odern Americans are inverse Victorians. The Victorians, of course, were famous for their prudishness about sex. But they were loquacious in planning for their old age and eventual death. A dignified death and a proud cemetery site represented important social values. Their detailed wills were a boon to Britain's legal profession. We are just the opposite: We will talk to almost anyone and say almost anything about our sexual experiences. Yet we deal with aging and mortality as reluctantly as the Victorians dealt with sex.
Because we have difficulty talking about our collective aging, the social, cultural, and economic transformations that will be caused by it will come as a shock and a surprise to many of us. "Shake the windows and rattle the walls" is what Bob Dylan wrote about Baby Boomers when they first came of age. My purpose in this essay is to suggest how aging Boomers might shake the windows and rattle the walls of our society one more time.
The Retirement Transformation
As recently as 1950 most men who were physically capable of doing so continued to work past the age of sixty-five; fully a third of those aged seventy and up were still in the labor force. Today just 16 percent of elderly men work. This trend toward early retirement is no longer affordable. Moreover, given the growing number of Americans who reach the late sixties and seventies in good health and with valuable skills, it is no longer enlightened social policy.
As Robert Butler, a former director of the National Institute on Aging, puts it, America must develop a new vision of "productive aging" in which "work expectancy" increases along with "life expectancy." We seek satisfying love and sex after sixty -- why not satisfying work as well? The old idea of a rocking-chair retirement is dead, and it is time for the new idea of an active yet aimless and dependent retirement to die as well.
The open question is when and how this transformation will occur. Should we change the Social Security retirement age to sixty-eight? seventy? seventy-two? When will we tell those who will be affected, so that they can begin to adjust their life plans? And how will employers keep so many seniors on the payroll? What private-sector management and training programs will make senior employees more attractive? How are we going to change the perverse Social Security incentives that discourage seniors from remaining in (or re-entering) the work force? What jobs will best suit seniors who continue working, and how can we maximize their availability? How do we revamp traditional career patterns to allow for semi-retirement, phased retirement, and "un-retirement"?
The Health Transformation
On the eve of the New Deal all levels of government spent roughly $1.00 annually on health care for the typical older American. By 1965 the figure had risen to roughly $100, by 1975 to roughly $1,000, and by 1995 to roughly $7,000. Thirty years ago America spent more on national defense than it did on health care. Health care is expected to consume 18 percent of GDP by 2005 -- at least five times what we are likely to spend on defense. And that's before the special multipliers of the age wave -- especially the huge growth in the old old, who are most likely to require extensive acute and chronic care -- even begin to kick in.
Americans prefer to believe that high and rising health-care costs are primarily the result of waste, fraud, and abuse. If only we got rid of all the unnecessary tests and treatments, or slashed the excessive paperwork, or got tough on Medicaid cheats and profiteering drug companies, then presto, the problem would be solved. But experts know that the real causes are far more intractable: fabulous (and fabulously expensive) new medical technologies, cost-blind benefit and insurance systems that exempt most Americans from having to make choices about treatment, and the American tendency to disdain limits, including the ultimate limit -- death itself.
Heirs of Ponce de León, in search of the Fountain of Youth? Perhaps that's too harsh. But no other country switches on multimillion-dollar MRI scanners for routine complaints (we have eight times as many MRI units per capita as Canada), commits terminally ill patients to intensive-care units, or performs heart bypasses on septuagenarians at anywhere near the rates we do. Americans, a European once observed, like to think everything is an option -- even death.
The problem is that it is almost impossible to pinpoint aspects of our lavish style of medicine that are "wasteful" in the sense that they are of absolutely no medical benefit. Little of what physicians do is based on certain knowledge of the outcome; most involves judgment calls about unknown probabilities. Henry Aaron, the director of the economic-studies program for the Brookings Institution, speaks for most thoughtful observers when he writes that "sustained reductions in the growth of health-care spending can be achieved only if some beneficial care is denied to some people."
In the end the long gray wave will leave us no choice but to rethink what we mean by health. Is it a consumer good that can be purchased on demand at the doctor's office, or is it a lifelong investment? Should that investment be a personal choice, or should it be regarded as a public duty? How much should government be responsible for health care and how much should individuals? Most important, what share of public resources do we wish to spend on health care for ourselves, and how much do we wish to dedicate to such economic and social goals as productivity-enhancing R&D and a better education for our children?
No other transformation presents such profound ethical questions. Who will decide what costly heart transplants and similar death-defying high-tech operations are appropriate for the growing elderly population, especially the burgeoning old old group? When, and how, will society determine that even if an eighty-five-year-old can enjoy another year of life through an expensive high-tech intervention, this may be the wrong value to pursue -- especially when so many children lack even basic health-care coverage?
The Youth Transformation
In an aging America everything will depend on the skills, education, productivity, and civic good will of younger generations -- for their labor must support the elderly. Yet nothing seems less obvious than their capacity to rise to the challenge we are passing on to them. They will be relatively few in number. They will inherit a huge national debt and a high and rising payroll-tax burden. To make matters worse, many more of these future adults than today's adults are growing up in families, neighborhoods, and schools plagued by economic hardship and social dysfunction.
Since 1973 the real median income of households headed by adults aged sixty-five and over has risen by more than 25 percent, while the real median income of households under age thirty-five has fallen more than 10 percent. Counting all sources of income, poverty in America is three times as likely to afflict the very young as the very old. The United States is the global leader in the life expectancy of eighty-five-year-olds but has fallen near the bottom of the industrial world's rankings in rates of infant mortality, marital breakup, child poverty, child suicide, hours of school-assigned homework, and functional illiteracy. Meanwhile, per capita federal spending on the elderly towers eleven to one over federal spending on children. The appropriate response to the outrageous is to be outraged, yet we seem oblivious of this devastating disproportion.
How can we remain an economic superpower when nearly a third of our children are born out of wedlock and few of their fathers are willing to assume legal, financial, and moral responsibility for them? How will America prosper in a competitive technological and information-based global economy when its children grow up to exhibit school-dropout rates and rates of functional illiteracy that are among the highest in the industrial world? How do we answer Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's haunting question: "Will we be the first species that forgets how to raise our young?" Or, to paraphrase Churchill, "Have we ever asked so much from so few, having done so little to prepare them for their burdens?"
We're talking not about physical capital but about human and social capital: the intact families, work habits, education, and high-tech skills upon which any hope of increasing productivity ultimately rests. If we are going to rely on just 1.6 to 2.0 workers to support every retiree, as the SSA forecasts suggest, we should want today's children to become the best educated, most skilled, and most productive citizens imaginable. How does that square with our current rush to cut discretionary spending and defund social programs, from Head Start to vocational schools, that have long provided education and training? How can we generate the funding and the political support to educate our young in today's overburdened economy? How can we make the twenty-first century the century for our children?
The Political Transformation
Today's seniors, represented by powerful lobbies and voting in disproportionate numbers compared with the young, are already a potent political force. Will the rapid growth in the number of elderly enthrone the senior lobby as an invincible political titan?Or will the young, who must pay for tomorrow's senior benefits, find their political voice while there's still time to do something about it? Averting a destructive conflict between the generations will require a political transformation. But how can the young be encouraged to participate more aggressively in the political process? How do we merge the public interests of young and old and show how dangerous it is for them to become adversaries?
The Global Transformation
I recently asked the head of Japan's Central Bank why Japan has resisted America's requests to cut its budget surplus and stimulate consumer demand. His immediate response was "Because Japan must save so that it can afford its coming retirement wave" -- a warning that the abundant and relatively inexpensive supply of foreign capital we have depended on for many years may soon disappear. The banker's reply underscores the high priority that some other industrial nations assign to the economics of aging populations.
Americans have paid little attention, but since 1980 roughly a third of net U.S. domestic investment has been funded by foreign creditors. Although some have expressed concern over how these capital inflows must give rise to a permanent annual debt-service charge on our national income, virtually no one has pointed out a more alarming prospect: not that the inflows will continue but that they could slow substantially as aging populations in other industrial countries consume more of their national income and savings at home. If America cannot boost its domestic savings rate within the next decade, we may enter an era of rising real interest rates, capital rationing, and a forcible curtailment of domestic investment.
There is also the issue of our relation to the less-developed world. When half the population in the United States is over forty, half the population in some emerging markets of Latin America and Asia may still be under twenty-five. Will the current distinction between rich and poor nations gradually come to be seen as a difference between old and young nations? Will the former be characterized by creative consumption, short time horizons, and the defense of the global status quo, while the latter, mainly in Asia and Latin America, become known for energetic investment, long time horizons, and revolutionary changes in the global balance of power? Will the newly democratizing economies of the former Soviet bloc be deprived of the foreign investment they need? Or, alternatively, will a high-saving Third World be exporting capital to a low-saving First World -- an ironic turnabout of the policy recommendations of the 1970s? How will these demographic and economic shifts affect global institutions such as the United Nations, the OECD, and the World Trade Organization? Will they effectively address the myriad issues associated with the global age wave and enormous unfunded retirement liabilities?
Consumption and Deficits to
Saving and Investment:
What Needs to be Done
o argue in favor of thrift is sometimes enough to earn one the label "declinist" -- a person who believes that America's best days may be over. This is not my view. Still, I want to explain why, if we do not face up to the economic and social challenges ahead, America will age prematurely and perhaps enter a precipitous decline. I do not believe it is un-American to suggest that we live in a finite world, that some desires can't be satisfied, and that bad choices can lead to tragic outcomes. On the other hand, some good choices -- eminently feasible, gradual, and humane choices -- can provide a sound future for all of us.
In an era crowded with social "crises" -- from race to class -- it may seem presumptuous to say that here we have a "real" problem that deserves our full attention. But let there be no doubt: the economic implications of America's aging population over the next several decades will dwarf, in sheer dollars, any other big issue one might name. Indeed, how we deal with the entitlement and savings crisis may determine how the other issues we face will ultimately play out.
If my analysis so far is correct, we are heading for a major crisis for which our society is unprepared. But our political leaders cannot be expected to take this challenge seriously unless we as individuals do so as well. A program of thrift thus has to work on all fronts, from the halls of Congress to our homes. Here are some workable steps.
1. Achieve and guarantee long-term budget balance by the year 2002. A campaign to boost saving must start with the federal budget, which can no longer be a borrower but must be a saver. Of all the policy choices directly available to American voters, none would do a more reliable -- and faster -- job of raising the national savings rate than eliminating our chronic deficits. I believe that we should achieve budget balance no later than 2002 -- a date, happily, around which a bipartisan consensus has finally emerged, after considerable Republican pressure. The reforms we make, moreover, should, at least provisionally, guarantee long-term budget balance after 2002 -- not just temporary balance in 2002.
The federal deficit is now 2.4 percent of GDP. Over the past thirty years the United States -- along with every other major industrial nation -- has repeatedly achieved this degree of public-sector deficit reduction in fewer than seven years. Moreover, since the federal deficit is projected to grow rapidly after the year 2002, a longer timetable would only make the long-term effort more difficult. Balancing the budget, starting now, is like running to catch a train that's leaving the station. To catch it in two minutes we would have to run harder than we would to catch it in one minute.
Some experts worry that this is not the right time in the business cycle to initiate a balanced-budget plan. But according to these critics, it may never be the right time. So long as reforms are phased in gradually over seven years, there is little danger that a shift from consumption to saving will seriously depress the economy. Indeed, a credible budget plan might boost the economy if -- as many economists, including Alan Greenspan, think likely -- the markets react by lowering interest rates, particularly long-term rates, by two percent.
But mere budget balance is too timid a goal. Given the shortage of our national savings, I believe that Congress should aim for a federal budget surplus of perhaps one or two percent of GDP through the first two decades of the next century, to make up for our recent profligacy and, more important, to lay up stores during the Boomers' peak earning years for the sudden burden that will accompany their retirement. Or, better, Congress could aim for a smaller surplus but substantially increase spending on targeted public investments in education, worker training, and research and development -- the kind of human-infrastructure investment that is essential to an information-age economy, but in which we are now sorely deficient. Either way, we would radically change federal budgeting. We would no longer presume on the good will of our children but would demonstrate our good will toward them by moderating excess consumption, which makes us net takers, in favor of investment, which unites us as net givers.
2. Reform entitlement programs. Trying to achieve long-term budget balance without reforming entitlements is like trying to clean out the garage without removing the Winnebago. The following reforms, taken together, would put these programs in long-term sustainable balance well into the twenty-first century.
The maturity, wisdom, and experience of older adults should not be lost to the workplace. This is a matter not just of combating age discrimination but of unlocking a powerful human resource. The market for jobs for which the elderly might be especially well suited should be explored: for example, full- and part-time service jobs in health care, child care, and various education and training efforts. It is time to do elders the honor of making their phase of life one of ongoing contribution -- of genuine "generativity," to use Erik Erikson's classic description -- as long as they are willing and able.
Not everyone, of course, is able to go on working. Richard Trumka, the president of the United Mine Workers, who recently served with me on the Kerrey-Danforth Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform, warns that later retirement is simply not a realistic option for worn-out industrial laborers in physically demanding occupations. But such workers make up a small and shrinking share of the total labor force. Under my plan they would still have the option of early retirement (though with reduced benefits) and would be protected by federal Disability Insurance and Workers Compensation, not to mention the system of mandatory personal retirement accounts that I propose below. I would also use a small part of the savings achieved by raising the Social Security retirement age to lower eligibility ages and raise benefit levels under Supplemental Security Income, the means-tested floor of protection for the low-income elderly. In sum, we should encourage the elderly to work but not force work on those who are truly incapacitated. In any case, our national retirement policy should not be determined by the miner retiring at age sixty-two any more than by the police officer retiring at fifty-two or the athlete at forty-two.
4. Establish a system of mandatory pensions or personal retirement accounts. I have concluded -- reluctantly -- that a fully funded, privately managed, and portable system of personal retirement accounts should be mandatory. The system I envision would initially supplement Social Security -- and over time might increasingly substitute for it. But Social Security would continue to provide a floor of protection to all Americans, albeit one subject to the limits of the affluence test described above. Governments around the world have tried to achieve both these objectives -- retirement savings and poverty protection -- in a single system. They have achieved neither efficiently.
Why mandatory? In 1993 C. Fred Bergsten, the chairman of the Competitiveness Policy Council (a publicly financed, bipartisan group), asked me to chair a committee on capital formation. An impressive group of the nation's leading economists joined me in this effort. I had expected to hear that certain tax favors for saving (IRAs, for example) would significantly increase net savings -- that is, savings beyond the cost of the tax incentive that encourages them. I quickly learned otherwise. The net effect of many of these conventional incentives has been marginal, because much of the money deposited in IRAs is simply shifted out of other investments. When I asked how we might increase net savings significantly, one important area of agreement emerged: mandatory pensions or savings accounts covering the entire work force. In addition to boosting private saving, such plans -- by making tomorrow's retirees more self-sufficient -- would allow us to reduce traditional Social Security gradually, thus reducing public dissaving as well. I am perfectly well aware of the libertarian argument that decisions about saving should be left entirely to individuals. The melancholy truth, however, is that many Americans are currently too myopic to save for the future unless compelled, and so end up becoming free-riders in the government safety net.
Why fully funded? First, to boost national savings. A funded retirement system would add to America's capital stock; a pay-as-you-go system does not. Second, because the dynamics of pay-as-you-go financing have encouraged politicians around the world to promise benefits that can be paid for only by excessively high taxes on future generations. The only way to avoid that temptation is to make it clear to everyone that above some minimum safety net a worker's future benefits will be determined solely by the resources that have been set aside for that worker, by some combination of employer contributions and the worker's own savings. These pensions must be invested in diversified investment-grade assets and must be the worker's personal property.
Why privately managed? A sound system of mandatory pension accounts must be publicly regulated to maintain fiduciary standards but should be privately managed to maximize returns. The evidence is overwhelming that publicly managed systems, which are often required to invest in low-return government securities, earn far less than privately managed accounts invested in the real economy.
Why portable? The new and fluid global economy, characterized by intense competition, rapid innovation, and relentless technological change, has made "lifetime employment" with one company rare. Instead making several major job changes in one's lifetime -- perhaps seven or eight for the average worker now in his or her twenties -- is normal, and therefore many workers lack enough years of service in any one job to qualify for a pension. The plan I propose would vest all contributions immediately, and so workers could take their pension savings with them as they moved from job to job.
To provide adequate retirement income, these accounts would require substantial contributions. In my view, all workers (in some combination with employers) should be required to contribute four to six percent of their pay -- which, added to FICA, would come to a total contribution of 1618 percent of pay. As a point of comparison, Australia's new system of mandatory pensions will ultimately result in total contributions of 15 percent of pay. In the scheme I propose, workers would have the option of making additional voluntary tax-free contributions. Employers who currently provide pensions could divert their contributions to workers' savings accounts as well. The primary function of this system would be to finance retirement and survivors' benefits; in time it might also pay for long-term medical care.
Although mandatory pension contributions would be made in addition to current FICA payroll taxes, and thus would decrease the consumable portion of each paycheck, the system would be linked to the Social Security reforms described above -- and this would prevent FICA taxes from rising to the alarming levels forecast for the next century. Eventually workers would be paying no more (and maybe substantially less) in combined FICA and savings contributions under my plan than they would be paying in FICA taxes alone in a status quo future. By putting more of our income into genuine savings today, we could relieve the crushing payroll-tax rates that unfunded public transfers will otherwise exact on workers tomorrow.
The reform I propose would also require that any current-year Social Security or Medicare cash surplus be transferred, on a pro rata basis, to workers' personal retirement accounts. This provision would be consistent with pay-as-you-go accounting. Meanwhile, workers would have a direct stake in reforms that constrain future growth in federal benefits. To the extent that Social Security declines as a share of payroll, a growing share of FICA taxes would automatically be transferred to workers' savings accounts. Let me repeat: My proposal is for a two-tiered system under which everyone would continue to receive Social Security benefits. But over time my proposal would also allow us to go a step further. As the savings in private retirement accounts built, the current universal Social Security system could be converted into a purer and much less costly floor of protection that paid out benefits only to the truly needy.
A mandatory savings plan would generate substantial net gains in household (and national) savings -- and thus ultimately gains in productivity and living standards. For middle- and upper-income workers subject to the affluence test this system would at least make up for reduced government retirement benefits -- and probably go much further. For lower-income workers, who are the least likely to save (either on their own or through pensions), it would vastly reduce the chances of a destitute retirement. Seniors who were beneath the affluence-test threshold would receive their private pension on top of full federal benefits. True, the deduction from wages would be a burden, but it's worth noting that because of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the existing FICA tax on many of the working poor is now entirely borne by the federal government.
Dismissed until recently as too "radical," "privatization" of Social Security has burst upon the scene over the past year. Major proposals are under development at half a dozen think tanks -- left, right, and center. Privatization has been featured on the cover of Time and embraced by the presidential candidate Steve Forbes, and, in one form or another, is endorsed by seven out of thirteen members of the Administration's official Social Security Advisory Council.
My plan has elements in common with many of these proposals. Where it differs from most is that it would fully pay for the transition to a funded Social Security system -- and would do so without adding to the national debt and without new general-purpose taxes.
The challenge is that a single generation must somehow pay for two retirements -- its own and that of its parents. Some proposals simply ignore the challenge. Take Steve Forbes's plan to keep all benefits for current retirees intact and yet permit younger workers to shift a substantial share of their FICA contributions into personal retirement accounts. What his plan would add to private savings it would cancel out dollar for dollar by increasing the federal deficit. Other proposals would issue Treasury debt directly to Social Security beneficiaries in the amount of the system's accumulated liabilities. This, too, is a zero-sum game that will leave tomorrow's workers no better off than if we had never reformed the system. A few proposals, like that of the Social Security Advisory Council, are more honest. But to pay for the transition they would resort to large general-purpose tax increases.
My plan would pay for transition costs the old-fashioned way: not with smoke and mirrors but by taking the essential step of asking current beneficiaries and current workers to give something up -- the former by forgoing some benefits, the latter by saving more. This would not be painless. The magic of compounded returns from the stock market and other long-term investments cannot solve all our problems. To save more, we must consume less, at least temporarily. This "transition cost" is the price of escaping the generational chain letter we have so far depended on.
5. Shift our tax base from income to consumption. In an aging society taxpayers should be penalized for what they take out of the economy (consume) as opposed to what they put in (save). I therefore propose that only "consumed income" -- spending, that is -- be taxed. It is true that by exempting savings from taxation this reform would narrow the tax base. On the other hand, it would also widen the base, by rendering taxable various forms of government-financed and -subsidized consumption -- from Social Security benefits and the insurance value of Medicare to employer-paid health care -- which today are partly or fully tax exempt. Tax rates thus need not be any higher than they are today.
Many will object that consumption taxes are regressive; but the consumed-income tax plan introduced by Senators Sam Nunn and Pete Domenici -- in which the more one spends, the higher one's tax rate -- demonstrates that consumption taxes need not sacrifice the principle of progressivity, which I support. Moreover, without increased saving we cannot expect the real income of the typical American household to grow again -- and without such growth the distribution of incomes will continue to widen. The zero-sum politics of economic stagnation will overwhelm whatever weak contribution to economic equality we might continue to derive from our current system of progressive income-tax rates.
We are currently bombarded with tax-reform proposals of every variety -- from sales taxes to flat taxes. Some want to get rid of the Internal Revenue Service. Some want tax returns that can be filled out on a postcard. Who doesn't want simplicity? And who likes the IRS? But I would suggest a more important criterion for evaluating tax reforms: Which is most likely to increase net national savings?
6. Mount a broad-scale public-education effort to promote saving. National leaders must help to mobilize citizens by articulating a sense of moral imperative. A thrift plan needs a bully pulpit.
Can the right kind of education and exhortation make a difference? Consider Japan. Until the 1950s, when the country rallied behind a campaign to promote thrift, the Japanese were poor savers. Since then they've become famous for their saving. Or consider Singapore, whose Central Provident Fund has furnished much of the investment capital that has fueled Singapore's legendary economic growth -- not to mention the savings that have enabled nine out of ten households to become homeowners. Or consider Chile and Australia, which have also established national pension systems based on the principles of full funding and portability. In each instance public education was crucial to securing public support. In Chile, for instance, José Piñera, then the Minister of Labor, went on national television, often weekly, to explain why the mandatory pension plan was such good news for Chileans.
In a society like our own, where grassroots consensus is so important to governance, public discussion and debate are all the more important. The problem is that for at least three decades leaders have been telling us that consumption, not savings, is the key to prosperity. The campaign in favor of consumption has worked -- all too well. Now it's time for a different kind of campaign -- one in which not only our political leaders but also our businesses, our universities, and our public-policy institutions must persuade Americans to adapt to the realities of our aging society.
What we need most of all is a moral vision, a Middle-Class Bill of Responsibilities -- not a gaggle of leaders falling over one another in their rush to propose a Middle-Class Bill of Rights, or the middle class silently rehearsing the mantra "We are not part of the problem and we need not be part of the solution." Instead we must be encouraged to ask, What do we expect individuals and families to do for themselves, and what do we expect federal, state, or local governments to do for them? What are our responsibilities to our own children and grandchildren? How can we strengthen families so as to provide support for older people? What are our obligations as a nation to our collective progeny?
The manual for Germany's social-security system looks, at first glance, a lot like our own -- page after page describing the benefits due if one retires, is widowed, or loses one's job. The most obvious difference is the generous benefits to German children. But there is a more striking contrast. For each benefit, alongside a box describing "Your Rights" is a box describing "Your Duties." Citizens are thus reminded that society must always balance the payer against the payee, the future against the present. We need to find that balance again in our culture.
Why can't the President call for a White House Conference on Aging different from the one held last year -- not one that panders to the senior lobby but one that encourages serious dialogue between old and young? Why can't the President call for a global summit at which the leading economies focus on reducing their tremendous and unsustainable unfunded liabilities, and at which developing economies with younger populations concentrate on avoiding the mistakes the industrial countries have made in providing old-age security?
Companies also have a major educational responsibility. With their human-resources and accounting departments, they are able to educate workers on the basics of saving -- why they should save more, the power of compound interest, how to invest. They can also make it easier for their employees to save -- through automatic salary deductions, 401K plans, stock-purchase and dividend-reinvestment plans.
Bringing our youth into the savings crusade is another key. John F. Kennedy once challenged us to ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country. Today's youth see the most conspicuous interest groups in our political system busily asking what the country can do for them. But who represents the future and the general interest? The young, alas, are the new silent majority. The demographer Samuel Preston once remarked apropos of the relentless growth in senior entitlements that the political system would behave a lot differently if people were forced to live their lives backward -- that is, if they had to look forward to the burdens imposed upon youth as their own future.
I suggest that young people embark on dual careers -- a private career and one as a citizen. As citizen lobbyists in behalf of the future, they are responsible for becoming informed about the debts they are going to assume, the unfunded liabilities they are going to pay for, and the unsustainable taxes they are going to bear. Once they are informed, perhaps America's youth will initiate an honest dialogue with their parents and grandparents, without assuming that their elders are greedy old fogies who don't care. My generation may be uninformed and even misinformed, but we do care about our children, our grandchildren, and our collective future. But if anyone is to create a general-interest lobby in behalf of the future, youth must lead the way.
If we expect our leaders to lead, the voters must make it safe for them to do so. The Concord Coalition is a bipartisan grassroots "lobby for the future," dedicated to breathing new life into the American Dream. The warm reception we have received from countless concerned citizens has rekindled my faith that we can still build a special interest in behalf of the general interest.
nd what of the special role for geezers like me? Pessimists say, "Forget it" -- Americans will not reform senior benefits until a severe crisis is actually upon us, but will persist in viewing them as contractual obligations that by definition are always affordable. After all, an America that acknowledges limits is an America that has lost the one illusion that makes it unique and creative. According to this view, America must always be an unteachable force of nature that can never back away from any promise or expectation, no matter how extravagant. This, pessimists say, is why American voters repeatedly elect leaders who promise lower taxes, higher benefits, rejuvenated economic growth, and a magic bullet for every social problem -- without caring how the pieces fit together.
But I have a more optimistic view. Two years ago I was interviewed by 60 Minutes about the need to enact gradual but far-reaching structural reforms in federal entitlements for the elderly. The show's producers, after patiently taping my arguments, invited me to join them at a middle-class retirement community. Here, they said (with a few wry smiles), I could explain my suggestions to those who would be immediately affected.
Standing before this group of retired grandparents, I began by showing photographs of my own grandchildren. I explained my concerns about their future and the world they would inherit. I then reminded the retirees how much of our national affluence today rests on the willingness we had to make collective sacrifices during the Great Depression and the Second World War. Back then we felt that we were "all in this together" for the sake of tomorrow. I told them that the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best for us when he observed, at the height of the Second World War, "The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children."
Sooner or later, I told the retirees, we will have to prepare for the future. We will have to balance our public budgets, trim back benefits to those who need them least, save more as households, retire somewhat later from the work force, explore innovative means of economizing on health care, take a more effective public interest in the welfare of children, and offer the rising generation some tangible evidence that we are willing to make sacrifices in their behalf. If we do so sooner, we still have time to plan for a gradual and humane transformation. If we do so later, the changes are likely to be forced upon us, suddenly and painfully, in the midst of an economic, political, and family crisis that will leave the eventual outcome much in doubt.
Given all that, I asked them, if everything else were also put on the table and it really would lead to a balanced budget, how many of you would be willing to give up some share of your federal benefits, above what you need to live on, in order to ease the deficit burden on younger generations? To the visible surprise of the 60 Minutes producers nearly everyone raised a hand.
The generation I was speaking to survived the Depression and fought and won the Second World War. After the war this generation provided its returned veterans with college educations, built the interstate highway system, eradicated polio, took us to the moon, and won the Cold War against communism. Against these monumental accomplishments what it would take to solve our current crisis seems small. I believe that this generation is capable of doing the right thing, and that politicians might well discover that it is better to appeal to their nobler instincts than to pander to their baser ones.
A people who have made a tradition of quick gratification must now be asked to focus on the requirements of a society graced with the patina of age -- on saving rather than consumption, on prudence rather than desire, on collective restraint rather than individual satisfaction. As Americans grow older, they will have to recognize that the live-for-today attitude that may be endearing or at least understandable in youth is not just unseemly but ruinously dysfunctional at the far end of life. They would do well to heed the eighteenth-century French moralist Joseph Joubert, who warned, "The passions of the young are vices in the old."
Illustrations by Nicholas Gaetano
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1996; Will America Grow Up Before It Grows Old?; Volume 277, No. 5; pages 55-86.