Take a step back, says Paul Taylor, and survey the American landscape.
Witness two outsize generations, baby boomers in their 50s and 60s and millennials, or people in their 20s, and they seem headed for a confrontation.
One generation is having trouble coming to terms with getting old, Taylor writes in “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown,” while the other is having trouble growing up. One generation is working longer, and the other can’t lift off because of crippling levels of unemployment. And one of those generations (we’re talking about you, boomers) may bankrupt the Social Security and Medicaid safety nets.
“What gives the drama an almost Shakespearean richness is something more,” Taylor said. “[T]hey’re also each other’s children and parents, bound together in an intricate web of love, support, anxiety, resentment, and interdependence.”
Taylor is a former Washington Post reporter and executive vice president of Pew Research Center, a public-policy think tank in Washington. Pew has collected data on generational differences over the decade that Taylor has worked there, and he makes liberal use of the numbers to paint a complex portrait of each generation and their contrasting life situations.
Although there are dangers to making sweeping generalizations about a specific generation, that hasn’t stopped modern demographers. Millennials (born after 1980) are generally civic-minded; Generation Xers (1965-1980) are reactive; boomers (1946-1964) are idealistic; and the Silent Generation (1928-1945) is adaptive.
While Taylor looks at all the groups, he tends to focus most on boomers and millennials because they are the biggest players in the racial, political, religious, and technological changes reshaping the nation.
Boomers are the result of a post-World War II population surge, while the millennial generations’ big numbers are owing to renewed immigration flows and immigrants’ tendency to have larger families. And more than 15 percent of all new marriages in 2011 were either interracial or interethnic, six times the number in 1960.
The data often paint a stark picture of the generation gap and in particular, the role of millennials, who are digitally savvy, at ease with their generation’s racial, ethnic, and sexual diversity, and confident about their futures despite coming of age in a troubled economy.
Forty percent of millennial men ages 18 to 32 were living in their parents’ homes in 2012, Taylor said, and 32 percent of all young women the same age.
Whether the byproduct of a lack of jobs or being coddled by their parents, he said, their “delayed adulthood” is even celebrated in movies starring the likes of Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Jack Black, and others.
He is kinder to boomers, even as he acknowledges their flaws. Taylor, who turns 65 this year, quotes boomers describing their own generational flaws (”self-absorbed,” “self-indulgent”).
And then there’s the nation’s debt, which during the boomers peak earning years rose from being measured in billions to about $17 trillion today, effectively saddling their children and grandchildren with massive debt.
Boomers and millennials live in such different worlds, Taylor’s book raises big questions about how we’ve generally managed to get along so well despite wildly divergent expectations and economic differences.
Which brings the author back to programs such as Social Security, a lightning rod for these intergenerational conflicts. When the program first started, 42 workers were making contributions for every retiree drawing benefits. It is currently three workers per every retiree and is expected to drop to two-to-one by the year 2035.
Political leaders will need to rally to find an answer as that math becomes increasingly unsustainable. In a highly partisan political world, it’s impossible to predict the outcome.
Taylor expects that the system of benefits will likely need to be scaled back and that if the last recession was any indication, Americans will cope by resorting to the original safety net: family.
Taylor reminds that despite the ominous statistics, today’s generations are “living more interdependently than at any other time in recent memory because that turns out to be a good coping strategy in hard times.”
In that way, millennials might already be a step ahead.Megan Woolhouse, a Generation Xer, is a business reporter who covers economic and workplace issues.