After the Boom

Megan McArdle, Clive Crook, and Philip Longman debate the repercussions of looming Baby Boomer retirements

In the January/February 2008 issue, associate Atlantic editor Megan McArdle takes on the troubling question of what will happen in this country when the looming wave of Boomer retirements hits. We invited McArdle, along with fellow Atlantic editor Clive Crook, and New America fellow and Atlantic contributor Phillip Longman to debate the issue in an e-mail roundtable. Their exchange follows.

Boomer Retirement Roundtable
Round 1 | Round 2 | Round 3 | Round 4 | Round 5 | Round 6

FROM: Phillip Longman
TO: Megan McArdle, Clive Crook
SUBJECT: Megan McArdle's January/February article
DATE: December 13, 2007

This is Phillip Longman. I started writing about the aging of the Baby Boom generation back in 1979 when I was still in my early twenties. Here’s an early sample from the Atlantic . Since then, I’ve tried many times to get away from this dreary subject, but it keeps clawing me back. By now, I’ve written four books and dozens of articles related to the Boomers' prospects in old age and as a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, I’m not free of the subject yet. Soon enough, I’ll be living it.

Sage Stossel, who invited me to start this discussion of Megan McArdle’s article, warned me that it would contain views divergent from my own. I don’t see that. McArdle presents a reasonable scenario, as far as it goes. Quite properly, she emphasizes that health care overwhelms Social Security and all the other challenges exacerbated by the aging of the Baby Boom. Quite properly, she notes how growing hostility to immigrants runs counter to the needs of an aging society. She’s also right in showing how advanced population aging slows down productivity growth. I’m not even offended by the note of optimism at the end. If aging teaches anything, it affirms that truism of Boomer culture: you can’t always get what you want, but you just might find you get what you need.

That said, there are major factors McArdle neglects to consider. The big one is childlessness. According to Census Bureau data, an astounding 19 percent of the women born in the mid-to-late fifties (the demographic epicenter of Baby Boom generation) never had children. This is nearly twice the rate of childlessness that prevailed in the previous generation. Another 17 percent of Boomer women only had one child, compared to 9 percent for women born in the 1930s.

These facts have two important implications for Boomers going forward. One should be obvious. A huge and unprecedented proportion of this generation is going to be on its own in old age. Friends will die off or move away. Spouses will pass. Even the many Boomers who raised typical two-child families, especially if they started late, will find that this investment is not enough to insure that even one child has the wherewithal to offer help or to take an active interest in their lives. High levels of divorce will only add to the hidden mass of socially isolated seniors.

Boomers who have had the experience of seeing their own parents age and die will know what a big deal family is to the elderly. What do you suppose happens to nursing home patients who never receive visitors? What happens to shut-ins? A preview of the future came in 2003, when in rapidly aging France a heat wave caused thousands of shut-in seniors to die alone. This is the scariest part of the age wave for me: thousands of seniors found dead in their homes and apartments every day only after the stink, or a wailing pet dog, alerts society. It’s going to be a phenomenon of American life. The best hope, for those who can afford it, is for new forms of communal assisted living.

Another relationship between fertility and aging is less obvious but also important to the future. Within the Baby Boom generation there was a pronounced disparity in birthrates. Those who remained childless or had just one or two children tended to be well educated, liberal, and secular. By contrast, the roughly 30 percent of Boomers who had three or more children tended be conservative, religious, and less well educated. Members of the later group, though only a minority of their own generation, produced more than 50 percent of the next generation.

Already, as I have argued elsewhere, this pattern in Boomer birth rates (which is much more extreme than in previous generations) has led to the country becoming more morally conservative and pro-family. As Dick Cavett once quipped, “If your parents forgot to have children, chances are you will as well.” The anti-natalism inherent in the modern liberal mindset leads to a gradual return of patriarchy, if only by default.

What does that mean for Boomers in retirement? A majority or near majority of younger Americans, having grown up in conservative and religious households, will tend to view childless Boomers through their parents eyes: as members of an irresponsible, alien tribe. Though the minority of Baby Boomers who rebelled against tradition have a hard time recognizing it, most people wind up adopting their parent’s belief systems, particularly if they become parents themselves. The apple rarely falls far from the tree. Accordingly, in the eyes of many, if not most, younger people, a Boomer without a family will be taken for an aging yuppie, a decaying narcissist, or ailing atheist—none of which stereotypes will be helpful in drawing public sympathy.

The younger generation to whom Boomers will turn for support in old age will also contain a higher proportion of African Americans and Hispanics than does the Baby Boom generation itself. So on top of the generational divide, and on top of the culture divide, will be a widening racial and ethnic divide.

Further undermining Boomers prospects for support in old age are the many ads run by the AARP and financial service companies that use images drawn from the 1960s counter-culture as a pitch to Boomers. Dennis Hopper, of Easy Rider fame, currently appears in a commercial for Ameriprise Financial in which he mocks suburbia and those who aspire to have “2.5 children.” Though the majority of Boomers supported the Vietnam War, led conventional middle-class lives (or tried to in the face of falling real wages throughout most of their adult lives), these ads seal the generation’s association with privileged individualism and the “acid, amnesty and abortion” crowd. By contrast, when I was doing battle with the Gray Lobby back in the 1980s, it had images of the Great Depression and D-Day on its side.

The only good news here is that Baby Boomer parents have tended to be unusually close to their children. This means the generational divide may not apply so much within individual families even as it becomes acute at the level of politics.

Finally, let me just add that when McArdle returns to her aging, quaint hometown in upstate New York, there is an all-important if unseen force propping up the community she finds there that will be much diminished in the future. Because most spending on the elderly comes through the federal government, aged communities like her Newark, New York receive large flows of cash redistributed from younger parts of the country. Florida receives more than $78 billion dollars a year in federal retirement, Medicare, and disability payments, most of it paid for by people in other states.

Yet in 2020, when all of the country will be as old as Florida is today, who will pay the bill? I once moved to St. Petersburg thinking that there I would find the country’s future. Yet once I realized how much Florida’s economy depended on payroll taxes contributed by young workers in places like Colorado or Nevada, I realized I had committed a fallacy. The future is never linear.