A few things to consider when observing the needs of benefit programs (Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment, etc) for Americans. I believe the current strain on the system may be particularly bad at the moment, which means it will improve for future generations. The added stress is temporary. Here’s why.
Three one-time events have occurred over the last 70 years that have led to American families being more spread out than ever before. And more politically polarized. So instead of Social Security being supplemental income for our parents who move back into the house when they retire, it is now expected to support two households. One in Connecticut or wherever your parents live. And another household must pay its way entirely, hopefully through employment, in a different city. This is just a theory, but here goes:
First – The American Interstate Highway System
The Interstate System has been called the Greatest Public Works Project in History. From the day President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, the Interstate System has been a part of our culture””as construction projects, as transportation in our daily lives, and as an integral part of the American way of life. Every citizen has been touched by it, if not directly as motorists, then indirectly because every item we buy has been on the Interstate System at some point. President Eisenhower considered it one of the most important achievements of his two terms in office, and historians agree.
Second – Indoor Air Conditioning
Air conditioning is largely credited with the migration of Americans from the North to the South. From a book review Salon on AC. Note – some of the article is behind a pay-wall but this OTB review of the salon article on air conditioning has more quotes from the book “Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World”
But as science writer Stan Cox argues in his new book, “Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer),” the dizzying rise of air conditioning comes at a steep personal and societal price. We stay inside longer, exercise less, and get sick more often “” and the electricity used to power all that A.C. is helping push the fast-forward button on global warming. The invention has also changed American politics: Love it or hate it, refrigerated cooling has been a major boon to the Republican Party. The advent of A.C. helped launch the massive Southern and Western population growth that’s transformed our electoral map in the last half century.
It was only in 1947 that “Mass-produced, low-cost window air conditioners become possible.” Figure 10 years for adoption and you’re looking at late 50s and 60s for things to be livable in a city like Houston. And another source on the role of AC in the South. Basically New Yorkers invented air conditioning and then used it to get the heck out of Dodge.
The Interstate Highway system and AC making the South livable created a virtual land rush with youth moving south and families spreading out across the country. And the migration, like the Sooners, was largely a one-time-event. Sure people will continue to move around, but not like they did over the last 50 years. It just makes more sense for humans to stay near our support network. It takes a gold-rush to lure us to new territories. Then we settle down.
Third – The Baby Boomers in Power
They have brought us many great things. Boomers invented the Web, DNA fingerprinting, lithium-ion batteries, the artificial heart and much more. Yet this is also a generation that has been fighting with itself for as long as I have been alive. Even the Wikipedia page on baby boomers is covered with conditional statements because they can’t agree. From Wikipedia:
In general, baby boomers are associated with a rejection or redefinition of traditional values; however, many commentators have disputed the extent of that rejection, noting the widespread continuity of values with older and younger generations. In Europe and North America boomers are widely associated with privilege, as many grew up in a time of affluence. As a group, they were the healthiest, and wealthiest generation to that time, and amongst the first to grow up genuinely expecting the world to improve with time.
So they are known for rejection but the commentators on the Boomer wikipedia article reject that they are known for rejection. Very meta. My point here is at this moment in time the baby boomers are running the country. And they grew up in a time of great social change.
Boomers grew up at a time of dramatic social change. In the United States, that social change marked the generation with a strong cultural cleavage, between the proponents of social change and the more conservative. Some analysts believe this cleavage played out politically since the time of the Vietnam War to the mid-2000s, to some extent defining the political landscape and division in the country. – NABBW
Boomers are in charge and they don’t like each other. Period. They are polarized. Is America becoming more polarized right and left and screaming at each other? Or is it just this one group? I believe the divisions in our country are not as great as portrayed in the media and it is more an inner-generational rift than an inter-generational rift. I just don’t hear the vitriol when two Gen-X-ers are talking. Their beliefs on most issues simply aren’t anywhere near the country-is-being-torn-apart feeling of the 60s and 70s.
The Boomers have made what we have in this country today possible. I appreciate that as I type this on the laptop they invented for me. But they have also buried us in debt and polarized the two party system George Washington, our only Independent President, hated. Like a good coach I am saying I loved seeing the points on the board, but you are fouling out. This is a generation that needs to do better. But they can’t because people don’t think and act as generations. They do so on beliefs and it is unlikely, possible but unlikely, people in their 50+ years will change their ideology. Rather than agree they will take their ball and go home, the future be damned. Thus we literally have to wait them out to save the country.
The Good News is the Future Will Be Better
The ramifications of these three one-time events is that we are spread out across the country without immediate family nearby. And we are screaming at each other because of ideological differences. Yet give it 20 years, yes I realize that is a long time, but when time goes by I predict it will get better. Specifically:
- Stabilization of the American extended family. Humans naturally stay with their tribe. Fewer children will move to far off states which means more family in the same location. We need this support network. When you lose your job, as so many have these last few years, it is much easier to move into the guest room if your extended family is in the same state, or (gasp!) the same part of town.
- Reduced costs to society for entitlement programs – when family is nearby, Social Security and Medicaid aren’t expected to fully support an entire household. They are needed to supplement the income of an elderly parent who is supported by their nearby family as well.
- Reduced political rhetoric and infighting among Americans. As the boomers age out, the Millennial generation will move into power. The Millennials are a diverse group, but they are not divided like the boomers. Diversity does not equal divisiveness and I am quite optimistic about the Millennials long term. Perhaps “entitled” and “soft” like the doughboys currently, but the Millennials will emerge strong leaders as they enter the real world and mature past the overly-protective cocoons they grew up in. I have seen this growth in our employees. They can and will step up. And we as a country will be saved by these kids.
That’s my two cents anyway. It gets better. It’ll just take a while. Hang in there y’all.