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Is there a 'Battle of the Ages' on the horizon?

The Next America examines the widening generation gap

Created date

August 22nd, 2014

Cultural divisions, income disparities, religious beliefs, and perhaps the biggest divide of all, politics, have pitted neighbor against neighbor since the beginning of time. Those battles continue to play out in modern-day America with rich versus poor, liberals versus conservatives, and the religious faithful versus nonbelievers. In his book The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown (PublicAffairs Books), author Paul Taylor sets up what could be the biggest contest yet—one between generations.

Taylor is the executive vice president of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan public policy research organization in Washington, D.C., that studies demographics, social issues, and public opinion. Their reports divine poll results like tea leaves and provide insights into where the nation is and where we are going. 

As Taylor, who turns 65 this year, says in the preface to his book, “The America of my childhood—with its expanding middle class, secure jobs, intact nuclear families, devout believers, distinct gender roles, polite politics, consensus-building media—is nothing like the country my year-old granddaughter will inherit.”

Showdown

Our current population can be broken into four distinct generations. The two biggest generations are the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and the Millennials (born after 1980). The two smaller generations are the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945) and the Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980). 

Taylor’s prediction of a generational showdown is based on a number of factors, but the root begins with simple math. As more boomers move into retirement, they will rely on programs such as Social Security and Medicare, but the only way those programs will have the funds to stay solvent and provide benefits for such a large group of people is though contributions made by the current workforce that will increasingly be comprised of Millennials and Gen Xers. It certainly doesn’t help that the younger generations are having difficulty finding well-paying jobs, with a good number of 20- to 30-year-olds still living with their parents.

“These new demographics of aging mean that pretty soon we won’t be able to pay for all the promises we’ve made to oldsters like me,” says Taylor. “So we’ll have to either shrink their social safety net or raise taxes on their children and grandchildren. This reckoning has the potential to set off a generation war, though it doesn’t have to.”

It’s hardly a revelation that compromise will be required to address this looming issue. Taylor points to AARP’s recent signals that adjustments to Social Security and Medicare will be necessary to maintain those programs as a glimmer of hope. He believes that the consensus for compromise is growing from business, labor, and elected officials as well.  

Different versions of the same nation

Exacerbating the situation is the fact that each generation grew up in a very different version of the United States, each with different values, beliefs, and challenges, reflected in the outlook of its members. The Silent Generation, who came of age in the era of Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy, is frustrated with today’s government and disturbed by the technological, cultural, and demographic changes in America. Baby Boomers, who came of age during the Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Ford, and Regan administrations, are worried about retirement. 

Gen Xers, who entered adulthood during the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years, are more comfortable than previous generations with cultural diversity and tend to have a strong distrust of institutions, particularly government. Millennials (a group whose upbringing has been described as “coddled”) are surprisingly optimistic about the future. The oldest members of this group came of age during the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. Millennials are moving slowly into adulthood; are comfortable with technology; and are at ease with sexual, racial, and ethnic diversity. 

The greatest country on earth

While it’s clear to most every member of the Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation that America is vastly different from the nation they grew up in, seeing the data as presented in The Next America is fascinating. For example, something as basic as our nation’s greatness can be viewed along generational lines. 

Overall, 48% of adults surveyed said that America was the greatest country in the world. Another 42% agreed that it was one of the greatest countries in the world. But when those numbers are broken down by generation, the differences are pronounced. A mere 32% of Millennials agreed that America is the greatest country. The number of those who agree with that statement went up with age so that 72% of the Silent Generation respondents agreed.

It will be interesting to see how the youngest among us grow and age over time. Perhaps they will be the ones to finally put an end to all the negativity and name-calling that has left our system battered and gridlocked. And one can only hope that if they succeed, more of them will come to see America as the greatest country on earth.

 

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