Retirees and near-retirees are leaving behind a devastated economy for their children ... but are we doing anything to fix it? Here, two generations debate who's really to blame for the wreckage.
CRESCENT LAKE, Ore.--My father taught me how to throw a baseball and divide big numbers in my head and build a life where I'd be home in time to eat dinner with my kid most nights. He and my mother put me through college and urged me to follow my dreams. He never complained when I entered a field even less respected than his. He lives across the country and still calls just to check in and say he loves me.
His name is Tom. He is 63, tall and lean, a contracts lawyer in a small Oregon town. A few wisps of hair still reach across his scalp. The moustache I have never seen him without has faded from deep brown to silver. The puns he tormented my younger brother and me with throughout our childhood have evolved, improbably, into the funniest jokes my 6-year-old son has ever heard. I love my dad fiercely, even though he's beaten me in every argument we've ever had except two, and even though he is, statistically and generationally speaking, a parasite.
This is the charge I've leveled against him on a summer day in our Pacific Northwest vision of paradise. I have asked my favorite attorney to represent a very troublesome client, the entire baby-boom generation, in what should be a slam-dunk trial--for me. On behalf of future generations, I am accusing him and all the other parasites his age of breaking the sacred bargain that every American generation will pass a better country on to its children than the one it inherited.
We are sitting on a beach in late afternoon on a sun-drizzled lake in the Cascade Mountains, two college-educated, upper-middle-class white men settling in for a week of generational warfare. My son, Max, splashes in the waves with his grandmother; sunbathers lounge in inner tubes around us; snow-capped peaks loom above the tree line. The breeze smells of Coppertone and wet dog. My father thinks back on the country that awaited him when he finished law school. "There seemed to be a lot of potential," he says, setting up the first of many evasions, "but there weren't a lot of jobs."
I'm mildly impressed that he's even bothering to mount a defense. The facts as I see them are clear and damning: Baby boomers took the economic equivalent of a king salmon from their parents and, before they passed it on, gobbled up everything but the bones.
Ultimately, members of my father's generation--generally defined as those born between 1946 and 1964--are reaping more than they sowed. They graduated smack into one of the strongest economic expansions in American history. They needed less education to snag a decent-salaried job than their children do, and a college education cost them a small fraction of what it did for their children or will for their grandkids. One income was sufficient to get a family ahead economically. Marginal federal income-tax rates have fallen steadily, with rare exception, since boomers entered the labor force; government retirement benefits have proliferated. At nearly every point in their lives, these Americans chose to slough the costs of those tax cuts and spending hikes onto future generations.
The Dow Jones industrial average rose twelvefold from the time the first boomers began working until last year, when they began to cash out their retirement. (The growth trend over the 12 years since I entered the workforce suggests that the Dow will double exactly once before I retire.) They will leave the workforce far wealthier than their parents did, with even more government promises awaiting them. Boomers will be the first generation of retirees to fully enjoy the Medicare prescription-drug benefit; because Social Security payouts rise faster than price inflation, they will draw more-generous retirement benefits than their parents did, in real terms--at their children's expense. The Urban Institute estimated last year that a couple retiring in 2011, having both earned average wages, will accrue about $200,000 more in Medicare and Social Security benefits over their lifetimes than they paid in taxes to support those programs.
Those retirees and near-retirees bequeath a shambles to their offspring. Young people are unemployed at historically high levels. Global competition is stronger than ever, but American institutions have not adapted to prepare new workers for its challenges. Boomers have run up incomes for the very wealthiest Americans, shrunk the middle class, and, via careless borrowing and reckless financial engineering, driven the economy into the worst recession in 80 years. The Pew Research Center reports that middle-class families today are 5 percent less wealthy than their parents were at the same point in their lives, after adjusting for inflation, even though families today are far more likely to include two wage earners. Another Pew report shows that those ages 55 to 64 are 10 percent wealthier today, even after the Great Recession, than Americans of that age bracket were in 1984. Those younger than 35 are 68 percent less wealthy than the same bracket was in 1984.
The baby boomers built an economy where young people increasingly need a college education to move into the middle class, or even to simply hold on to the middle-class lifestyle they were born into. But the boomers who run state legislatures and private universities have collectively pushed the costs of that now-requisite education into the stratosphere. Tuition has risen at twice the rate of inflation: In today's dollars, tuition, room, and board at a four-year public college ran nearly $6,800 per year in 1967; it costs about $13,300 today. Private-college tabs have more than doubled in that time. The increase has saddled young workers with more than $1 trillion in student debt--the average college student today borrows six times more from the federal government to finance her education, per year, than the average student in 1970. The boomers keep their low taxes, and their alma maters gain prestige, but the next generation of workers starts with a debt boulder strapped to its back. All for no apparent gain. Today, Pew says, men who grew up in the middle class are just as likely to earn less than their fathers did (adjusting for inflation) as they are to earn more.
Members of my father's generation reaped the benefits of dirt-cheap fossil fuels through most of their working lives, when gasoline price increases ran well below inflation, freeing up cash for them to save or spend on things their children now cannot afford. Because gas was so cheap, they burned too much of it (my father has never owned a car that averaged better than 20 miles per gallon), filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide to levels that scientists warn will likely warm the globe by several degrees. Climate change will cost trillions of dollars to avert or adapt to. It's almost impossible to overstate this level of buck-passing.
Perhaps most egregiously, the baby boomers, led by boomer-coddling leaders in Washington, are bequeathing a runaway national debt and a gaping federal budget shortfall that their children and grandchildren will have to pay--through higher taxes or reduced benefits, or both--if they don't want the country to go broke. Balancing America's future receipts and obligations would require all taxes to rise by 35 percent "immediately and permanently," and all federal entitlement benefits to decrease by another 35 percent, the International Monetary Fund estimated last year. Shielding boomers from that pain--as most so-called deficit hawks in Washington propose--would dramatically increase the bill for everyone else. Brigham Young University economists Richard Evans and Kerk Phillips and Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff published a paper in January that projected a 1-in-3 chance that the U.S. economy will reach "game over" within 30 years. In their definition, "game over" means that the government's obligations to seniors (thanks again, boomers) will exceed 100 percent of everyone else's earnings. In other words, all the young workers in America together won't earn enough to pay down the government's obligations to their parents.
It is hard for me to see how the gray-mustachioed attorney is going to get his client out of this one.
That's my first mistake.
Beginning in junior high, my father knew he wanted to be a lawyer. He grew up an Air Force brat whose father designed cameras for spy planes, and he landed in Los Angeles for high school. He met my mother at a YMCA dance, kept his nose in his books while his University of California (Santa Barbara) classmates bombed a bank to protest the Vietnam War, and graduated near the top of his law-school class at the University of California (Los Angeles). Big firms in California and Colorado recruited him, but he opted for a clerkship at the Oregon Supreme Court and then a two-man firm in a former timber town of 10,000 residents called McMinnville. There, my dad knew, he could balance work with time for coaching Little League and leading the church vestry.
When I was a teenager working summers at McMinnville's semiweekly newspaper, I'd often start one morning a week at a downtown coffee shop, listening to a pair of old-timers give my dad all kinds of crap. They ribbed him about politics, fishing technique, and proper deference to the altar guild. They always made him buy their lattes. And when the hour was up, they'd shoo him back to the law office with an admonition to keep working so he could pay for their Social Security benefits.
You could call this anecdote Exhibit A in my father's defense of the boomers, which he offered over coffee on the first day of our weeklong dispute. It boils down to a claim that he didn't exactly inherit a great deal, either. Tom Tankersley's argument breaks into two categories. First, he deflects blame for all of the bad stuff of the past several decades to previous generations and myopic politicians. Second, he builds a case that the boomers did far more good than harm.
The Greatest Generation, his parents' cohort, paid a lot less into Social Security and Medicare than it took out of it, he says. (This is true.) It did nothing to reduce pollution, conserve natural resources, or halt the nation's growing and dangerous addiction to fossil fuels. "Previous generations did not have a Clean Air Act or a Clean Water Act," he says. His enacted both. (Also true.)
After dinner at my parents' cabin near Crescent Lake, my father, sporting a blue shirt with a tropical print, spends two hours setting up targets and knocking them down with the precision of his favorite target rifle. Lawmakers at some point stopped working together to solve problems, he says. Big companies gorged on profits and stopped caring for their workers' livelihoods. Regular people around the country spent money they didn't have, signed mortgages they couldn't afford, and lost their patience for delayed gratification. Who's to blame for the cultural decay of personal responsibility? "I don't know which generation's fault that is," my father says.
He says he's rather surprised that he's still in line to draw Medicare and Social Security benefits. "I felt I was paying all this money in, and it was going to be gone ... and it turns out I'm going to get some." He complains that "no one" is willing to pay the necessary taxes for government services or to adjust those services to current tax levels. He manages to dismiss one of the greatest acts of fiscal recklessness ever by a boomer--President George W. Bush's decision to run two wars off the books without raising taxes or cutting outlays to fund them--as "outrageous" and "not my choice."
Then he dives for my legs: There's no guarantee that young Max Tankersley won't grow up to enjoy economic opportunities as sweeping as those his grandparents did. Economic conditions change in unpredictable ways, my dad says. Oh, and the idea that opportunity eroded for my generation? Only if you're a white American man. In his lifetime, he points out, women and minorities have seen their economic prospects brighten considerably, especially in higher-earning fields like the law. (A quartet of economists from Stanford and the University of Chicago reported this spring, "In 1960, 94 percent of doctors were white men, as were 96 percent of lawyers and 86 percent of managers. By 2008, these numbers had fallen to 63, 61, and 57 percent, respectively.") Expanded trade has helped to lift people in Africa, Brazil, China, and the rest of the developing world out of poverty. (The World Bank reported this year that 22 percent of the developing world's population lives on $1.25 or less per day, down from 52 percent in 1981.) My father says he will not apologize for that.
I keep bringing him back to the critique: His generation bought homes in a far cheaper market than mine; they didn't move us off oil; they've reaped the stock gains and the carbon externalities and the budget deficits--and left us with the bill. He keeps brushing me off, flipping the camera. "There's this whole theory in democracy that you get the government you deserve," he says, readying more verbal jujitsu. "And it's our fault for not saying, 'That's enough,' just like it's your fault. I mean, you've been voting now for how long?"
By evening's end, the defense has turned to open taunting. So what, he asks, if it's his generation's fault? "What are you going to do with that? Are you going to learn something and not do it? Or are you going to just point fingers, like this article seems to be doing?"
I realize: He's beating me.
The day after my trouncing, we retreat farther into the mountains, to a chilly lake where the Deschutes River springs to life, for a night of camping with family friends. We swim and roast marshmallows and play in the dirt and watch deer walk past the tent. Max helps my parents paddle the canoe.
In the morning, we comb the campsite, picking up food wrappers and specs of trash, some of them months old. You always leave your site cleaner than you found it, I tell Max, because other people will come after you, and others after them. It's your duty as a camper.
Where did you learn that? he asks.
Your grandpa, I say.
This is the moment the prosecution regains its footing, by remembering just how hypocritical the defense has been. Boomers have always talked about making the world a better place. They were the century's most idealistic young people. They've also known for decades about the fiscal, economic, and environmental paths America was headed down. How can they possibly square that wisdom with their inaction?
We break camp. Back at the cabin, I call up statistics, build economic charts online, and transplant a new backbone into my case. (I'd chide my dad here for installing Wi-Fi at his cabin, but I think it was Mom's idea.)
In my mind, I know which of his arguments I must grant. The boomers haven't been a total disaster, of course. They did indeed blaze huge social and economic trails for women, minorities, and people with disabilities. Those groups have gained rights that, as long as the rest of us remain vigilant, will never be reversed: Young women can grow up to be lawyers or scientists. African-Americans can grow up to be president. Boomers gave us Apple and Microsoft. They made the Star Wars movies. They grew the economy for a bit. Once, for a couple of years in the late 1990s, they balanced the federal budget.
But the numbers on the laptop remind me how fleeting much of that progress was--and how boomers chose short-term gratification when they had opportunities to secure a better future for generations to follow. Classic example: Instead of devoting the budget surpluses of the late '90s to social programs that desperately needed them, they voted themselves tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, and an expanded Medicare benefit shortly after--a move a Congressional Budget Office study from that era suggests raised the expected tax rate on future generations from 29 percent to 53 percent. They borrowed heavily to cope with the economic sluggishness of the 2000s and, in so doing, inflated a housing bubble that, when it popped, triggered the Great Recession.
Median-income growth has stagnated for women and minorities over the past decade. The typical African-American today has less wealth than his or her parents did, according to Pew. Labor-force participation for women this year hit its lowest level since 1991.
And Congress? Well, Capitol Hill is where I realize I'll win this trial. Baby boomers chose the leaders currently paralyzing Washington, and those leaders are, by and large, boomers. My father's cohort has formed a generational majority in every Congress since the dawn of the George W. Bush administration. Electorally, boomers vote in dramatically larger numbers than anyone else. The Census Bureau reports there were 81 million Americans ages 45 to 64 in 2010, of whom slightly more than half voted. They made up about 43 percent of the electorate--almost as much as those 25 to 44 and those 65 and older combined.
As afternoon descends over the fir trees, I call my father over and show him this statistic. Look, I say. That government you say is crippling America? You and your friends own it.
"Shit," he says.
The first time I bested my dad in an argument, I was in fourth grade. I wanted to play football, and he said it was too dangerous. With my mother's help, I trekked to the public library and pulled up some research showing that youth football was perfectly safe (oops!) and even built character. I may also have threatened to run away. My dad relented. My football career was short and forgettable, but I'd beaten him with data.
My second win came when I was in eighth grade and wanted to drive eight hours with a bunch of college students and coaches to see my favorite basketball team in a playoff game. My dad said, "No, you are not driving to Idaho with a bunch of college kids." To which I replied, tears in my eyes, "Well, what if you came with me?" It was blatant emotional manipulation. We ended up watching the Linfield Wildcats lose, in person, together.
I connect these two strategies in my closing argument against the boomers. I win my conviction against my father on his fishing boat on a choppy Friday, lines bobbing wildly in the swells, the trolling motor struggling to hold speed against a bracing wind. The boy and the grandma are back on shore. It is only us, a photographer, and a Labrador retriever. I am at the wheel, my dad is working the rods.
I start with data. The deal the baby boomers got from the Greatest Generation wasn't so raw, economically: Gross domestic product growth from 1970 to 2000 was among the strongest in American history, and far better than the average growth so far in the working years of Generations X and Y.
The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act have improved the environment, but the federal government has done almost nothing to curb the growth in carbon emissions here or around the world. Earth's atmosphere is currently 391 parts per million carbon dioxide, up from about 325 ppm 40 years ago. The concentration is on pace to hit 450 ppm by 2035, which would translate into an increase in global average temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius, the tipping point at which scientists say we would no longer be able to block or reverse a future of the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. More high-temperature records were set across the U.S. last year than in any previous one. Arctic ice melted to an all-time recorded low.
America's federal debt-to-GDP ratio has more than doubled from 28 percent to 62 percent since 1970, and the borrowing has benefited boomers far more than folks my age. A majority of boomers want no part of paying that debt off through higher taxes or reduced benefits: A recent Pew poll found "little appetite [among that age group] for debt-reduction proposals that will take a bite out of their pocketbooks."
And boomers seem to know that the future won't be brighter for Max and his friends. Nationwide, optimism that today's youth will fare better than their parents is down from a peak of 71 percent a decade ago to 44 percent today, the lowest level since 1983, according to Gallup. Pessimism is highest among--you guessed it--baby boomers.
My emotional argument seals the case. Where I finally best my dad is on the question of why his cohort hasn't stopped the freight trains of generational woe that have been barreling down America's tracks for a few decades now. The question he can't answer is this: How could the members of a generation so willing to lecture everyone else on personal responsibility not recognize, even at this stage in their lives, their collective responsibility for ending this mess?
You used to be such an idealistic generation, I say. You were going to change the world. Yet you've known all this was coming and haven't tried seriously to stop it. You've reaped all the benefits and left the rest of us the bill. And you knew what you were doing. Why?
He hooks and nets a fish. When he has rebaited the line, he vents some frustration at his boomer peers/clients. "I'm saying, there are problems," he says, "and I've been talking about them for a long time."
He stops pushing back and starts making concessions. On the budget, he says, "You're right, we haven't had the, whatever, to say to our parents' generation, 'No, we're not going to give you those Social Security raises,' " even when, as in recent years, low inflation levels haven't warranted them.
Those raises represent a tiny fraction of our future debt load (the lethal combination of soaring Medicare costs and insufficient tax revenue accounts for most of it), but, hey, I'll take what I can get. Life isn't Perry Mason; the defendant never confesses on the stand. The closest my father comes, in this case, is with energy policy and carbon pollution. "I'm disappointed in the environmental thing," he says. "We could have done a lot more."
Our budget and economy are struggling through a huge transition, he says. "But if the country says we've got this big challenge, and we're going to share it in a fair way, then Max will be fine." I wonder aloud, what are the odds that will happen? He grimaces under the mustache. "Your generation, my generation, everybody," he says. "If someone says you can have something for free, you tend to want to have it." He asks me to swing the motor, and we steer back toward the dock, into a gathering mass of black clouds.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
Only later do I notice the knife he's left in my side. We are sitting at the kitchen table. He is joking about regrets ("You raise these kids, and then they turn on you!") when he suddenly becomes serious and offers me a rare piece of fatherly advice. "We didn't stop it. Maybe someday, Max can have the same discussion with you and ask you why you didn't stop it. He'll get the article out. He'll say, 'You knew about it! You knew about it even more than [your parents] did!' "
The knife twists. I am 34 years old. I have some pretty successful friends. How have we sacrificed to balance the budget, to slow climate change, to deliver better opportunity for our children? We haven't. I own an SUV, and I don't compost my trash. We are barreling, generationally, toward higher and higher levels of carbon emissions; a demographer from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research estimated last year that an individual's emissions rise some 50 percent from the time he is in his 30s until the time he retires. Worst of all, we don't seem to care about changing things: Only about a third of registered 25-to-44-year-olds voted in the 2010 election, compared with half of registered baby boomers.
If my father is a leech on the future, then I am becoming one, too.
"Your generation should be thinking about how you'll step up to the plate," my dad says, brown eyes boring into mine. "And you also need to step up to the plate, learning from us about the politics. Just say no to the kind of politics that get in the way of what you perceive are the solution."
He rises to water the saplings behind the cabin ("for the next generation"), and leaves me to stare out through the tall firs. My little boy has come in from playing in the dirt.
"Daddy," he yells.
Parasite, I hear.