"Those in power have practiced fiscal child abuse. Our role . . . must be to stop the dumping of toxic policies on future generations."
-- 26-year-old Douglas Kennedy
THERE'S NOT much shock value lately in young people trashing the America their parents worked to build -- even when it's the son of Robert Kennedy neatly dismissing the reforms of his uncle and father. But Kennedy's complaint, issued in announcing the creation of yet another group of twentysomething activists, does bring into focus a fallacy that has become gospel lately: that this new generation has it tougher -- and will continue to have it tougher -- than any other in America.
Truth is, the current and future quality of life of America's twentysomethings, as a generation, isn't below that of older cohorts. It's not even on par with it. It's better. In fact, what really distinguishes this generation from those before it is that it's the first generation in American history to live so well and complain so bitterly about it.
Countless recent surveys, from Gallup to MTV, paint the same grim picture. "Compared to when your parents were your age," asked a typical poll of 15- to 20-year-olds, "do you think it is easier or harder to be a young person today?" Harder, said 77 percent. Hearing this groan, a spate of enterprising young politicos have leapt to carry the mantle of complaint, from Lead . . . or Leave and Kennedy's Third Millennium to magazines such as the Next Progressive. And from Time to Esquire to the Atlantic Monthly, the press has bought in big.
Unfortunately, though, the now-legendary litany of "baby bust" woes -- incomes too low to allow a decent lifestyle; sky-high housing prices; the weight of supporting a pampered elderly population -- isn't really supported by the facts. Let's consider a few of the chief New Generation myths.
Young Americans suffer from an unprecedented lack of economic opportunity.
There's no denying the boilerplate complaints: real wages for twentysomethings today are no greater than (but also no smaller than) they were for twentysomethings in 1973, and many young people with college degrees find themselves in low-skill jobs. But these two facts grossly distort the true wage and income picture. For one, while young people may not be bringing home more cash than their early 1970s counterparts, thanks to the explosion of fringe benefits, their total compensation is greater. The only real "crisis" is that individual salaries are not increasing as fast as they had for members of previous generations. In other words, as young people get older, their average incomes are rising (even after adjusting for inflation), but not at the clip at which their parents' incomes roses.
And that's the bad news. Economists predict the income picture for this generation will only get brighter. True, productivity rates have slowed, but because the bust generation is somewhat smaller than the one that preceded it (13.5 million vs. 14 million for the boomers), there will be more job slots for fewer workers -- clearly a boon for wages. This in part explains why, according to economists Frank Levy and Richard C. Michael, today's average 30-year-olds will, over time, actually outearn their parents.
But even if we buy into the twentysomething claim that the generation is mired in income purgatory, where exactly is it "stuck"? Essentially enjoying a higher standard of living than any group of 25-year-olds in American history.
The baby busters are sacrificing more than other generations.
"Millions of young people . . . are in despair," say the Third Millennium leaders. Perhaps. But they're suffering comfortably. Young people today have, on average, more buying power and disposable income than any cohort in American history -- about $135 billion annually. To put those dollars in perspective, baby busters, if they were a nation, would be richer than 86 percent of the world's countries based on buying power.
And what exactly is this "hard luck" generation doing with its dollars? Young Americans, according to the Department of Labor and private marketing firm research, spend a greater percentage of their incomes than any other age group on eating out, alcoholic beverages, hair care products, snacks and sweets, perfumes and cosmetics. Dollar for dollar, busters spend more money on movies and entertainment than any other age group; they play more tennis in private clubs and are more likely to belong to health clubs; they're more likely to own snow skis, attend pro football games, own jogging shoes, attend cocktail parties, the theater, concerts and comedy clubs, buy compact disks and TVs, own VCRs and camcorders and rent videotapes. They spend more on domestic airplane trips for vacation purposes than any other group. And the percentage of college students (70 percent) owning credit cards far exceeds that of the rest of the population.
Still not convinced? Thirty percent of teenagers own cars (up from 7 percent in 1968), and 25 percent have their own phones (up from 16 percent a decade ago). More than 50 percent of teenagers own an electronic musical instrument, synthesizer or personal computer. College students are so loaded up with "stuff" -- VCRs, computers, espresso machines and microwave ovens -- that the typical two-person college dorm room, according to a recent UCLA survey, now requires 16 electrical outlets.
None of that includes the national wealth they have, as a group, inherited: microelectronics, computers, pharmaceuticals, faster transportation. And while the nation's population has increased 22 percent from 1970 to 1990, the national wealth increased by 87 percent. The percent of Americans in poverty has dropped by half since the 1950s, and baby busters are beneficiaries of the highest-priced, most privileged education in American history. The average amount spent on each public school student increased steadily from 1970 to today, while student/teacher ratios dropped. In 1991, a record high 60 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college.
This generation has, in short, been born into the richest, most productive economy the world has ever known, with a gross national product nearly twice that of its nearest competitor, Japan. Fiscal child abuse?
Compare these sacrifices to those of the 60- to 80-year-olds twentysomethings claim have been on the sweet end of fate their entire lives. Putting aside Grandpa's hard luck tales, studies of Depression-era children show that they worked at younger ages and longer hours than youth of other generations. And consider the average lifestyle in the years after the Depression: Half the homes had no refrigerators; one-third had no running water; two-fifths were without flush toilets; three-fifths had no central heat.
True, previous generations received their share of government goodies -- the GI Bill and low-rate veterans mortgages -- but those benefits are easily dwarfed by the billions of dollars laid out in the '60s and '70s for programs from Head Start to subsidized day care. Even today, when youth's claims of sacrifice are shrillest, the federal government, by raising Social Security taxes and slowing Medicare spending while increasing spending on youth-oriented programs, has asked seniors to give up far more than it's requested of young people.
The American Dream of home-ownership doesn't exist for this generation.
True, the percentage of people under 35 who own their own homes has dipped from 43 percent in 1981 to 38 percent in 1991, and, yes, last year just over 50 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds were living with Mom and Dad, slightly up from 1970. But, despite the media's assumption that the cause is economic necessity, a recent Rand study reports that economics are only a small factor. Rather, the so-called "baby-boomerang" may reflect the generation's success more than its distress. For one, reports American Demographics magazine, because young people today "have more options than ever . . . the boomerang is a logical way to sample those options." More young people than ever are attending college or enjoying the luxury of experimenting with different careers, both of which mean more remain home longer. They are also waiting longer than any generation of this century to marry, which also delays their decision to purchase homes. This marriage delay, studies show, is less a product of poverty than of choice.
Twentysomethings are being ripped off by Social Security.
The two big rallying cries of this generation are: Social Security will not be there for them when they retire; and wealthy retirees are benefiting unjustly at the expense of younger, poorer workers.
Both claims are misleading. True, Social Security (even though it now runs a $300 billion surplus) is projected to be depleted by the year 2050, but "the only way people would not get their benefits is if the government declares bankruptcy," explains a ranking staffer on the Senate Finance Committee, "and that's not going to happen. And if it did, Social Security would be the least of our problems."
Even more distorted is the claim that Social Security disproportionately benefits the wealthy. True, Warren Buffett doesn't need a monthly check, but for most wealthy seniors Social Security is a poor investment -- and for most lower lifetime earners it's a winner. That's because lower earners, since they pay in less, receive a much better return percentage-wise. But studies show that if higher earners know they will get something back from Social Security, no matter how poor an investment, they are more likely to support it -- and their support, both political and financial, is crucial in keeping the benefits flowing for the rest of the population.
An over-indulged class of senior citizens is breaking the back of America's youth.
Yes, seniors as a group are doing a lot better than 30 or 40 years ago, thanks to increases in the value of real estate and programs like Social Security and Medicare. That's helped them move from the poorest age cohort on the income ladder to . . . the second poorest. In fact, despite twentysomething rhetoric, young Americans are better off financially than seniors. In 1990, for example, 11 percent of 25-to-29-year-olds were below the poverty level, compared to 13 percent of those 75 or over. (Not to mention the fact that the young are five times more likely to move out of poverty than are seniors.) Nonetheless, the elderly donate twice as much time and money to charity as twentysomethings do.
Besides which, the wealth accumulated by some seniors will benefit the very people who are complaining the loudest. Young Americans will inherit up to $8 trillion in coming years from their elders -- by far the largest intergenerational transfer in American history.
And what about the "genuinely frightening" fact, in the words of Next Progressive editor Eric Liu, that seniors' entitlements have jumped from 16 percent of all federal spending in 1965 to 30 percent today? What he ignores is that state and local governments spend more than 10 times as much on children as on the elderly. In fact, all government spending for young and old is about equal: about $300 billion each.
So why the bellyaching? Perhaps because twentysomethings, raised in an era of unprecedented affluence, simply feel entitled to more. According to studies by the University of Michigan, Gallup and UCLA, greater percentages of young people today -- compared to their counterparts in the '50s, '60s and '70s -- want "jobs that pay a lot," second cars, swimming pools, vacation homes and "clothing in the latest styles." And fewer seek "interesting jobs," "finding a purpose in life" or "working to correct social inequalities." "Their first priority is themselves," the UCLA survey of college students concluded.
Leaching onto this sense of entitlement, the new young leaders have ginned up a welter of "solutions" to perceived injustice. Unfortunately, many of those plans are just as self-interested as the generation they represent. Third Millennium, for example, calls for "no new net spending . . . . Everything must be put on the table: defense, entitlements, farm subsidies." It warns its elders, "If you are ready to make tough choices, we will support you . . . . But if not, move out of the way." And what tough choices are outlined in the Third Millenium plan? Cuts are targeted at programs that affect the elderly -- namely Social Security and Medicare -- and farmers (big surprise considering it's a New York-Washington-based group).
Or consider the "sacrifice" demanded by Lead . . . or Leave, as part of its 1993 "People's Pledge," a petition it asks all young Americans to endorse: "If Congress votes to cut the deficit in half by 1996, I will donate a half day of community service to a cause of my choice." That's right, Mr. Congressmen, put your career on the line, and I'll spend a whole Saturday morning working the phones at the public-television fund drive.
In the end, though, the real sin of these groups of twentysomethings isn't the harmfulness of their grand plans; it's that their much-covered claims of suffering detract attention from those who are truly in need -- particularly underclass families headed by single women. Children from low-income families, not youth as a whole, are stuck: facing fewer job and career options, and limited access to education. And while a huge number of middle-class twentysomethings will inherit both homes and wealth, children of the poor will inherit nothing. While middle-class movements wallow in self-pity, these young people may wallow in a lifetime of poverty.
Of late, the new generation leaders have been pushing an interesting image: that the economic struggle they're now engaged in is their own "Vietnam." Or rather, they claim they're victims of not one Vietnam, but four -- at various times within the last year alone: the debt, the deficit, "America's crime epidemic" and Social Security.
All these Vietnams made me dizzy. How could one generation be saddled with so many wars? Until I came across a logical explanation: Nearly half of young America isn't quite sure where Vietnam is. But that, I was told, wasn't their fault either. Their elders never took the time to show them.
Christopher Georges, a twentysomething, is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.