper path as the 21st century evolves should be obvious. "Good policies — Social Security, public education and affordable health care — do not impact one generation at the expense of the others," the Generations United report concluded. "We must look at generations as interdependent. We need to make budget decisions while considering all government spending, but not by framing a false policy distinction between policies for the young versus policies for the old."

More important, finding the proper path requires something missing in Washington for years — an adult conversation. That's a tall order as the nation faces gigantic budget deficits and a mix of government services and obligations that are out of whack and out of date. But adult conversation, recognizing both a shared responsibility and the need for shared sacrifice, is a start. In another tough era, Herbert Hoover postponed the day of reckoning: "Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt," he famously said. It's not an appropriate answer today. Boomers, and the generations before and after — we're all in this together.

Jim Toedtman is editor and vice president of AARP Bulletin.