A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Author sees different ‘Generation Gap’

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues., or Wed., May 18, 19 or 20

Demographics is destiny, right-wing British writer Arthur Kemp once said.

Not necessarily, of course, but a new book by Paul Taylor – scheduled to speak for the Peoria Area Labor Management Council (PALM) Tuesday (May 19) at East Peoria’s Par-A-Dice Hotel – offers revealing context for the profound demographic changes the nation has undergone since the 1970s.

“The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown” says that today’s Millennials are well-educated but saddled with debt, and tech-savvy but underemployed, and such disparities, if not contradictions, lead some to fear that that generation could be the first generation in U.S. history to fail to achieve a standard of living at least as stable as their parents’.

Indeed, America is in the throes of a demographic upheaval. Profound differences are happening in Americans’ political and social values, our collective prosperity or inequality, our families, our racial and ethnic mix, our gender norms, our religious affiliations, and our use of technology. But the divergence between generations may be the most dramatic.
Some may shrug and think, “Huh. A Generation Gap.” However, today’s is one that’s much different than previous disconnects.

The 12-chapter, 200-page book, published in March, benefits from social research conducted by the Pew Research Center, where Taylor is vice president. The private-sector opinion surveys reveal delightful or disturbing trends, from lifestyles to politics. The country’s changing nature affects populations, marriage rates and even consumer choices.

For example, longer life expectancies mean the nation is older, which burdens government’s social safety net and also contributes to U.S. society’s polarization. Age differences provide fertile ground on which to cultivate fear and demagoguery – as well as Republicans’ deference to the privileged and lip service to Christians, and Democrats’ identity politics and increasing corporate coziness. All of that marginalizes not just alternative choices like the Green Party but voters themselves, from racial minorities to the elderly to working-class citizens.

Further, polarization has dramatically increased since the 1970s. In fact, a 2006 study in the Journal of Politics said, “These divisions are not confined to a small minority of activists – they involve a large segment of the public and the deepest divisions are found among the most interested, informed and active citizens.”

Such polarization isn’t just in politics, where the level of animosity is intense. It influences everything from who people befriend to where they live. Plus, the tendency to socialize or use information that confirms beliefs already held – “silos of influence” – means that people who consider themselves well-informed are more active, and those more-involved citizens skew participation.

The most opinionated Americans are essentially overrepresented in politics.

In-depth and authoritative, yet readable and concise (even occasionally funny), “The Next America” also features charts and years of polling numbers to bolster Taylor’s assertions.

If there’s a weakness in what’s essentially a collection of observations (more than a call to action), it’s Taylor’s acceptance of mistaken judgments about Social Security. Misinformation has apparently convinced young Americans – and maybe Taylor – that the popular insurance system is broken or a bust.

Taylor writes, “More than 7 in 10 Millennials do not expect Social Security to be their main source of retirement income,” but he doesn’t challenge that opinion and neglects to note that Social Security insurance was designed to supplement people’s income, not provide most income.

In reality, though some say that Social Security is bankrupt, its Trust Fund holds trillions of dollars in assets in the form of legally binding debt from the U.S. Treasury.

“Social Security has a large and growing surplus,” says Richard Fiesta, director of the Alliance for Retired Americans. “Social Security’s cumulative surplus [is] roughly $2.8 trillion in 2014, growing to about $2.9 trillion around 2020.”

Also, lifting the payroll tax cap, which is now $118,500 – meaning that no earnings above that level contribute to FICA (the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, which funds Social Security) – would strengthen the program for decades.

Nevertheless, Taylor’s book is very valuable; less of a series of answers than a host of questions.

[PICTURED: Author Paul Taylor.]

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