Generational Warfare

David Frum had a pretty good piece in The Daily Beast the other day about how conflict between the young and the old is growing:

The old have always grumbled about the young. No doubt Cro-Magnons complained that their kids didn’t appreciate their effort to put a nice, dry cave above their heads. Yet we seem today to hear a new bitterness in the attitudes of the old, a special glee in reproaching and denouncing the young. In 2012 job seekers outnumber jobs offered by a margin of 3-1, down from a post-Depression record of 5.5-1 in early 2009, with the ratio worst among the youngest workers. As young job applicants collect rejection slips, the leading conservative policy intellectual, Charles Murray, has publicly urged his fellow older Americans to regard unemployed young men as “lazy, irresponsible, and unmanly” and to publicly revile them as “bums.”

The disdain of the old for the young appears to be contagious. In early June, a commencement speaker at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts delivered a tough message to the class of 2012: “You are not special,” David -McCullough Jr. told them. In fairness to McCullough, a teacher at the school, the bulk of the speech wasn’t as harsh as the most frequently quoted line.

But it was that line that earned a video of the speech nearly 1.5 million YouTube views, its author media appearances, and his harsh opinion an endorsement from America’s most vocal hater-of-the-young, Rush Limbaugh, who chortled delightedly in his June 11 broadcast: “This is not ever heard. You are not supposed to insult the children … You’re not supposed to harm them. And this guy has just gone out and told these little high-school kids, ‘Hey, you’re nothing, you’re nobody. You’re not special.’”

Obviously, I’m on one side here, no point pretending otherwise. I’m a young person. Through Medicare and Social Security, the old have claims on my future wealth, and it would extremely easy to believe a narrative where they’ve turned into a bunch of extractive parasites like the financial sector, and they’re going to take as much of my generation’s output as they possibly can. Simultaneously, they will protect their own savings by screaming bloody murder every time inflation touches two percent, and thereby prevent reflation and economic recovery, and cripple our job prospects:

Price stabilization is social insurance we provide to the most secure members of our society, while the bill is paid in lost purchasing power and increased risk by the least secure. Further, the benefits of price stabilization accrue disproportionately to the largest creditors and to holders of high-salary secure jobs. Preserving the purchasing power of a billion dollar stash is a lot more valuable than preserving the value of fifty bucks in a bank account. Price stabilization is an incredibly regressive form of social insurance, a program whose distributional ghastliness would be abhorrent to most people if it were not conveniently submerged.

So in this story, the young are being deliberately squeezed from both sides. The cost of the future welfare state for the elderly is staggeringly huge, which we’ll be expected to pay (and if Paul Ryan gets his way, will then be dismantled as we reach retirement age), and we’re graduating into the worst job market in eighty years, which the mostly older elite won’t fix. Perhaps it’s time for us young people to drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred, arm up, and start agitating for the end of Medicare, or maybe forced euthanasia.

I can’t quite believe this, though. I agree there is a strange bitterness in complaints from the old about “kids these days;” I’ve heard it myself and from my young colleagues. But I hold out some faint hope that we aren’t going to descend as a society into a Hobbesian will-to-power hellscape, where camps of crazed zealots fight like rabid weasels over a shrinking pile of scraps.

I think SR Waldman and Frum don’t make enough room in their analysis for ignorance and fear. Opposition to inflation and recovery are driven not so much by a lucid calculation of economic interest than by fear of anything new and, more importantly, total ignorance as to how the economy works. A couple years of 3-4% inflation would not actually mean Grandma would starve (those are, by the way, the rates we saw under Reagan). In the end, this is still one country. The old and young aren’t enemy countries, we’re all part of the same family.

So to my younger brethren, understand that being old is tough, especially in this country. Lots of people are getting old in the suburbs and finding out that is a terrible place to do it. Even with Medicare and Social Security, the elderly often go bankrupt from medical bills. And perhaps most importantly, dying is an increasingly gruesome and terrible process. Have some sympathy.

And to my parents’ generation and on: grow up. I am sick to death about hearing how hard you worked back when you were young. Maybe you did, but you had some terrific advantages, namely that you happened to come of age in what will probably stand as the greatest economic boom in the history of civilization. But when you got power, you handed us a mini-Great Depression, and it’s our fault we can’t find jobs? Have some perspective. As Frum says:

But despite what Limbaugh and his legions of cantankerous listeners may believe, the old truism really is true: the young are the country’s future. If it’s uncaring for society to neglect the old, it’s outright suicidal to cannibalize the life chances of the rising generation. Yet that is precisely what has been happening, before our collective eyes and with our collective assent.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is Washington correspondent for The Week.