The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown

Paul Taylor. Public Affairs & Pew Research Group, 2014. 197 pages + 51 page Appendix, Notes and Index. $26.99.

By John P. McWilliams 

The authorial role to which Paul Taylor lays claim is to write as the “tour guide” through a century of changes while providing “some insights” into probable changes into the next America. His claim is misleadingly modest. Tour guides, unlike Paul Taylor, thrive on pleasing superficiality, on what Walt Whitman long ago defined as “a suck and a sell.” Based upon a wealth of statistics and graphs compiled by the Pew Research Group, The Next America summarizes in terse, clear words the salient facts of where we are now. Every reader will find examples that are surprising and/or persistently troubling: “Our middle class is shrinking. Our median household income has flatlined”; “Our neighborhoods have become more integrated by race but more segregated by income”; “The fastest growing household type in America contains but one person”; “The growing marriage deficit among poorer adults both reflects and reinforces their growing income deficit”; The federal government now spends nearly $7 per capita on programs for seniors for every $1 it spends per capita on programs for children”; Average college tuitions have tripled since 1980; The average 401K balance at age 60 is $120,000, probably not enough to support five years of retirement. And 20% of adults over 65, but 39% of those under 30, presently define themselves as lower class (nearly doubled). In 2014 America has become both “more polarized and more tolerant”—a combination that surely contributes to the nation’s having become “a society tugged apart by centrifugal forces.”  

Yet, Taylor presents himself as anything but a trendy gloomster. He regards himself as a cautious optimist about America’s “coming demographic storm” of growing numbers of entrenched retirees supported by an ever-smaller ratio of workers.  Thankfully, his flow of statistics is relieved by wit that draws the reader onward: “Meet the Millennials: liberal, diverse, tolerant, narcissistic, coddled, respectful, confident and broke.” In the classroom or on the athletic field, Millennials must overcome the strokings of “everyone-gets-a-trophy coaches.” Whatever your viewpoint, you can find a “partisan amen chorus in the news media and twittersphere.” Some common laments? “Some of the jobs Boomers aren’t leaving are the same jobs Millennials aren’t getting.” The Internet, especially Google and sites like Wikipedia, have become the high school student’s “external brain.” Steamy Washington rhetoric over the Federal Budget follows the same “dreary cycle of brinksmanship and kick the can.” Taylor’s humor often takes the long view, as in his tribute to the benefits of the First Amendment’s legacy: “Americans have never launched crusades or inquisitions; we’ve never gone to war over God. And so we haven’t felt the need to suppress religion out of fear of its destructive furies.”

Taylor’s particular concern is the looming intergenerational conflict over the federal entitlement programs that sustain us. To this end, he accepts as useful categories for analysis the current clichés that demark successive generations: the Silent Generation, the Boomers, Generation X-ers, and Millennials. Without Social Security, Taylor notes, half of America’s seniors would be living in poverty: FDR and LBJ have indeed provided an ever-needed safety net. But the sheer number of the Boomers means that, by the year the last Boomer retires (1964 + 65 = 2029), over half of the Federal budget will be spent on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, at a moment when the National Debt is likely to exceed World War II as a percentage of GDP. “Robbing the future to pay for the present” advantages senior voters at the expense of the twenty-somethings; these same twenty-somethings, however, will constitute the nation’s middleclass work force even as they are compelled to pay their grandparents’ overdue entitlement bills. If entitlement benefits are cut, who will take care of the growing numbers of absentee fathers and single mothers for whom Social Security provides their only reliable monthly income? 

These questions have, to be sure, been raised before Paul Taylor, but the discourse about them has often been partisan, either determined by political party or by a one-sided argument that ignores contrary truths. To his great credit, Taylor will engage in neither, but the price paid for his honesty is that his closing search for workable solutions seems too often truncated or inadequate. Taylor has great faith in the salutary effect of immigrants (“newcomers with brains, talent, and drive,” particularly Asian Americans) at a time when immigrants are increasingly resented. He notes repeatedly that the Millennials have a strong sense of loyalty to kin that makes bitter intergenerational conflict unlikely, even if their nuclear family has disintegrated. When the financial crisis reaches its height, however, it is the Generation X-ers who will be in power, and Taylor gives them comparatively short shrift. In the book’s closing paragraphs Taylor calls for presidential leadership that will “make the case that the pain of cuts today will be more than offset by the gain in prosperity tomorrow.” But specifically how this compromise might be economically workable is never calculated, nor is its road to popular support and political approval indicated. When the Medicare and Social Security trust funds are exhausted (2026, 2033 respectively), the nation will face either a 23% cut in entitlement benefits or a comparable rise in payroll or other taxes. “The equities and the politics will work only if everyone is cajoled into taking a hit,” Taylor convincingly argues, but who will take the hit, when and how? Because Taylor’s book shows such comprehensive mastery of statistics, and because he is not a politician who needs to duck, one wishes he had risked the needed specificity.   

In many of his facts, statistics and conclusions, Paul Taylor’s book confirms the findings in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart (2012). Whereas Murray’s book describes how the cultures of the upper and working classes are being transformed at middle class expense, Taylor focuses on the consequences for federal policy. Taylor’s and Murray’s findings on issues of race, marriage, religion, the media, and America’s steadily aging population are, however, remarkably similar. The two books are complementary and should be read together. They define for us the cultural trends that prevail today and the problems that have arisen from them. Someone must find the solutions. 

John P. McWilliams (ΦBK, Princeton University, 1962) is a professor of humanities at Middlebury College and a resident member of the Beta of Vermont Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.