Young and old people are struggling to take care of themselves and increasingly each other at a time when blame and resentment flows both ways.
But winner-take-all, generational warfare neglects our shared interests and challenges. We need to work together to forge policies that simultaneously improve the fortunes of all generations.
As ‘Ok, Boomer’ becomes the latest cultural putdown, growing conflict between younger and older people reflects dwindling resources and misunderstanding across the generational spectrum.
The older privileged recipients of this youthful ire look forward to or already enjoy a comfortable retirement. Life has worked out for them, and many of them seem unwilling or unable to understand how fundamentally broken the economic system is for less advantaged younger people who can’t get ahead despite their striving and scraping.
Young people have legitimate frustration with rising housing and education costs, stagnant wages and precarious work that put the American dream out of reach.
Many are reconsidering having children because of costs and climate change. The last thing on their minds is prioritizing proposals to increase Social Security payments or long-term care supports for older folks who have had a wealth of opportunities and subsidies.
But tropes circulating on social media and in larger public debates, of the clueless, judgmental older person ensconced in a fog of privilege and the angry, bitter younger person frittering away their meager earnings on avocado toast, preclude a more nuanced understanding of our intergenerational interdependencies.
Given the threadbare social safety net in the United States, family often becomes the default source of emotional, practical, and financial support for all ages.
These days multiple generations are squeezed trying to meet their basic needs. Partial, one-sided measures only duct tape over fundamental flaws in a sagging care infrastructure that works for few.
Many older adults are digging deeper into their reserves of time, money, and energy to help younger generations gain a foothold. Support from old to young often flows through families, in the form of childcare and intergenerational transfers of wealth from parents to adult children. In 2010 such transfers comprised an estimated $65 billion.
UCLA economist Kathleen McGarry has found substantial parental giving to cushion divorce or job loss and upon children completing college, marrying, and having a child.
The Center for Global Policy Solutions finds that Social Security benefits 6.4 million direct and indirect child recipients. Without it, they estimate child poverty would increase by 20%.
As pressure ratchets up on parents with few public supports, expectations of intensive grandparenting have grown. Surely an expression of love and familial devotion, such unpaid caring labor also exacts a cost in terms of stress, fatigue, and weakened finances when a grandparent reduces work hours or retires early to provide care.
As elder caregivers age, they risk income shortfalls, compromising their ability to age in place or forcing them to deplete their savings to qualify for Medicaid and nursing home care.
As generational tensions flare amid rapid population aging, a care crisis looms.
Young adults will end up providing paid and unpaid assistance to elders while also trying to achieve benchmarks associated with the transition to adulthood, such as completing education, becoming financially independent, and forming a long-term relationship.
Often these young women caregivers come from low-income, racial and ethnic minority backgrounds. Their elder relatives face greater disability and health declines earlier in life, and research in California has shown higher rates of caregiving among Latinos at younger ages.
Expanding funding for Social Security, education, healthcare, child care, student loan forgiveness, paid family medical leave, and wages for paid caregivers helps younger generations develop their potential, start families, and relieves the burden of providing round-the-clock care and financial support to older relatives.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan National Academy of Social Insurance offers a promising model of universal family care.
A recent study report outlines how states can implement a program for everyone regardless of income, funded through small deductions beginning with workers’ first paychecks, which would provide early child care, paid family and medical leave, and benefits that cover assistance for people with disabilities and elders.
A new law in Washington created the country’s first publicly operated long-term care insurance program, funded through a payroll tax. Other states, notably California, Illinois, and Michigan, are considering such programs.
Who benefits from generational conflict, if not young or old?
People who sow generational divisions hold fast to an outdated, inequitable view of American society that assumes a household with a single breadwinner and a full-time stay-at-home caregiver who usually is a woman, or an underpaid person of color care worker.
We can’t turn back the clock, and we shouldn’t. The good old days were never as good as some of us remember them.
Young people must understand that supporting policies to help elders increase their livelihoods. And elders can be more proactive in pushing for programs and policies that invest in young people’s well-being and growth.
No matter our ages, we can’t afford to stand divided when the big problems we face require an all-hands-on-deck approach. We must create a system that allows hard-working people across generations to take care of themselves and their families.
Before you toss off an “OK, Boomer” or a head-shaking, “Kids these days,” first consider our linked lives and destinies.
Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology at UC San Francisco. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.