Boomers and Millennials Unite!

Ann Beaudry and Peter Arno propose a simple — and potentially powerful — strategy on Social Security: mobilize Millennials and their grandparents to work together:

In recent years, the purveyors of intergenerational-warfare scenarios have repeatedly claimed that retirement security was not possible without throwing young workers under their grandparents’ bus. They urge us to abandon or significantly reduce our nation’s Social Security commitment for future generations because we simply can’t afford it. Unconscionably, too many progressives buy into this zero-sum perspective. Narrowing the frame to focus solely on justice for seniors fails to mobilize constituencies that, if united, would be an unstoppable force capable of returning Social Security to untouchable third-rail status.

Under former Speaker Paul Ryan’s leadership, attempts to dismantle Social Security were touted as reform. But when the new Congress convened in January, at the top of the agenda was the Social Security 2100 Act (H.R. 860), introduced by Representative John Larson (D-CT), which now has more than 200 co-sponsors in the House. The bill would increase minimum benefits, and an annual cost-of-living adjustment formula will result in increased benefits for all recipients.

Larson’s bill gives lie to doomsayers’ predictions. Social Security’s path to long-term economic stability is based on two simple changes. First, a 2.4 percent increase in the payroll tax, gradually phased in one-tenth of a percentage point a year, reaching a combined employee-employer tax of 14.8 percent by 2043—with the impact on low- and middle-income earners somewhat offset by reducing the income tax on Social Security earnings. Second, applying the payroll tax to income above $400,000 so that wealthy workers would pay tax on income up to the current cap of $132,900 and on their income above $400,000.

Reforming Social Security’s finances shouldn’t be limited to these steps, but it’s a great strategy to take this win and build on it in future years. The hurdle to get over? Winning requires millennials.

The only way to engage young people is by being brutally honest: They will rely more on Social Security for their retirement security than their parents or grandparents have. Millennials are significantly disadvantaged by major structural changes in the economy. These changes, which happened on their grandparents’ and parents’ watch, include wage stagnation, job instability, unprecedented levels of student debt, and rising housing costs. Taken together, these factors make it exceedingly difficult to save for retirement, and traditional pensions are rare. Furthermore, millennials are expected to live longer, thus increasing their reliance on Social Security for disability coverage during their working years and retirement benefits at older ages.

Millennials are a very entrepreneurial generation—they’ve had to be to adapt to sea changes in our economy. The hurdle to engaging them on Social Security is getting them to believe that their parents and grandparents will join forces with them to achieve real long-term stability—and not settle for short-term solutions that ensure security solely for the current elder generation.

Young people are right to be cynical. Conservatives promote specious intergenerational-warfare arguments, and too often the media uncritically reports these messages. The Republican leadership promises to protect seniors from cuts, while they insist on the necessity of reducing benefits for future generations. Advocacy groups, too, all too often settle for protecting today’s seniors, ignoring the plight of tomorrow’s.

Intergenerational justice can change this equation. People identify with their age cohort, but loyalty to their families also runs deep. Acknowledging the serious economic challenges faced by young people and elevating them to the fore of the Social Security debate are the first steps in encouraging millennials not to fall prey to the intergenerational-warfare pundits. Getting Grandma, Mom and Dad, and their 20-, 30-, and 40-something children on the same page about their economic security is a progressive family policy and a winning political strategy.

Although Social Security has been the most successful social-insurance and anti-poverty program in the nation’s history, escalating conservative attacks have undermined confidence in its future, particularly among a generation that has come of age facing major economic challenges. Only an intergenerational-justice alliance between boomers and millennials—based on truth-telling about each generation’s stake and about race and gender—will have sufficient political power to enhance the program and ensure its long-term political and financial viability. That’s a subject for family reunions as we approach the next election.

Beaudry and Arno go on to note that the political constituency for Social Security shouldn’t stop with young people, and propose three other strategies for building an unstoppable coalition. Worth reading!

Full column: The American Prospect

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