Didn’t get a chance to slot this in last week, but in light of the Warren/McHenry incident, it seems relevant. Mark Schmitt at The New Republic plots out the numbers behind what the subhead refers to as “The GOP’s brilliant generational weapon in the Medicare fight”:
Today’s 55-year-old was born in 1956. That’s not generally considered a major break in the generations. It’s smack in the middle of the Baby Boom (the peak of the boom, in fact), with almost a decade to go before the first Gen-Xers were born, dreaming of Winona Ryder. But the difference between early and later Boomers, especially in their experience of the economy, is dramatic.
A baby born in 1956 would have graduated from high school in about 1974, from college in 1978 or so. Look at almost any historical chart of the American economy, and you see two sharp breaks in the 1970s. First, in 1974, household incomes, which had been rising since World War II, flattened. Real wages started to stagnate. The poverty rate stopped falling. Health insurance coverage stopped rising. Those trends have continued ever since.
Second, a little later in the decade, around the time today’s 55-year-olds graduated from college (if they did—fewer than 30 percent have a four-year degree), inequality began its sharp rise, and the share of national income going to the bottom 40 percent began to fall. Productivity and wages, which had tended to keep pace, began to diverge, meaning that workers began seeing little of the benefits of their own productivity gains. The number of jobs in manufacturing peaked and began to drop sharply. Defined benefit pensions, which provide a secure base of income in retirement, began to give way to 401(k)s and similar schemes that depend on the worker to save and the stock market to perform. While the benefits of higher education rose, college tuitions started to rise even faster. Those trends, too, have continued.
If there was ever going to be a generational war in this country, that high school class of ’74 would be its Mason-Dixon line. It’s the moment when Bill Clinton’s promise—“if you work hard and play by the rules you’ll get ahead”—began to lose its value. Today’s seniors and near-seniors spent much of their working lives in that postwar world, with their incomes rising, investments gaining, their health increasingly secure, and their retirements predictable. Everyone 55 and younger spent his or her entire working life in an economy where all those trends had stalled or reversed. To borrow former White House economist Jared Bernstein’s phrase, it was the “You’re On Your Own” economy. Finally, those 55-year-olds are spending several of what should be their peak earning years, years when they should be salting away money in their 401(k)s and IRAs, in a period of deep recession and very slow recovery. […]
Heading into the 2012 election… the electorate is likely to shift back to one in which younger and middle-aged voters vote in proportion to their share of the population, so a “Mediscare” campaign won’t work. This time, the GOP hopes to play both sides of the generational war, gambling that while seniors want security, younger voters never expected the certainty of Medicare, just as they don’t expect reliable pensions or Social Security benefits, and thus will embrace a plan that sounds innovative, flexible, and market-based. Contending that the only alternative to premium support is the end of Medicare entirely, they are offering a generation that is accustomed to getting less than their parents a little bit, rather than nothing.[…] __
…If Social Security is any precedent, younger voters will be indifferent, while older voters won’t believe they’re exempt. The Republicans will again walk away from the conflict, hoping to get credit for being “serious” without bearing a political price for the error.
For Democrats, the defeat of the Ryan plan, like the failed Social Security privatization before it, will be regarded as a great victory, and an opportunity to get a fresh start with worried older voters. But they should not ignore the generational divide revealed by Ryan’s cutoff. If progressive politics has nothing to offer the late Boomers and the generations that follow except the same old programs, and nothing that responds to their distinctive experience of the economy, then eventually they’ll fall for one of these gimmicks from the right.
Yes, I am one of those 55-year-olds (born in November 1955, actually). Ever since my entry into the public sphere (Bronx public kindergarten), both those in authority and my slightly older Boomer ‘cohorts’ have been telling me “You should’ve been here just a couple years ago — before it was used up / worn out / overextended.” And, too often, the Gen Xers have dutifully responded to the robber-baron misdirection of their Reagan-administration era by attacking “greedy Boomers” rather than the tiny minority of greedheads at the top of the economic pyramid that were busy looting all our public treasury and private savings. I don’t share Eventheliberal TNR‘s assumption that those of us on either side of the Magic 55 Date will automatically fall for the GOP’s dishonest divide-and-conquer techniques, again, but I do think it’s important we stay aware of how it’s been used against us in the past.