Stanford talk eyes 'looming generational showdown'

Author parses diverging attitudes, voting patterns of old and young

With widening gaps in wealth and attitudes between young and old, is America in for a war between the generations?

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 Looming 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.

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Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 6, 2014 at 3:04 pm

"With Baby Boomers ... turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day"

In olden times age 65 may have been a milestone, but what is its significance today?

Like this comment
Posted by Tokyo Rose
a resident of Stanford
on Jun 6, 2014 at 5:04 pm

This happened in Japan about 25 years ago, and it was indeed ugly. Basically, the younger generation felt they should not have to work as hard as their parents and grandparents had to to make all the same economic gains.

It doesn't work that way, younglings.

Like this comment
Posted by History student
a resident of another community
on Jun 8, 2014 at 10:35 am

This report left me wondering how much relevant context the speaker omitted (or didn't even know about).

'smaller cohorts of working adults financing the retirements of larger cohorts of older ones β€” represents "uncharted territory, not just for us but for all of humanity."'

What about existing parallels like Belgian unemployment policy, famous for unemployed workers receiving longtime benefits that rise with age. This leads to older workers effectively disincentivized to work, while younger ones resent the burden of supporting them through taxes.

'[The US went from] 16 workers supporting every Social Security beneficiary in 1950 to just three today.'

But -- wasn't this mentioned? -- exacerbating that issue, the US, in the same interval, also went from Social Security as last-resort retirement safety net (largely self-sustaining, benefits linked closely to contributions) to far more generous payouts. That was partly a political move (starting in earnest with the Johnson administration) to buy elderly votes. The increased payout magnitudes continue to be seen emotionally as entitlements, something "earned," though that has long been inaccurate compared to past generations. Today's retirees see potential payouts far out of proportion to anything their grandparents did, and the taxes to fund that situation keep rising.

Like this comment
Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Jun 8, 2014 at 2:49 pm

I wouldn't say it going to be a "showdown", but its going to be a rough transition for all, dealing with 40 years of deficit spending, lack of investment in infrastructure, and NIMBY based housing policy, though at least we're starting to fix the problems now that they've come to a head.

Like this comment
Posted by Fred B
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 8, 2014 at 5:07 pm

His comparison of millennials to boomers seems off, especially in the number of workers per retiree.

It appears there are slightly more millennials than boomers in the U.S.

From Wikipedia:

William Strauss and Neil Howe projected in their 1991 book "Generations" that the U.S. Millennial population would be 76 million people.[43] Later, Neil Howe revised the number to over 95 million people (in the U.S.). As of 2012, it is estimated that there are approximately 80 million millennials residing in the United States.[44]

The generation can be segmented into two broadly defined cohorts: The Leading-Edge Baby Boomers are individuals born between 1946 and 1955, those who came of age during the Vietnam War era. This group represents slightly more than half of the generation, or roughly 38,002,000 people of all races. The other half of the generation was born between 1956 and 1964. Called Late Boomers, or Trailing-Edge Boomers, this second cohort includes about 37,818,000 individuals, according to Live Births by Age and Mother and Race, 1933–98, published by the Center for Disease Control's National Center for Health Statistics.[12]

Like this comment
Posted by CKadakia
a resident of another community
on Jun 9, 2014 at 7:15 pm

The lack of financial security for the future is combated by a strong sense of entrepreneurship and an attitude of 'my future is in my hands' in the Millennial Generation. Despite many critics who regard the Millennial Generation as lazy and entitled for moving back in with parents, in reality, it's much wiser than spending beyond your means as many Boomers found out in the real estate crisis. In many cultures, young people live with their parents until they can make it out on their own. In my speaking about the Millennial Generation, I have found quite a few other Millennial leaders who would like to work with all generations to create a more sustainable future. I hope that the media and generations start working with us and taking us up on those offers where they come.

Crystal Kadakia
Gen Y Speaker, Millennial Speaker

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 11, 2014 at 1:23 am

The fallacy in this argument is that it is by numbers of workers and not by money brought it.

The Social Security tax is regressive and if they would just fix the tax system putting it back to its original progressivity and tax all income the same based on the total income of the person from all sources - problem solved.

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 11, 2014 at 1:29 am

Robert, a resident of another community
said: I wouldn't say it going to be a "showdown", but its going to be a rough transition for all, dealing with 40 years of deficit spending

The deficit spending was really the top 1% refusing to pay taxes and rigging the system by getting Reagan elected who started all this deficit spending. After Reagan trying to push the tax burden down on the lower income levels while corruption and greed went ballastic at the higher levels has

1. corrupted government
2. killed any idea of reducing poverty
3. created one of the most unequal societies on the planet now
4. also corruped media and journalism
5. been a big motivator toward dumbing down our schools so the masses of people do not understand what is going on.
6. reduced educational and work opportunities.
7. put private money - most of which is in the hands or control of about 30,000 people in this country in charge of everything, and in order to sustain and protect this system is pretty much killing anything that might challenge or change it.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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