WASHINGTON — We are locked in a generational war, which will get worse before it gets better. Indeed, it may not get better for a long time. No one wants to admit this, because it's ugly and unwelcome. Parents are supposed to care for their children, and children are supposed to care for their aging parents. For families, these collective obligations may work. But what makes sense for families doesn't always succeed for society as a whole. The clash of generations is intensifying.
Last week, a federal judge ruled that Detroit qualifies for municipal bankruptcy. This almost certainly means that pensions and health benefits for the city's retired workers will be trimmed. There's a basic conflict between paying for all retirement benefits and supporting adequate current services (police, schools, parks, sanitation, roads). Detroit's retired workers have swelled, benefits were not adequately funded and the city's economy isn't strong enough to do both without self-defeating tax increases.
The math is unforgiving. Detroit now has two retirees for every active worker, reports the Detroit Free Press; in 2012, that was 10,525 employees and 21,113 retirees. Satisfying retirees inevitably shortchanges their children and grandchildren. Though Detroit's situation is extreme, it's not unique. Pension benefits were once thought to be legally and politically impregnable. Pension cuts in Illinois (last week), Rhode Island and elsewhere have shattered this assumption. Chicago is considering reductions for its retirees.
What's occurring at the state and local levels is an incomplete and imperfect effort to balance the interests of young and old. Conflicts vary depending on benefits' generosity and the strength — or weakness — of local economies. A study of 173 cities by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found pension costs averaged 7.9 percent of tax revenues, but many cities were much higher. Chicago was 17 percent, Springfield, Mass., was 15 percent, and New York was 12.9 percent. Health benefits add to costs.
At the federal level, even this sloppy generational reckoning is missing. The elderly's interests are running roughshod over other national interests. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — programs heavily for the retired — dominate the budget, accounting for about 44 percent of spending, and have been largely excluded from deficit-reduction measures.
Almost all the adjustment falls on other programs: defense, courts, research, roads, education. Or higher taxes. The federal government is increasingly a transfer agency: Taxes from the young and middle-aged are spent on the elderly.
The explanation for this is politics. For states and localities, benefit cuts affect government workers — a powerful but small group — while at the federal level, it's all the elderly, a huge group that includes everyone's parents and grandparents. As a result, the combat has been lopsided. Political leaders of both parties have avoided distasteful choices. Younger Americans have generally been clueless about how shifting demographics threaten their future government services and taxes.
This may be changing. One reason is the Affordable Care Act. Among other things, Obamacare expands the young's compulsory subsidization of older Americans (in this case, those not yet 65). Under the law, some of the young will pay artificially high insurance premiums to cover the medical expenses of older and sicker Americans. The young seem to be balking. A poll by Harvard's Institute of Politics finds that less than a third of uninsured 18-29 year olds plan to enroll in the program. Here's another generational skirmish.
The upgrading of old age also undermines the status quo. To be sure, millions of older Americans are frail, sickly or poor. But many more aren't. Older Americans are generally healthier and wealthier than ever. Someone now 65 can on average expect to live another 19 years, up about two years since 1990. More years are spent in relatively good health, finds a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, because major disabilities are occurring later. Meanwhile, Americans 65 and over regularly rate their finances better than other age groups' according to surveys by NORC, an opinion research organization at the University of Chicago. In 2012, 41 percent of those 65 and over were "satisfied" with their finances and 20 percent dissatisfied (the rest were in between). Among those aged 35 to 49, only 25 percent were satisfied and 29 percent were dissatisfied.
Generational warfare upsets us because it pits parents against children. The elderly's well-being partly reflects Social Security and Medicare's success; but it also comes at the expense of younger Americans. We pretend these discomforting conflicts don't exist. But they do and are rooted in changing demographics, slower economic growth and competing concepts of old age. They cannot be dissolved by pious invocations that "we're all in this together." To date, the contest has been one-sided; now the other side is beginning to stir.
Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.