In a post on the fate of the university, Steve writes:
We appear to have a situation where the public will not invest in education because it is more concerned in distributing the state’s patronage to older citizens, which has created an education system which has had to cut spending on public service, and saddled students with costs, and is raising a generation of young people who have had less opportunity for public engagement […] and what experience they have had has been watching older generations use political institutions to shift costs unfairly onto their backs.
Insofar as the vast majority of so-called “welfare” spending in the US is directed towards senior citizens rather than the poor, I wonder if he might be right. Certainly, old age is not the same kind of disability as the disadvantages generated by class, race, or gender, but as a group, seniors are good candidates for the least-advantaged. They are very vulnerable to poverty and imminent mortality. However, this may be one reason to calculate privilege and disadvantage over a lifespan rather than over shorter life-cycle episodes like childhood, middle-age, and end-of-life: America’s current crop of senior citizens enjoyed the greatest lifetime wealth in history, and presided over the most transfer payments to themselves ever. As they stopped needing universities, they forced states to stop funding them. As their incomes increased, they lowered taxes. As they started needing cheap pharmaceuticals, they forced Medicare to pay for prescription drugs.
I think it makes some sense to see current conflicts over entitlements and the absence of satisfying non-military public service as generational. The real key here is that the Millenials are the new Baby Boomers: because they represent a demographic bulge, they will decide our country’s politics and economic priorities over the next fifty years in the same way that Boomers did over the last fifty.
The Baby Boomers organized for peace in Vietnam, civil rights, and women’s equality, which profoundly influenced their thinking about citizenship. What have the Millenials done? They’re a bit too young to fight for gay rights, and they appear to be ambivalent about the rights of undocumented workers. They turned out for Obama, but now they’re disappointed. So what will their cause be, in a world that they do not trust? How will they vent their ire that their parents outsourced all the good jobs and are generating record debt levels? Where, they may ask, is their New Deal, their Space Race, their War on Poverty, their great cause? What makes citizenship and public institutions worth investing in?
Peter Levine gets it right, as usual:
But it’s a mixed picture. Optimism about careers is one thing; confidence in other people is a different story. Perhaps protective Baby Boomers failed to raise kids who trusted the outside world, or perhaps it’s a simplification to say that today’s generation was raised by protective parents. The young man in today’s Times profile was raised by a married couple in exurban Grafton, MA, with a family income in the national top ten percent. But 258 students enrolled in the Chicago Public School system were shot last year–quite a different context in which to grow up. And most young Americans fall somewhere in between: neither coddled nor terrorized, but hardly secure.
The Millenial generation is so large that none of us can get hold of the whole thing. We’re only at the leading edge of this new Boom. Any defining moment or attitude that emerges will be a fiction projected onto a plurality, a doomed attempt to make the morass of experiences and opinions meaningful, a summative count that disguises those left unaccounted for.