Neil and Bill participate in a discussion-presentation on the Silent Generation with Chuck Underwood and a group of four Silent Generation panelists. (2001)
Their incomes are flat. Their wealth is down. And Washington is aggravating future threats.
For Americans under the age of 40, the 21st century has resembled one long recession.
I realize that may sound like an exaggeration, given that the economy has now been growing for almost a decade. But the truth is that younger Americans have not benefited much.
Look at incomes, for starters. People between the ages of 25 and 34 were earning slightly less in 2017 than people in that same age group had been in 2000:
The wealth trends look even worse. Since the century’s start, median net worth has plummeted for every age group under 55:
.. Why is this happening? The main reason is a lack of economic dynamism. Not as many new companies have been forming since 2000 — for reasons that experts don’t totally understand — and existing companies have been expanding at a slower rate. (The pace of job cuts has also fallen, which is why the unemployment rate has stayed low.) Rather than starting new projects, companies are sitting on big piles of cash or distributing it to their shareholders.
This loss of dynamism hurts millennials and the younger Generation Z, even as baby boomers are often doing O.K. Because the layoff rate has declined since 2000, most older workers have been able to hold on to their jobs. For those who are retired, their income — through a combination of Social Security and 401(k)’s — still outpaces inflation on average.
But many younger workers are struggling to launch themselves into good-paying careers. They then lack the money to buy a first home or begin investing in the stock market. Yes, older workers face their own challenges, like age discrimination. Over all, though, the generational gap in both income and wealth is growing.
Given these trends, you’d think the government would be trying to help the young. But it’s not. If anything, federal and state policy is going in the other direction. Medicare and Social Security have been spared from cuts. Programs that benefit younger workers and families have not.
.. The biggest example is higher education. Over the past decade, states have cut college funding by an average of 16 percent per student. It’s a shocking form of economic myopia. In response, tuition has risen, and students have taken on more debt. Worst of all, many students attend colleges with high dropout rates and end up with debt but no degree.
And as badly as the government is treating the young today, the future looks even more ominous.
First, the national debt, while manageable now, is on pace to soar. The primary cause is the cost of health care: Most Americans receive far more in Medicare benefits than they paid in Medicare taxes. The Trump tax cut also plays a role. It is increasing the debt — and it mostly benefits older, affluent households.
I’m a Gen Xer. I take literally zero pride in the good things people my age do. I also have zero shame about the terrible things people my age do. Why? Because age is as dumb a thing as height or hair color to hitch your self-esteem to. What kind of loser looks back on a life of mediocrity and sloth and says to himself, “Well at least other people in my age cohort did great things!”
.. And yet, we constantly invest special virtue in young people. As Socrates explained to Meno, there are no special virtues for young people. There are simply virtues. If a young person says that 2 + 2 = 4, that’s no more right or wrong than if an old person says so. The bravery of one 18-year-old does not negate the cowardice of another 18-year-old.
.. Older people know more than younger people. I’ve been stunned by the number of people offended by this. A lot of folks are getting hung up on the fact that young people know more about some things than older people. Fair enough. The average young person knows more about today’s youth culture and gadgets than the average fogey. My daughter can identify the noise coming out of my car radio. When I was a kid, it was running joke that grown-ups couldn’t figure out how to make the VCR stop flashing “12:00.” It never dawned on me that knowing how to fix that problem meant I knew more about politics than my dad.
.. it’s also a part of my objection to populism. That’s because youth politics is a form of populism. It claims that passion and the group are more important than reason and the individual. It is the passion of the crowd. And when grown-ups bow before the rising generation, it is a form of power-worship.
We have two popular historians to blame for our profound misunderstanding of young people’s lifestyle choices.