That is the question addressed by Pew Research Center Executive Vice President Paul Taylor in a new book, "The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the New Generational Showdown." Taylor, who spent decades writing for the Washington Post, drew on volumes of nonpartisan Pew polling data to describe generational trends, resources and attitudes.
In a recent talk at Stanford University, he said the aging of the population — with smaller cohorts of working adults financing the retirements of larger cohorts of older ones — represents "uncharted territory, not just for us but for all of humanity."
The United States has gone from 16 workers supporting every Social Security beneficiary in 1950 to just three today. With Baby Boomers — the "pig in a python" — turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day, existing retirement programs will become unsustainable.
Taylor described the demographic change as "a drama in slow motion." And the United States is living out two such dramas at once: A record share of the population is going gray at the same time the nation is en route to become a majority nonwhite country.
"Either one of those things by itself would be compelling and dominant," he said. "The fact that they are happening on top of each other has created generation gaps ... with the potential to stress politics, families, pocketbooks, safety-net and entitlement programs, and indeed our social cohesion."
Taylor reviewed a fast-changing American landscape on issues such as income, wealth, immigration, race, divorce, interracial and same-sex marriage, social attitudes and voting patterns.
A U.S. population that was 85 percent white in 1960 will be just 43 percent white by 2060.
The nation's "intricate racial tapestry" is changing, he said, driven by the more than 40 million immigrants who have arrived since 1965, about half of them Hispanics and nearly 30 percent Asian. By mid-century, immigrants and their children will make up 37 percent of the U.S. population — the highest share in history.
Intermarriage, illegal in a third of the states just 50 years ago, is on the rise, with nearly one in six newlyweds today marrying across racial or ethnic lines.
"These days our old labels are having trouble keeping up with our new weddings. By 2050, will our racial categories still make much sense?" he asked.
For the sake of generational comparisons Taylor divided the population into four groups: the "Silents," born between 1928 and 1945; the Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964; Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980; and the Millennials, born after 1980.
He particularly focused on the Boomers and the Millennials, whom he characterized as "stubbornly optimistic" despite being "the first generation in modern times to be doing worse than their parents."
Millennials — more than 40 percent of whom are nonwhite — are "political and social liberals, they're social-media wizards, they're highly educated, they're not very religious, they're slow to marry and have kids, and many are saddled with college debt and lousy jobs," Taylor said.
On any economic indicator — income, wealth, poverty, employment or unemployment — "if you compare them with older generations, adjusted for inflation, they're doing worse on every single one."
Only about a quarter of Millennials between age 18 and 33 are married, while 48 percent of Baby Boomers, and 65 percent of Silents, were married by that age. "When we ask (Millennials), 'Would you like to get married?' they say yes. When we ask why they're not married, the most common responses have to do with economic circumstances," Taylor said.
"What we're not sure of is whether those marriage rates will increase. ... One consequence of the low marriage rate is a very high out-of-wedlock birth rate. Today, 41 percent of all births are outside of marriage."
A voting gap between young and old has emerged in recent elections, driven by the different social and political values and racial makeup of the generations, Taylor said.
"Just as members of the Silent Generation are long-term backers of smaller government, Millennials, at least so far, are strong supporters of a more activist government."
The generations also differ on a range of other issues, such as whether gay couples raising kids is a good thing.
The wealth gap among the generations also has grown, with current median net worth at $173,439 for the Silents; $118,426 for Boomers; $30,920 for Generation X; and $4,151 for Millennials.
"If you look back 30 years you'd see gaps only about half that size," Taylor said. "The growth of income and wealth inequality is true across the whole population and certainly true if you look at different age groups."
Despite their differences, Taylor sees little evidence of an inter-generational war on the horizon.
"A generational war needs combatants, and there's very little evidence that I've seen that these generations are spoiling for a fight," he said.
"When we probe around the question of generational differences, how people feel about each other, we find that, across the board, young adults have a great deal of respect. They love their parents and their grandparents. If you ask which group has better moral values, the old or the young ... eight in 10 of the young say the old, as do the old.
"But let's be clear, they have very different political and social values."
Taylor said there's a growing realization of the problem, and expressed hope that Millennials will take the lead on finding solutions.
"This is not going to be easy," he said, predicting a "'share the pain' solution that ultimately involves more taxes and probably some benefit cuts. When you have the affected parties by cohort with such different political views, it makes it more difficult."
The saving grace, Taylor said, is that "the most important realm of people's lives is their family lives, and we see a lot of evidence in attitudes, behaviors and living arrangements that generational interdependence has become the coin of the realm. There's much more of it than there used to be."
Taylor's May 14 talk at Stanford was co-sponsored by the university's Center on Longevity, the Center on Advancing Decision Making in Aging, and the Center on Demography and Economics of Health and Aging.
For more details, see pewresearch.org/next-america/.