From the May 2016 issue of The Rotarian
Demographic change is a drama in slow motion. It unfolds incrementally, tick by tock, but it transforms societies in fundamental ways – and the America of the early 21st century is undergoing two such dramas at the same time.
Our population is en route to becoming majority nonwhite at the same time a record share of us (like me) is going gray. Either trend by itself would be the dominant demographic story of its era. The fact that they’re unfolding simultaneously has created giant generation gaps. The United States is at a moment in its history when young and old don’t look alike, think alike, vote alike, or use technology alike.
These gaps have the potential to put stress on everything from workplaces to pocketbooks to politics to our nation’s sense of social cohesion.
And they’ve been especially difficult on traditional service organizations like Rotary, which struggle to recruit a generation of young adults for whom civic engagement and social networking happen more easily on a smartphone than at a weekly meeting.
The news isn’t all bad, however. Despite their differences, young and old in America aren’t spoiling for a generation war. In their families, the lives of grandparents, parents, and children are more closely braided together than at any time in memory – thanks in part to the digital revolution that has created a 24/7 platform for family connectivity, and in part to a global economy that has been shutting down ladders into the middle class and left millions of young adults still living with their parents well into their 20s and 30s.
Later in this article I’ll offer a few thoughts (spoiler alert, but no silver bullets) about how Rotary might position itself in this changing America. First, some observations about what these demographic transformations mean for the country as a whole.
Let’s start with the young. The so-called millennials – those born between 1982 and 2000 – are America’s biggest generation ever (more than 80 million); they’re the transitional generation to our “majority minority” future (44 percent are nonwhite); they are liberal, especially on social and cultural matters (if not for their votes Mitt Romney would be gearing up for re-election); and they’re the first generation in modern history to have less wealth and income than their parents’ generation had at the same stage of the life cycle.
They are also unmoored from what geezers like me think of as anchor institutions of society – not just service organizations, but also political parties (50 percent describe themselves as independents, the highest share recorded for any generation); religion (35 percent say they have no religious affiliation – again, a record); and marriage (just a quarter of millennials are married; back when they were the same age, more than half of older adults had tied the knot)
Many of these patterns are interrelated. For example, the biggest reason millennials have been slow to marry, according to Pew Research Center surveys, is that so many feel they don’t have the economic foundation to be a good provider. Accordingly, the decline in marriage has been greatest at the lower end of the income curve. This exacerbates economic inequality, because marriage, with its economies of scale, division of labor, and incentives to save for the future, fosters prosperity.
Millennials’ absence from groups like Rotary is related to being the world’s first generation of digital natives – or, as one wag calls them, the first modern “pre-Copernicans.” Who needs to network offline if you can create your own personalized social universe online, place yourself at its epicenter, and have your friends orbit digitally around your endless trove of selfies?
Many older adults find the selfie culture of millennials to be off-putting and narcissistic. But for millennials, it’s empowering and, contributes to their abundant qualities of wonder, possibility, and self-confidence.
It also may explain why, despite their difficult economic circumstances, today’s young adults aren’t alienated and aggrieved. They are optimistic and aspirational. They respect their elders and want to play by society’s rules. Even though a record share have been raised in single-parent households and tens of millions have spent significant chunks of their childhoods in poverty, the cascade of negative outcomes one might forecast from such upbringings hasn’t materialized.
To the contrary, in the past two decades the youth violent-crime rate in the U.S. has declined by more than a third, the high school dropout rate is down by 40 percent, and the teenage pregnancy rate has dropped by 50 percent. Smoking and drinking among teenagers are also down. Clearly, somebody’s doing something right.
What about the old? From a public policy perspective, the most compelling fact about older adults is their sheer number. Today, 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65. Tomorrow, another 10,000. And so on, every single day until 2030.
By the time everyone in this giant pig-in-a-python generation migrates from the workforce into retirement, the great social safety net programs that were created in the 20th century for older adults – Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid – will take up about half the federal budget but won’t be able to pay all promised benefits. The math won’t work anymore. Absent policy changes, we’ll have too few taxpayers supporting too many retirees.
When Medicare was created in 1965, just 9 percent of the U.S. population was over age 65. By 2040 that figure will rise to 21 percent. These aging trends are happening all over the world, and there’s a lot to like about them. They’re the fruits of longer lifespans and lower birth rates that enhance human flourishing and promote the earth’s sustainability.
But population aging also poses challenges. The quality of life of older adults will always depend to some degree on the energy of the young. In this regard, the U.S. actually enjoys the wealthy world’s most enviable demographics. We’re getting older, but most of Europe and Asia is getting older faster. By midcentury the median age will be 53 in Japan, 51 in Germany, 46 in China, and just 41 in the U.S., up from 37 now.
Immigration keeps our population relatively young. Some 59 million have come to the U.S. since we reopened our borders in 1965. They typically arrive as young adults and, because they are strivers who believe in the future, tend to have a lot of kids. Unlike the 19th- and early 20th-century immigration waves that were almost entirely white Europeans, this modern wave, mainly from Latin America and Asia, is almost entirely nonwhite. So in addition to replenishing our economy, today’s immigrants are creating the mosaic that will turn our population majority nonwhite (and increasingly mixed race, due to rising rates of intermarriage) by 2044, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections.
This racial makeover has added a layer of political complexity to our generation gaps. Older adults today are disproportionately white and conservative; younger adults are disproportionately nonwhite and liberal.
They are the cohorts that will have to coax our gridlocked political leaders to modernize our social safety net so that it’s better aligned with our changing demographics. Today the federal government spends $6 per capita on programs for older adults for every $1 it spends on children, the most lopsided elderly skew in the budgets of any of the world’s leading economies. At the same time, we’re leaving future generations with an inheritance of $18 trillion in debt, an unsustainable social safety net, and declining investments in infrastructure, education, and basic scientific research.
Moreover, there’s less intergenerational economic mobility in the United States than in Canada or Western Europe. Small wonder that a record three-quarters of Americans tell pollsters they aren’t confident their children’s generation will fare better than their own, which amounts to a landslide vote of no confidence in the American dream.
Every society, every community, and every family is a covenant between the generations – I care for you when you are young, you care for me when I’m old. In the 21st century, families have been much more nimble than elected officials at adjusting this age-old compact to the new economic and demographic realities.
Within families these days, more intergenerational help flows downstream than upstream. That’s because the median wealth of a U.S. household headed by someone 65 or older is 20 times that of a household headed by someone under 35 ($210,500 versus $10,460). Back in 1983, the gap was about 8-to-1. Economic well-being has migrated north on the family tree.
The only trouble with these intrafamily exchanges is that not everyone is lucky enough to have parents or grandparents who can be their safety net. So these transfers wind up reinforcing rather than ameliorating our nation’s growing income and wealth gaps. A more accurate rendition of the American dream today might go as follows: Choose your parents wisely. The richer they are, the richer you are likely to be.
That’s not a story we like telling ourselves, much less anyone else. Eventually the unsparing arithmetic of demographic change will force our elected leaders to modernize the social safety net. The solution will probably require a mix of tax increases and benefit cuts, so politicians will put it off as long as they can. Unfortunately, every day of delay, the hole gets deeper and the burden of any solution will have to fall more heavily on future generations.
For now, that leaves families and communities to pick up the slack, and this is where Rotary can play a role. Clubs should seize on population aging as an opportunity. The baby boomers are about to become our biggest generation ever of the “young old.” They may be retiring, but most have a lot of gas left in the tank. And they’ve arrived at a stage of life when the urge kicks in to leave something for posterity. “I am what survives of me,” said psychologist Erik Erikson.
Many boomers will answer that call by taking care of their kids and grandkids. But a growing number are doing something for other people’s kids. The Corporation for National and Community Service reports that 24.2 percent of adults over age 65 did some type of volunteer work in 2013, up from 22.7 percent in 2002. That adds up to 10.6 million older volunteers, a figure projected to rise above 13 million by 2020.
Corporations, foundations, and nonprofits are getting into the act. Last summer, entertainment mogul Michael Eisner announced that his foundation will devote all of its grant-making to programs that bring together young and old to solve problems, and Encore, a nationwide nonprofit based in San Francisco, suggested creating a Legacy Corps to mobilize older adults to dedicate a year of service to improve the prospects of the next generation.
These initiatives can serve as examples for Rotary. Throughout the organization’s history, Rotarians have embraced the proverb that societies become great when the old plant trees under whose shade they will never sit. If clubs redouble a commitment to programs that harness the energies of the old to serve the needs of the young, you may recruit future generations of Rotarians. And you will for sure help make your country stronger. Today’s kids are tomorrow’s America.
Paul Taylor is the author of The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown. He is the former executive vice president of the Pew Research Center and a former Washington Post politics reporter and foreign correspondent.