Generation War

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(HOST) Last Friday morning, we heard a commentary from Willem Lange on the Social Security debate. Today, commentator Cheryl Hanna offers another perspective. She is concerned that one aspect of the debate may seriously weaken the fabric of our community.

(HANNA) I was disappointed when Governor Jim Douglas came out in support of the President’s plan to privatize Social Security because he thinks that the idea is popular among young people in Vermont.

I don’t know where the Governor came up with that. I have yet to see any state-wide polling data to suggest young Vermonters want private accounts. In fact, national data suggests the opposite. Most people under 40 are reluctant to privatize Social Security if it means a reduction in benefits or an increase to the mounting national debt.

Look, the Governor is entitled to his opinion, but I wish he wouldn’t fan the flames in what could become a generational war over this issue. One of the most disturbing aspects of the debate over private accounts has been the tendency to pit young against old – to send the message that younger workers need to be selfish, to look out for our own best interests, to trust no one, except maybe our stockbroker.

Despite what they say about Generation Xers, we can do math. We understand there are fewer workers paying in as the baby boomers reach retirement age. But that fact doesn’t mean our interests necessarily conflict with those of older generations or that we’re cynical slackers who care only about ourselves.

Those aged 22 – 39 are the most educated age group in American history. We’re culturally diverse and will likely be financially better off than our parents were, despite earlier fears to the contrary. We also seem to be happier, finding a better balance between work and family life. Indeed, this generation is committed to family, be it our biological kin or our adopted urban tribes. It’s unfair to suggest this generation is “all about me”, or even that “all about me” means privatization.

The debate over Social Security provides a unique opportunity for our leaders to engage us in a multi-generational dialogue about the future of Social Security. Leaders can help remind us that each generation is dependent upon the other, and that the financial health of the elderly directly impacts the young. We are all in this together.

As a director from Rock the Vote recently said to a crowd of young people, “After you work so hard getting off your parents’ couch, do you really want them moving back in with you?”

The idea to privatize social security may be popular at the White House, on Wall Street and among those who can afford the risks of the stock market. But we shouldn’t be setting up the debate as a simplistic one between young and old. It’s not accurate, and it’s not healthy for our community.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

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