Beyond Age Rage

Is there a war of the generations brewing? If you’ve been following the debate in the media — not to mention some of the age-related nastiness — you might be right to think there’s trouble ahead. Behind the headlines are some very real challenges we can’t ignore.

“There are indeed some natural, and substantive, conflicts between the needs and wants of the boomers and seniors on the one hand, and those of the younger generations, particularly the millennials, on the other,” says David Cravit, author of Beyond Age Rage: How the Boomers and Seniors are Solving the War of the Generations and vice president at ZoomerMedia.

“The conflicts are made more intense by the simple fact of timing,” he writes. “The extended lifespan and the feistier behaviour of the boomers and seniors are taking center stage precisely when the finances of Western countries, to put it mildly, are coming under extreme pressure. There isn’t enough money to pay for all the commitments — to education, to health care, to pensions and retirement. Scarcity promotes a battle for the spoils; it’s that simple.”

The tension and conflict seem to support the idea that there is a real ‘war of the generations’ in our midst — and that the conflict isn’t just media-driven rhetoric.

However, there’s a twist: Cravit strongly challenges the whole ‘war’ idea. “What makes the war metaphor a myth,” he says, “is the simple fact that, even as the struggle is going on, one of the forces is already fighting for the other side.” The boomers and seniors, he demonstrates, are stepping up with solutions and rescuing the millennials.

Before arriving at this conclusion, Cravit describes the apparent ‘battlefield’ and shows how it’s easy to imagine the generations as two opposing armies.

On one side, we have the baby boomers. They’re the largest, most powerful demographic around. They’re also entitled, selfish and demanding… if you agree with the rhetoric. These “job blockers” won’t retire from the workforce to make room for unemployed youth. Don’t you dare touch their pensions or health care — they don’t care what future generations will have to pay so long as they get what they want.

On the opposite side: the millennials. They’ve been coddled and spoiled their whole lives and expect their parents’ lavish lifestyles — without having to work for it. They only care about having fun, and lack the skills and discipline to succeed in today’s world. They refuse to grow up and are delaying marriage and parenthood — and even living at home. They’re seen as a bunch of whiners who can’t deal with adversity.

Yes, “them’s fighting words.”  With attitudes like these ones floating around, there’s some serious potential for “age rage”.  Anytime there’s a competition for scarce resources — like jobs and government funding — the rhetoric is bound to get a little ugly, says Cravit.

What’s causing “age rage”?
There’s always been some tension among generations. After all, people have been lamenting the short comings of “today’s young people” since before Socrates — or questioning the wisdom of their set-in-their-ways elders. So what’s different now?

There’s never been a generation quite like the baby boomers, explains Cravit. Their sheer size alone makes them a force to be reckoned with, if not their collective ability to fight for what they want. They’ve been reinventing themselves and society in their wake — and will continue to do at every stage of their lives.

While the economic roller coaster we’ve been on hasn’t been pretty, the first rumblings of “age rage” started even before 2008. What else is going on? Cravit points to a few factors:

Increased longevity. We’ve all seen the statistics on how people are living longer — and that’s going to further tip the population balance in favour of people over age 45. Looking ahead, there’s going to be steep rise in demand for age-related services like health care and pensions.

Of course, boomers won’t just be fighting on their own behalf. Their parents are living longer too, and boomers have a front row seats to all the challenges associated with aging — from caregiving to independent living.

The money squeeze. Boomers and seniors are fighting to protect their pensions and health care — at a time when both systems are at risk. Millennials want help with crushing education costs, and are nervously eyeing the burden that will fall to them for the unsustainable benefits boomers are demanding.
Even at the best of times there’s only so much money go around — and government cutbacks mean there’s even less funding than before.

The end of retirement. Even before the recession, many baby boomers and seniors were keeping their jobs longer because they couldn’t afford to retire — and then had their nest eggs cracked. That glut of boomer retirements that was supposed to open up the workforce to younger workers never happened. Worse yet, many retirees have even returned to workforce out of financial necessity — often occupying part time or junior level jobs that were once the jurisdiction of young workers.

However, don’t think boomers and seniors are keeping all this income for themselves. More years of work means more years of paying taxes and generating revenue — which will help offset the costs their generation will incur.

The mismatch at the ballot box. Whose demands do you think governments will strive to meet? Not only do boomers and seniors have the advantage when it comes to numbers, a higher proportion of them turn out to vote (as much as 60 per cent) than Generation X or the millennials. Smart politicians can’t afford to overlook the priorities of this crucial demographic group, and the “youth vote” just doesn’t hold much sway anymore.

The entitlement generation. Maybe it’s their smaller number or their lack of experience, but Cravit predicts the Millennials may not have what it takes to fight for what they want. Standing up to the boomers will take considerable strength and coordination — which millennials do not have — and it’s easier to be angry and point fingers. 

Now here comes the ‘twist’
So far, it looks and sounds like a real ‘war of the generations’, doesn’t it? But there’s one crucial factor Cravit says we can’t overlook: boomers are fighting for both sides. How often do you see that in a war?

“Even while boomers and seniors are not letting up on the aggressive pursuit of their own interests (jobs, pensions, health care), they are at the same time extending significant help to the struggling Millennials,” he argues.

How, exactly? Consider the following examples:  

– 6 out of 10 Canadian boomers and seniors are providing significant financial help to adult children or grandchildren.  They’re paying their children’s bills, offering loans, cosigning for loans and giving cash.

– The number of adult children living at home is the highest it’s been in over 50 years. When the boomers were 25-29, only 12 per cent of them lived at home. Today, that number is 30 per cent — and many of them aren’t paying rent. The “boomerang” generation is a major factor behind the trend of multigenerational homes — and don’t think developers haven’t noticed.

However, boomers aren’t sharing their cast-offs or surplus. In many cases, boomers are putting their own financial well being second to helping out their children and their parents. They’re working longer to compensate for giving away cash rather than saving it, and delaying plans to downside their homes until their offspring can finally move out. 

There are other ways that boomers and seniors are boosting the millennials… but we won’t give everything away here. By the time he’s finished, Cravit has described a situation with much more creativity and cooperation than the ‘war’ myth suggests.

Not only that, there may be a positive side to the “rage” itself — it serves as a catalyst and accelerates our understanding of the enormous scope of implications of this ‘revolution in aging.’

Cravit describes age rage as “a way of holding our feet to the fire, forcing us to more urgently address the necessary (and big) questions — how the older generations can better prepare the younger; what generations owe to each other (and new ways, perhaps, that they can help each other); how society can and should allocate increasingly spare resources; how public policy should be adjusted to respond sooner to inexorable demographic and attitudinal trends, so as to avoid sudden shocks or squeeze plays where there isn’t enough time or money to alleviate serious problems.”

So what’s the bottom line here? Boomers will continue to do what they’ve always done: reinvent themselves and society (in this case, aging and parenting). We can point fingers and assign blame, but the solutions are already coming — and the boomers will once again be the avant garde.


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