CRESCENT LAKE, Ore.—My father taught me how to throw a baseball and divide big numbers in my head and build a life where I’d be home in time to eat dinner with my kid most nights. He and my mother put me through college and urged me to follow my dreams. He never complained when I entered a field even less respected than his. He lives across the country and still calls just to check in and say he loves me.
His name is Tom. He is 63, tall and lean, a contracts lawyer in a small Oregon town. A few wisps of hair still reach across his scalp. The moustache I have never seen him without has faded from deep brown to silver. The puns he tormented my younger brother and me with throughout our childhood have evolved, improbably, into the funniest jokes my 6-year-old son has ever heard. I love my dad fiercely, even though he’s beaten me in every argument we’ve ever had except two, and even though he is, statistically and generationally speaking, a parasite.
This is the charge I’ve leveled against him on a summer day in our Pacific Northwest vision of paradise. I have asked my favorite attorney to represent a very troublesome client, the entire baby-boom generation, in what should be a slam-dunk trial—for me. On behalf of future generations, I am accusing him and all the other parasites his age of breaking the sacred bargain that every American generation will pass a better country on to its children than the one it inherited.
(PICTURES: Generational Warfare with the Tankersleys)
We are sitting on a beach in late afternoon on a sun-drizzled lake in the Cascade Mountains, two college-educated, upper-middle-class white men settling in for a week of generational warfare. My son, Max, splashes in the waves with his grandmother; sunbathers lounge in inner tubes around us; snow-capped peaks loom above the tree line. The breeze smells of Coppertone and wet dog. My father thinks back on the country that awaited him when he finished law school. “There seemed to be a lot of potential,” he says, setting up the first of many evasions, “but there weren’t a lot of jobs.”
I’m mildly impressed that he’s even bothering to mount a defense. The facts as I see them are clear and damning: Baby boomers took the economic equivalent of a king salmon from their parents and, before they passed it on, gobbled up everything but the bones.
Ultimately, members of my father’s generation—generally defined as those born between 1946 and 1964—are reaping more than they sowed. They graduated smack into one of the strongest economic expansions in American history. They needed less education to snag a decent-salaried job than their children do, and a college education cost them a small fraction of what it did for their children or will for their grandkids. One income was sufficient to get a family ahead economically. Marginal federal income-tax rates have fallen steadily, with rare exception, since boomers entered the labor force; government retirement benefits have proliferated. At nearly every point in their lives, these Americans chose to slough the costs of those tax cuts and spending hikes onto future generations.
The Dow Jones industrial average rose twelvefold from the time the first boomers began working until last year, when they began to cash out their retirement. (The growth trend over the 12 years since I entered the workforce suggests that the Dow will double exactly once before I retire.) They will leave the workforce far wealthier than their parents did, with even more government promises awaiting them. Boomers will be the first generation of retirees to fully enjoy the Medicare prescription-drug benefit; because Social Security payouts rise faster than price inflation, they will draw more-generous retirement benefits than their parents did, in real terms—at their children’s expense. The Urban Institute estimated last year that a couple retiring in 2011, having both earned average wages, will accrue about $200,000 more in Medicare and Social Security benefits over their lifetimes than they paid in taxes to support those programs.
(FULL COVERAGE: Restoration Calls)
Those retirees and near-retirees bequeath a shambles to their offspring. Young people are unemployed at historically high levels. Global competition is stronger than ever, but American institutions have not adapted to prepare new workers for its challenges. Boomers have run up incomes for the very wealthiest Americans, shrunk the middle class, and, via careless borrowing and reckless financial engineering, driven the economy into the worst recession in 80 years. The Pew Research Center reports that middle-class families today are 5 percent less wealthy than their parents were at the same point in their lives, after adjusting for inflation, even though families today are far more likely to include two wage earners. Another Pew report shows that those ages 55 to 64 are 10 percent wealthier today, even after the Great Recession, than Americans of that age bracket were in 1984. Those younger than 35 are 68 percent less wealthy than the same bracket was in 1984.