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Young vs Old: Will Republicans Turn Class Warfare into Generational Warfare in the 2012 Election?

The toxic but illogical politics of pitting young against old has been on display all over the media.

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I’m one of those late boomers who could be hung out to dry by “entitlement reform.” Even the “zombie-eyed granny starver” Paul Ryan ( I love Charles Pierce) says he won’t touch Medicare for the over-55 set, but everyone born after 1957 gets only “premium support,” casting us into the rapacious private market (but capping that premium support to make sure we can’t afford decent insurance).  Hey, in a bleak, zero-sum world, maybe that’s fair. I grew up at what turned out to be the dreamiest moment of the American dream; I was part of the last generation of young people to whom the nation kept its promises. Maybe it’s fitting that it will break its promises to me when I’m old.

But if we screw the (soon to be) old, we screw the young too, just in a different way. And I think young people know that.

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Some of the numbers that make me angriest on behalf of the younger generation have to do with college education. That’s because they’re so concrete to me. I graduated in 1980; from 1980 on, the inflation-adjusted price of attending a four-year college has risen by 128 percent, and according to the New York Times, the cost of public universities has tripled. When I left the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1980, I was paying around $800 a year in tuition; now undergrads there pay $10,800. “The increase in the tuition burden is largely caused by declining state support for higher education in the past three decades,” says a Times editorial on paying higher ed costs.

That’s why I’m glad Obama is fighting to keep subsidized Stafford loan interest rates at 3.4 percent – but I don’t think that’s nearly enough. From the local to the federal level, we need a massive new commitment to higher-education affordability. When I was a kid, New York’s city universities used to be free; so was the University of California before Ronald Reagan (there were fees, but no tuition). Public universities are part of the way we built the American middle class (unionized jobs were another key way). Why are we surprised the middle class is shrinking?

But pitting the old against the young is specious, for so many reasons. For one thing, if the over-55 set can’t afford to retire, they’re taking jobs that could go to young people. If they can’t afford to retire but they also can’t get jobs, they’re going to be supported by their kids. Young people are smart enough to figure that out.

More than 53 percent of people under 25 with bachelor’s degrees were either unemployed or underemployed; in 2000, the share was at a low of 41 percent. Meanwhile, as the ranks of  ”discouraged” workers grows every month, the share of working people over 55 is at a 42-year high. But the employed share of folks 25-54 has dropped 5.5 percentage points since 2001, to 75.8 percent.

Do we think that over-55 share is growing because old folks are greedy (the over-70 share is growing particularly fast)? Or is it at least partly because 401Ks replaced pensions and then lost much of their value in the 2008 crash? Anyway, blaming the boomers, particularly the late-boomers, ignores the way the rules of the economy changed while they were in mid-adulthood. “Only 58 percent of boomers have more than $25,000 put aside for retirement, so the rest will either starve or the government will have to pay for them,” Marche fulminates, as he calls Social Security “the biggest boondoggle of all.” Marche assumes the selfish boomers squandered their earnings, rather than that their wages stopped rising while costs did not.

 
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