If you’ve paid attention to much of the mainstream media commentary over the past few years, you’ve probably noticed that Generation Y — or millennials — are a confused bunch. They’ve lost touch with classic American values, they switch jobs every few months, and are narcissistic and motivated by different things than previous generations. Or they are just plain lazy. Why are they not chasing the same piece of the cake that the previous generations did?
I’ve read these articles about what ails our generation with a measure of disbelief. It is as if these statements are being made in an alternate reality where the vaunted Boomers and Gen-Xers – the great generations that the millennials just can’t measure up to— didn’t actually spend the last decade plundering the economy for their own benefit at the expense of their children. It’s a truly sadistic spectacle, and our generation should resist it.
What we’ve seen over the past 20 years is that essentially one part of the population has voted gigantic benefits onto themselves at the cost of the long-term fiscal health of the nation. The stats have been recited ad nauseam, but let’s touch on the highlights: the OMB shows that gross national debt from $6 to $12 trillion, or 57% to almost 100% of GDP, with even the most optimistic projections forecasting further increases. That growth is mostly owed to entitlement spending growth, particularly pension and healthcare benefits for seniors. Other drivers include tax cuts, loose monetary policy, and financial deregulation – in each case essentially trading short-term enrichment for long-term indebtedness.
It’s a huge debt, one that we will realistically never be able to pay back, and it wasn’t incurred in response to a generational moral challenge as in the 1940s (the last time that these debt-to-GDP levels were reached). No, this debt was incurred purely to finance current consumption. And that current consumption – Social Security and Medicare – doesn’t go to Generation Y.
But where is the outrage? Who do my peers think is going to pay for this but us? Sure, most responses to critiques of our generation’s living habits defensively point to economic flux, but there’s no good old-fashioned indignation. Instead of commentary on why we went wrong, we should demand an apology!
In the words of one famous millennial, why are we just waiting on the world to change? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 voter participation rate for eligible voters under 35-years-old was around 27%. For seniors over 65, it was 61%, amounting to about 23 million voters (compared to under 17 million voters under 35). At that participation rate, the under-35-year olds would outnumber senior voters almost 2 to 1, and perhaps proposals like raising the retirement age and rolling back Medicare would gain more traction. Beyond voting, millennials should change the tenor of the public discourse. After all, when have you ever read a headline that says “Medicare coverage expanded, nation’s children face diminished economic prospects”?
To be sure, there are some initiatives that are beating this drum. But the standard for common-sense adjustments such as revising the social security age upwards are generally the subject of fiscal conservatives, not the rallying cry of a generation. Generation Y needs to come to terms with the enormous burden it is being forced to shoulder, and bring some real rage to bear onto the national discourse.
Perhaps the response to the question why we aren’t chasing the same piece of the cake that our parents did is that the cake is a lie. Our parents and grandparents already ate it.
Photo Credit: AndrewH2010