America Is A Country For Old Men. And That’s A Huge Problem…
While our media may be obsessed with youth, our politics are dominated by senior citizens and their priorities, and that’s taking its toll on younger generations
Once upon a time, and well aware of the irony, my grandfather told me to be very nervous when old people are in charge. “They are stuck in their ways, think their experience is a substitute for new knowledge, don’t listen to new ideas, and are too nostalgic to look to the future,” he said. In his long life under Soviet rule, he had a lot of reasons to mistrust people a lot like himself in power. He saw the USSR double down on its worst tactics in times where it could’ve started transitioning into a democracy. He saw the elders in China furiously spin their wheels with the disastrous aftermath of the Great Leap Forward and the blind anti-intellectualism of the Cultural Revolution. When discussing whether it was a wise idea to have elders lead entire nations, he had plenty of proof to the contrary.
There were good reasons to have a skeptical, grizzled veteran’s input, he’d allow, but overall, you didn’t want solutions of yesterday pushed through today by those completely out of touch with the rest of the population. His words ring especially true today, when American leaders are growing older and graying, and seem determined to relive their imaginary glory days of the 1950s instead of moving their nation forward. The average member of the House is 58 years old with 53% of them over 60. The average member of the Senate is 62 year old, with more than 75% being in their 60s or older. We’re also dealing with the oldest president ever to start his first term since Trump is 70 years old, and most members of his cabinet qualify for AARP membership. This is disturbingly close to what political scientists might be willing to call a gerontocracy.
Now, that state of affairs is not quite as dire as in the Second World, where spry-ish 70 to 90 year olds with very understated titles ruled with an iron fist for decades by the 1980s. But with reelection rates of 97% in the House and 87% in the Senate, things aren’t likely to suddenly get better in terms of greater age distribution. Young would-be public servants face much older and better backed incumbents happy to spend more than a decade in their posts, and the political pipeline seems pretty hostile to young talent for two reasons. The first is fundraising with no track record to use on the campaign trail simply because they haven’t had a chance to establish it. The second is that seniors are still the most active voting group and they’re interested in someone their age focusing on their problems.
But why is this a problem? Well, the last 30 years have been full of massive and profound technological and societal change, and those who already had careers and families before the impacts were fully felt are now a desperately out of touch demographic. They refuse to understand that people today do really have to go on the internet. They don’t know or care that walking into a store to tell the manager that you have lots of moxie and are a fast learner will result in you being told to find the store’s website and apply online. The fact that hiring managers are drowning in resumes and applications thanks to e-mail and and job sites doesn’t seem to sink in, and neither does the fact that for every successful new hire today, hundreds of other applications were rejected, more than 95% of them by a computer that replaced a human.
Explaining to them that living in a city where housing costs are basically out of control at this point isn’t done for the love of bars and restaurants, but an economic necessity because that’s where the jobs are, is a task so arduous, Sisyphus would wish you good luck, relieved that he needs to move just one boulder in an eternal loop. And to ask them that maybe, just for once, they should consider a cut in Medicare for themselves and think about expanding it for all so entire generations didn’t have to go into crippling debt through no fault of their own, will provoke a lecture on how they earned every last benefit they receive today by walking to school uphill, both ways, carrying a throng of siblings on their backs, in blizzards, eating garbage until well in their 30s to survive, and paying 80% of their income in taxes to earn it.
In short, the grey hairs got theirs and don’t care to understand why those younger can’t just do the same thing. They didn’t miss iPhones and laptops, or the rising rents in new urban corridors, but they completely ignored the necessity of those “useless time wasting gadgets” in today’s economy, refuse to believe how expensive their once affordable education has become, and can’t understand that jobs are disappearing thanks to technology so “just get another job” or “go ask for a raise because they need people” to afford a house no longer works. So when asked for solutions once in power, they’re at a loss. Instead they blame youth today, schools, colleges, foreigners and trade deals, taxes, regulations, but not their neglect and decades of cashing in on their parents’ and grandparents’ labor, and saddling new generations with debt they expected to disappear with voodoo economics.
Their obsession with insisting that nothing changed, all we need is a tweak here and there to return to the good old days they remember as children or teenagers with some lip service towards technology and global trade, hurts those who have to come after them. The policies they’ve pursued have put youth today far behind them. Don’t just take my word for it. Studies found that millennials today earn 20% less than boomers did when they occupied the same rung of the corporate ladders. Even five years ago, economists got worried that boomers were basically insistent on spending on themselves in their prime earning and golden years to the dire detriment of generations to follow. Yet, blowing off years of expert reports pointing out their economic parasitosis of younger generations, they demand to know what’s wrong with all those childless kids these days who don’t even own a home.
Believe it or not, millennials want to have kids, often multiple kids at that, as surveys over the years show. But they’re having fewer and fewer of them in their state of constant financial and structural turmoil. Will they have a job tomorrow? Where do they send their kids to school? Will public schools be viable with the Department of Education headed by a billionaire who thinks public schooling is of the Devil? Will colleges still be a requirement for a job while their tuitions continue to skyrocket? When will they be able to buy a house? Sure, they could find cheap housing around the country, but fewer jobs in that area to fall back on if automation and mergers eliminate theirs, which today happens on a daily basis. Or they could find an area with more than enough potential jobs, but with insane rents and always tight housing supplies, leading to skyrocketing real estate prices.
None of these problems are unsolvable but they’re not a priority, and while they get lip service from the worried politician or pundit, they primarily get left in the dust in favor of, well, old people problems like Medicare, Social Security benefits, defense, immigration, or tax reforms around capital gains taxes and other financial products used to finance retirements, current and in the near future. It’s little wonder that Sanders was so popular with a lot of liberal and moderate millennials. He talked a lot about fair pay when you finally land your hard won first career job and student debt, the issues that often hold youth today from buying homes, having kids, and advancing farther up the corporate ladder. Yes, he was old, but he at least seemed to get it. But he was knocked out by another old candidate to who just floated the same ineffective half-measures the youth were used to hearing.
We don’t need more politicians busy soothing all the fears of senior citizens and looking after their financial wellbeing at the expense of their children and grandchildren. We already have plenty of it happening today. We need an influx of politicians who can at least understand, if not relate, that the kids aren’t all right, and they didn’t just choose wrong majors and need to put in some elbow grease, but that they’ve been systematically put very far on the political back burner. While the tribe elders navel-gaze and dream about a swift return to those glory days they look back on with nostalgia-colored reading glasses, casually tossing an empty platitude for the kids who have to pay for the debts they’ve run up over the years as a panacea for their woes, those who will inherit the country are either ignored or derided as slackers with nothing in between. Since it’s obvious that these elders don’t care what happens in the future, someone should start worrying and fixing the damage caused by their self-serving neglect. And soon.