Intergenerational Conflict Will Get Worse

Jeff Deist – December 11, 2018

The excellent British online magazine Spiked recently published this article warning about deteriorating attitudes toward elderly people in the UK.  As the article points out, there is more to the problem than logistical and financial concerns about providing socialist medical care to an aging population. Nor do increasing lifespans in the West, with attendant increases in loneliness and age-related morbidity, account for this unhappy state of affairs. No, the root of the problem is simply a lack of caring and empathy, made worse by fewer intact multi-generational families and alienation between taxpayers and pensioners:

These are not just technical questions for the social-care sector to grapple with. They are far bigger than that, touching upon the issue of what kind of society we want to live in, and what we expect of each other. At root, there is the issue of what we regard as individual and collective responsibilities; and what the duties of the young are to the old; and the question of how elderly people come to decide for themselves how they should be cared for later in life.

More than that, the problems facing the social-care system need to be understood in the context of a wider generational hostility that is compounding, if not driving, a longstanding official neglect of older people’s care.

Sad, yes, but entirely predictable. Britain, perhaps faster and more vigorously than most western countries, has fallen prey to the doctrine of “presentism”: an ahistorical narrative in which the past is always bad and repressive, feelings and “lived experiences” (generally quite lacking among the young, yes?) prevail over facts, and group identity dictates ideology. If the past is all wrong, the people who lived in it and even prospered during it surely are not to be admired or cared for:

‘Negativity about ageing and older people is pervasive in our society’, says Caroline Abrahams at Age UK. Whether it’s the nasty sentiment that Brexit voters are a bunch of selfish old bigots whose demise can’t come too soon, or that Baby Boomers have been piling up problems for moaning millennials, or that old people are just getting in the way with their ‘bed-blocking’ and their unreasonable expectation that younger folk should subsidise their state pensions, free bus passes, TV licences and winter fuel allowances – again and again, we see generational disdain for older people.

Democracy, as usual, doesn’t help. Brexit voters in the Leave camp skew older, more rural, and more “English.” Remainers skew younger, urban, and more “European.” In their 2014 independence referendum, younger Scottish voters overwhelmingly chose to leave Britain and fully embrace the European Union; older Scots chose the perceived safety of London pensions over counting on Holyrood and Brussels State pensions and state-provided healthcare, even more sacrosanct in the UK than Social Security and Medicare are here, will never be reduced or addressed by voting. Yet just as the American entitlement system faces a $200 trillion shortfall — the likely cost of future promised benefits minus likely future tax receipts — Britain’s younger taxpayers will struggle mightily in coming decades to pay ever-expanding old-age pensions.

America is in the same boat, with the population above age 65 set to double over the next thirty years. Republicans and Trump voters are older, whiter, more rural or suburban, and more likely to see America in far rosier terms than the average Ocasio-Cortez supporter. Social Security, which in 1940 boasted more than 100 paying workers to one beneficiary, today struggles with a ratio of less than 3 to 1. And those three workers in many cases are decidedly younger, more left-liberal, less white, and less affluent than the one beneficiary. Unskilled workers, recent immigrants, and teenagers often work at low-wage hourly jobs, but still pay full Social Security taxes on their meager earnings.

All of this is a recipe for intergenerational strife.

The baby boomer mantra — never trust anyone over 30 — is now bequeathed to millennials, but for very different reasons. In many senses millennials are more conservative than their grandparents were at the same age, particularly when it comes to sex, recreational drugs, education, and a carefree live-for-today attitude toward life. There is no millennial version of Easy Rider or American Graffiti; slacker paeans like Superbad show teenagers with low aspirations and no interest in eclipsing boomer noncomformity. But millennial distrust for older Americans is based on the strong perception that today’s economic and social horizons are far less robust for them than previous generations, generations that are happy to ride out the clock until entitlements run out.

It will get worse. Cultural, economic, fiscal, and political fault lines in America today all bode ill for harmony between younger and older generations. But what should we expect in a country where politics and government dominate? Where transfer payments dominate old age and government schools dominate youthhood?

Family, religion, and civil society don’t play nearly the same role for young people today as for Baby Boomers, who rebelled against all three. What we’re left with, in the view of many Americans, is a society where government is the only thing we all belong to. Many scoff at the notion of any natural order, without recognizing that government simply substitutes an unnatural political order run by those in power.

Sensible societies harness the energy, optimism, and beauty of youth in productive ways: their talents are unleashed in art, athletics, business, and technology (not war). But apart from standout exceptions young people are not the leaders of sensible societies, because we recognize that what one believes at 16 or 20 or 25 will change, and often change radically. So sensible societies venerate the wisdom of older people, wisdom that is separate and distinct from mere information. Unlike data on a smartphone, this wisdom passes down naturally — albeit not without friction — because everyone recognizes the healthy and mutually beneficial connection between generations. Over time bad ideas, traditions, and modes fall away, replaced by new and better ones.

Decaying, dysfunctional societies, by contrast, pit generations against each other at the ballot box and otherwise. Politics and government become powerful weapons in an intergenerational cold war. Aging western populations skew the demographic political balance in favor of older people, especially active older voters. Brexit, Trump, and the Scottish independence referendum have now exposed this growing reality.

This article was originally published at Jeff Deist is president of the Mises Institute. He previously worked as chief of staff to Congressman Ron Paul, and as an attorney for private equity clients.  


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