David Frum on How We Need to Learn to Say No to the Elderly

Photo Illustration by Darren Braun for Newsweek

On a sunny October afternoon nearly two years ago, a disoriented 86-year-old Margaret Lazor maneuvered her Buick Century station wagon through suburban Philadelphia, pulled onto the exit ramp of I-95, and drove in the wrong direction nearly a dozen miles in the passing lane, waving off a driver who tried to catch her attention. Cars swerved out of her way. Four drivers crashed, fortunately none of them fatally.

We live in the YouTube era, and so—inevitably—the incident was captured on video, providing a rare real-time glimpse of behavior that recurs again and again but that usually we read about only after the fact.

Three months after Lazor’s wild ride, on Jan. 18, 2011, a 91-year-old man drove seven miles the wrong way on I-95 in Maine. Three days later, an 87-year-old woman, also a Maine resident, repeated the mistake. Again by good luck, nobody was seriously hurt, although at least one oncoming car was damaged when it pulled off the highway to avoid collision.

We’d better be prepared for more such stories, involving relatives, friends, and—over the course of time—ourselves. The number of Americans over 65 is projected to double between 2010 and 2050, to almost 90 million. The population of the oldest, over age 85, will grow even faster: from 5.8 million in 2010 to 19 million by 2050.

As we age, our driving skills inevitably deteriorate. The likelihood of a car crash begins to rise after age 60 and to rise rapidly after age 70. Drivers over 80 are as likely to crash as new drivers in their teens; drivers over 85 are twice as likely to crash as new teenage drivers.

Fortunately, many older drivers are responsible enough to self-restrict. They drive less and refrain from driving at night or on high-speed roads. These behaviors show up in the statistics. Along with the post-2005 surge in gasoline prices, they may account for a reassuring decline in the fatalities inflicted by older drivers over the past few years. But unfortunately not all older drivers are responsible. Those who wish to test their luck—and everyone else’s—encounter few restrictions. Whereas teenage drivers are subjected to a testing process and gain driving rights usually in three gradual stages, older drivers in most states are subject only to more frequent eye testing.

States hesitate to test in part for cost reasons: testing drivers in person is expensive. But as important as costs is political fear. Unlike the young, the elderly pay attention to politics. (One study has found that baby boomers are 38 percent more likely than post-boomers to answer correctly basic questions about current events.) Older Americans vote, and they unabashedly vote their interests as a demographic group. It’s almost always easier and safer to shift the costs of an aging society onto other groups: to force the other drivers on I-95 to veer out of the way.

And no, it’s not just about driving. Whether we can ever learn to say no to the elderly is the great political question hanging over all modern societies, in Europe as much as in the U.S., as we face a 21st century of diminished economic opportunity and staggering government debt.

Pay It Forward Economics

In 2011 Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan proposed a plan to balance the U.S. federal budget over the next two decades. House Republicans adopted a version of the plan as their budget, and it has since been (nervously) endorsed by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

The essence of the plan? A gigantic off-loading of budget pain from old to young. Medicare and Social Security will be protected exactly as they are for Americans now over age 55. Younger Americans, on the other hand, will find Medicare progressively less generous, with the heaviest burden of adjustment falling on the youngest of all.

In the past, such pay-it-forward economics could be justified on the premise that—thanks to economic growth—the next generation would be richer than its predecessors. But that assumption has been breaking down as the benefits of economic growth have been claimed by fewer and fewer Americans. Virtually all of the productivity gains since 1979 have flowed to the top 1 percent of income earners. As a result, today’s 20-somethings face a future in which most of them may well fail to attain the living standards of their parents.

Falling Behind

Thirty-two percent of 18- to 29-yearolds are now either unemployed or working part-time while searching for a full-time job. In his powerful book Pinched (the best yet on the economic effects of the Great Recession), journalist Don Peck cites research by Yale’s Lisa Kahn on the lifelong effects of early-career unemployment: “Seventeen years after graduation, those who had entered the workforce during inhospitable times were still earning 10 percent less on average than those who had emerged into a more bountiful climate. When you add up all the earnings losses over the years, Kahn says, it’s as if the lucky graduates had been given a gift of about $100,000, adjusted for inflation, immediately upon graduation—or, alternatively, as if the unlucky ones had been saddled with a debt of the same size.”

Kahn’s numbers may actually underestimate the difficulties ahead for the next generation. Her calculations are based on studies of past recessions, but the recession that began in December 2007, and from which we still haven’t fully emerged, is worse than anything seen since the Great Depression. Even before the recession, the millennial generation faced a harsh outlook. Their educational levels have barely improved over their parents’ generation: among today’s 25- to 34-year-olds, 39 percent have a four-year degree, up negligibly from the prior generation’s 37 percent. Three decades ago, the U.S. was the most highly educated country on earth; today, the U.S. ranks 11th in college completion.

The noncollege majority fare much worse than their college-educated peers. Adjusting for inflation, an American male with only a high-school diploma earns less than his counterpart of 35 years ago. A family headed today by people between the ages of 35 and 44 will be on average nearly 70 percent -poorer than its counterpart in 1984. This is the generation that we are also expecting to shoulder the burden of the baby boomers’ retirement?

The Late Start

And that’s far from the only burden the old place upon the young. In the terrible economic crisis that has engulfed almost the whole developed world since 2007, we have loaded the largest part of the pain and suffering upon the young. They face the highest risks of unemployment in the U.S., but even more so in Europe, where youth unemployment exceeds 20 percent continentwide, and reaches near 50 percent in Spain.

Unemployed young people lose for years—sometimes forever—their chance to start families of their own and begin to live their lives. Across the continent, young people (and especially men) continue to live with their parents deep into their 20s. As of 2007, French men on average did not leave home until age 24, German men not until 25, Italian men not until 29, Spaniards not until past 30. If you want to know why Europeans postpone children so long, lowering birth rates across the continent, here’s your answer: weak job prospects plus high rents.

This grim pattern is now asserting itself in post-crisis America. Twenty percent of young Americans say they have postponed marriage because of the bad economy, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Twenty-two percent say they have put off having a child. Americans gave birth to 185,000 fewer babies in 2009 than in 2007, with trends pointing toward a continuing decline.

A Generational Clash

The economics blogger Steve Randy Waldman memorably and bitterly articulated the meaning of these grim facts. The long slump has revealed the preferences of the aging polities of the Western world. “Their overwhelming priority is to protect the purchasing power of incumbent creditors. That’s it. That’s everything. All other considerations are secondary”—-including economic recovery.

We could jump-start the economy with a massive jolt of monetary and fiscal stimulus, but such a policy would risk inflation and pose a threat to retirement savings. So we don’t do it. We could borrow money to finance infrastructure programs that would set people to work now and enrich society over the long haul—but that borrowing would have to be serviced by taxes to which older Americans fiercely object. So we don’t do that either.

Surveys used to find baby boomers somewhat less anti-government than their elders born in the 1920s and 1930s. Since 2007, however, the attitudes of 60-somethings and 80-somethings have converged, with almost two thirds of both groups opposing active government.

As political scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson found in their study The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, the general anti-government attitude of today’s retirees is heavily seasoned with mistrust and dislike of today’s youth. “[Y]oung people feature prominently in stories Tea Partiers tell about undeserving freeloaders.” They don’t exempt their own children—in fact, it is often their own children and grandchildren toward whom they direct their angriest scorn. As one elderly activist quoted by Skocpol and Williamson puts his generational irritation: “My grandson, he’s fourteen, and he asked me: ‘Why should I work, why can’t I just get free money?’” (A comedian’s riposte: “The Tea Party is God’s judgment on us for teaching our parents how to use the Internet.”)

Growing Disdain

The old have always grumbled about the young. No doubt Cro-Magnons complained that their kids didn’t appreciate their effort to put a nice, dry cave above their heads. Yet we seem today to hear a new bitterness in the attitudes of the old, a special glee in reproaching and denouncing the young. In 2012 job seekers outnumber jobs offered by a margin of 3–1, down from a post-Depression record of 5.5–1 in early 2009, with the ratio worst among the youngest workers. As young job applicants collect rejection slips, the leading conservative policy intellectual, Charles Murray, has publicly urged his fellow older Americans to regard unemployed young men as “lazy, irresponsible, and unmanly” and to publicly revile them as “bums.”

The disdain of the old for the young appears to be contagious. In early June, a commencement speaker at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts delivered a tough message to the class of 2012: “You are not special,” David -McCullough Jr. told them. In fairness to McCullough, a teacher at the school, the bulk of the speech wasn’t as harsh as the most frequently quoted line.

But it was that line that earned a video of the speech nearly 1.5 million YouTube views, its author media appearances, and his harsh opinion an endorsement from America’s most vocal hater-of-the-young, Rush Limbaugh, who chortled delightedly in his June 11 broadcast: “This is not ever heard. You are not supposed to insult the children … You’re not supposed to harm them. And this guy has just gone out and told these little high-school kids, ‘Hey, you’re nothing, you’re nobody. You’re not special.’”

The Future At Stake

It’s altogether appropriate to care for the needs and interests of the elderly. As their numbers grow—as they remain active longer—American society will have to develop new ways to ensure their quality of life. We’ve built a suburban landscape in which losing the right to drive will too often mean the loss of all personal independence, and so it’s unsurprising that many elderly cling to that right long past the point at which they can safely exercise it.

But despite what Limbaugh and his legions of cantankerous listeners may believe, the old truism really is true: the young are the country’s future. If it’s uncaring for society to neglect the old, it’s outright suicidal to cannibalize the life chances of the rising generation. Yet that is precisely what has been happening, before our collective eyes and with our collective assent.

In politics, as in economics, as on the highway, it is the old who are too often driving any way they like—and the young who are scrambling to get out of the way.

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