To senior citizens at town hall meetings angry or worried about their plan to convert Medicare to a private insurance scheme, Republicans have a simple answer: It’s not about you. You’ll be fine. This is for “the next generation.”
The next generation is everyone 55 or under, since the plan would not start for ten years and would affect only newly eligible seniors. The stated logic of the ten-year delay is that it takes time to put the system in place and that people need time to plan. But if “premium support” (a euphemism right up there with “enhanced interrogation”) were ever going to work, it could be implemented as quickly as the Affordable Care Act (four years) or Medicare’s prescription drug coverage (two years). Presumably, the delay is mostly a political kludge, intended to avoid a backlash from those now or soon to be dependent on Medicare by affecting only those young enough to be giving little thought to retirement health coverage.
But the line they chose is more than a gimmick: The 55-and-over cutoff marks a sharp and significant generational divide. Those over 55 will continue to benefit from one of the triumphs of social insurance in the Great Society, while the rest of us will be on our own, with a coupon for private health insurance. If you consider what it means to be 55 years old in 2011, you’ll see the significance of the line.
Today’s 55-year-old was born in 1956. That’s not generally considered a major break in the generations. It’s smack in the middle of the Baby Boom (the peak of the boom, in fact), with almost a decade to go before the first Gen-Xers were born, dreaming of Winona Ryder. But the difference between early and later Boomers, especially in their experience of the economy, is dramatic.
A baby born in 1956 would have graduated from high school in about 1974, from college in 1978 or so. Look at almost any historical chart of the American economy, and you see two sharp breaks in the 1970s. First, in 1974, household incomes, which had been rising since World War II, flattened. Real wages started to stagnate. The poverty rate stopped falling. Health insurance coverage stopped rising. Those trends have continued ever since.
Second, a little later in the decade, around the time today’s 55-year-olds graduated from college (if they did—fewer than 30 percent have a four-year degree), inequality began its sharp rise, and the share of national income going to the bottom 40 percent began to fall. Productivity and wages, which had tended to keep pace, began to diverge, meaning that workers began seeing little of the benefits of their own productivity gains. The number of jobs in manufacturing peaked and began to drop sharply. Defined benefit pensions, which provide a secure base of income in retirement, began to give way to 401(k)s and similar schemes that depend on the worker to save and the stock market to perform. While the benefits of higher education rose, college tuitions started to rise even faster. Those trends, too, have continued.
If there was ever going to be a generational war in this country, that high school class of ’74 would be its Mason-Dixon line. It’s the moment when Bill Clinton’s promise—“if you work hard and play by the rules you’ll get ahead”—began to lose its value. Today’s seniors and near-seniors spent much of their working lives in that postwar world, with their incomes rising, investments gaining, their health increasingly secure, and their retirements predictable. Everyone 55 and younger spent his or her entire working life in an economy where all those trends had stalled or reversed. To borrow former White House economist Jared Bernstein’s phrase, it was the “You’re On Your Own” economy. Finally, those 55-year-olds are spending several of what should be their peak earning years, years when they should be salting away money in their 401(k)s and IRAs, in a period of deep recession and very slow recovery.
The Ryan plan, in other words, delivers to the older generation exactly what they’ve had all their lives—secure and predictable benefits—and to the next generation, more of what they’ve known—insecurity and risk. It’s hardly the first generational fight the GOP has started. The previous one was just last fall, when they campaigned for Medicare, and against the $500 billion in cuts (mostly by getting rid of the overgenerous subsidies to private insurers in an experimental program) passed as part of the Affordable Care Act. With an off-year electorate that was overwhelmingly older, they could put all their bets on the older side, knowing that seniors would see little benefit from the Affordable Care Act and were naturally worried about any change to the health system they enjoyed.
Heading into the 2012 election, however, the electorate is likely to shift back to one in which younger and middle-aged voters vote in proportion to their share of the population, so a “Mediscare” campaign won’t work. This time, the GOP hopes to play both sides of the generational war, gambling that while seniors want security, younger voters never expected the certainty of Medicare, just as they don’t expect reliable pensions or Social Security benefits, and thus will embrace a plan that sounds innovative, flexible, and market-based. Contending that the only alternative to premium support is the end of Medicare entirely, they are offering a generation that is accustomed to getting less than their parents a little bit, rather than nothing.
This strategy is a variation on the generational conflict the Bush Administration tried to launch in 2005 over Social Security privatization. Although it never reached the level of specificity that Ryan achieved, the calculus was the same: Younger voters would welcome the opportunity to take advantage of the stock market for their retirement, rather than the stodgy and predictable system their parents and grandparents liked.
That wager didn’t work, however: It turned out that older voters were terrified of Social Security privatization and younger voters unenthusiastic. Within five months, the radical move that every pundit thought was a near-certainty when George W. Bush declared “I've got political capital and I intend to use it,” had disappeared, never even introduced as legislation. And despite this week’s relaunch of the Ryan plan, it’s likely to end in the same result. If Social Security is any precedent, younger voters will be indifferent, while older voters won’t believe they’re exempt. The Republicans will again walk away from the conflict, hoping to get credit for being “serious” without bearing a political price for the error.
For Democrats, the defeat of the Ryan plan, like the failed Social Security privatization before it, will be regarded as a great victory, and an opportunity to get a fresh start with worried older voters. But they should not ignore the generational divide revealed by Ryan’s cutoff. If progressive politics has nothing to offer the late Boomers and the generations that follow except the same old programs, and nothing that responds to their distinctive experience of the economy, then eventually they’ll fall for one of these gimmicks from the right.
Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former editor of The American Prospect.
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