More than 50 years ago, on January 6, 1967, Time magazine awarded their “Man of the Year” not to an individual but to a generation. The cover celebrated “The Inheritors” – Americans under 25. According to Time, “The Inheritors” were “cushioned by unprecedented affluence and the welfare state” and had “a sense of economic security unmatched in history.”
Time offered this generation lavish praise. The piece declared: “In the closing third of the 20th century, that generation looms larger than all the exponential promises of science or technology: it will soon be the majority in charge. In the U.S., citizens of 25 and under in 1966 nearly outnumbered their elders; by 1970, there will be 100 million Americans in that age bracket … If the statistics imply change, the credentials of the younger generation guarantee it. Never have the young been so assertive or so articulate, so well educated or so worldly. Predictably, they are a highly independent breed, and – to adult eyes – their independence has made them highly unpredictable. This is not just a new generation, but a new kind of generation.”
Still, Time acknowledged this “new kind of generation” had the potential to spark inter-generational conflict.
Harvard’s David Riesman told Time, “The generational gap is wider than I’ve ever seen it in my lifetime.”
Meanwhile, Britain’s Leslie Paul, who coined the term “angry young man” in 1951, offered a prescient warning: “The relations of the generations may become the central social issue of the next 50 years.”
Paul was correct. Today, the defining issue of our time may be the generational theft the baby boomers are committing against today’s millennials. “The Inheritors” have become “The Perpetrators” – a generation that is preserving its wealth by stealing opportunity from today’s youth.
The problem of generational theft doesn’t grab day-to-day headlines like war and scandal but the issue will increasingly consume and dominate our political life and discussion. It’s an inescapable moral and mathematical crisis.
In 1967, 60 percent of federal receipts remained after mandatory and interest spending. Today, only 20 percent remain. In a decade, that number will approach zero. (In 2009, the number actually dipped below zero due to the Great Recession).
In other words, the boomers have locked up nearly all of the government’s resources, leaving the next generation with nothing.
As I argued in The Debt Bomb, we’ll never really get to zero. Former head of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke said back in 2011, “By definition, the unsustainable trajectories of deficit and debt the [Congressional Budget Office] outlines cannot actually happen, because creditors would never be willing to lend to a government whose debt, relative to national income, is rising without limit.” Bernanke added, quoting a famous line from economist Herbert Stein: “If something can’t go on forever, it will stop.”
In Smashing the DC Monopoly, I suggest, “The question remains whether Americans will stop their rising national debt on their own or foreign creditors will stop it with Greece-style reforms. Americans show great alarm over short-term government shutdowns during congressional budget tiffs; they should worry more about foreign creditors imposing longer-term, targeted shutdowns of entire federal programs.”
The American people are continually promised change that never seems to arrive. While President Trump is described as an unorthodox outsider, in many respects he’s governing as a conventional baby boomer politician. Trump approaches the reality of generational theft with classic boomer denial. Next to Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan (who has tackled generational theft head on) and former Democratic nominee for Vice President Joe Lieberman have far more impressive anti-establishment credentials. Lieberman said in 2011, “We can’t save Medicare as we know it. We can only save Medicare if we change it.”
President Reagan understood the responsibility between generations. In 1961 he said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
I retired from the Senate early because I believe that the changes we need to make to fix our country will not come from Washington DC. The brunt of the mess that Washington has created will fall onto the millennials. That’s why I founded an organization to help young Americans understand and take active ownership in discussions on the national debt, unfunded liabilities, and federal program management – discussions that they must engage in to shape a better future.
Bobby Kennedy, quoting George Bernard Shaw, offered a challenge to “The Inheritors” in 1968 that applies to millennials in 2018:
“There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
Why not end generational theft?
I was born in 1948 and watched my generation steal opportunity from the next generation. But some of us want to help you steal it back. That’s a dream that’s still worth pursuing – and passing on – so future generations can inherit the blessings of liberty. This week we launched a new project – Pursuit – to do just that.