Not since the "lost generation" of the First World War has the errors and miscalculations of their elders so disastrously affected the younger generation. Yet, today's youth seem curiously unaware of the bad hand dealt them.
Witness the aimlessness of the Occupy Wall Street protest, whose cause and goal should have been clear. What enabled the young OWS protesters to camp out for months was their unemployed status. Indeed, the unemployment rate for all 16- to 24-year-olds is a stratospheric 17 percent. So jobs should have been their unambiguous and elemental cause. Instead, OWS squandered its energy on class warfare, the 1 percent versus the 99.
Moving on to the entitlement crisis, the generational standoff becomes much clearer, except, apparently, to younger Americans.
While there is bipartisan agreement that the retirement benefits of the baby boomer generation will cause the sure collapse of the generation working over the next half century, young people are lining up on the wrong side of this issue in the few places where it has been joined, e.g. Wisconsin and Ohio. The young have joined the cause of public sector unions, which are zealously guarding retirement benefits for older workers that are far more generous than those of younger public sector workers. Those public worker benefits are certainly far better than those of practically all workers in the private sector, whose taxes fund the public sector benefits. It is a private sector where most young people will still have to find jobs, few of which offer any retirement benefits anymore. So this issue is one of both inter-generational fairness and public sector-private sector equity.
In contrast, Social Security is a universal program largely benefitting all workers equally, nationwide, public and private, young and old. And, while it may have imbalances, they are of dramatically lesser scale and are easily manageable.
And, now, consider health care, where young people can be forgiven for not recognizing their self-interest, because the new national health care law is so incredibly and unnecessarily complex. The president himself causes much confusion, referring to the uninsured, many of whom are young, alternately in sympathetic and, then, in disparaging terms. First, they are victims being denied coverage; then, they are "free riders," namely healthy people who are refusing to buy coverage and "pay their fair share" to finance our health care system.
Well, make no mistake; financing of the health care plan is what the president wants of young people. The health care law states very clearly that no one's health insurance premium can be less than one-third of anyone else's. Well, the health risks of a 20-year-old are certainly less than 33 percent of the health risks of a 60-year-old. Today's young people are slated to pay far, far more than their "fair share" at a time when they are struggling to find jobs or beginning work at low entry-level wages.
Nevertheless, the president's health care plan enjoys its strongest support amongst young people.
Of course, the most momentous, most obvious and most discussed issue of inter-generational concern is that of debt and deficits. On this issue, the differential generational impact couldn't be greater: the yawning deficits and the resultant burgeoning debt of today constitute an enormous transfer of wealth from the future of our younger generation to the present enjoyment of the older generation. The younger generation will have to pay the lion's share of the taxes to service our $10.9 trillion of publicly-held Treasury debt (note, some other Treasury debt is held by the federal government itself).
Instead of rallying to the side of overcompensated public sector workers and to the cause of the president's health care plan, the younger generation should be advocating for a smaller government, one of sustainable size.
Winston Churchill observed "If you are not a liberal when you are young, you have no heart; if you are not a conservative when you are old, you have no head."
Young people today cannot afford to think like normal young people - literally, they cannot afford to.
Red Jahncke heads the Townsend Group, a business consulting firm in Greenwich.