You are Going to Die
What’s Eating Grandpa?
This post was inspired by commentor Mike Dwyer who, in responding to my article on national identity, opined that the older workers at his company were getting “angry and less tolerant.”
Most are close to retirement and my director even told someone recently that he wasn’t going to fade away, he was going to ‘go out swinging’. I can’t help but wonder if the same dynamic is what drives much of that stuff you are talking about surrounding Trump. It’s the last gasp of the Baby Boomers before they all head off to the nursing home.
So I will be blaming Mike in all of my subsequent comments. Seriously though – like Dan Quayle I stand by all my misstatements.
Conservatives, Fear and Evolution
One of my mentors, John Hibbing, claimed that the evolutionary story for conservatism is easier to explain than for liberalism. Conservatives see the world as a dangerous place. They prefer “tried and true” solutions. They are the natural heirs to a world where experimenting gets you killed. React to a stranger in fear 10 times and you are safe, even if it’s an unnecessary precaution 9 of those times. Conversely, react with a friendly hand extended and 9 out of 10 times you make a friend. That 10th time results in your shrunken head decorating another clan’s game room.
So, in his view, modern liberalism is an evolutionary luxury brought on by mothballing Malthus through stability, affluence and tamping down disease and violence. When violence threatens large groups (as in terror attacks) there is a general shift right. It’s temporary but it’s measurable. Our survival mode leans conservative.
The Fear Response
Is it possible that this could explain the shift to conservatism observed as people age? Please note, I’m not saying “conservative” here to mean a basket of pet policy ideas (pro-life, small government, 2nd amendment etc). I’m not suggesting that Margaret Atwood is going to hit 80 and suddenly show up at the march for life. I’m speaking of conservatism in the sense of ideological rigidity characterized by slow pace of change and maintenance of the status quo.
When we stop innovating and become “set in our ways” we are protecting a heritage. That heritage could be the 2nd amendment or Roe Vs. Wade – but it is the idea of protection of the status quo that is conservative, not the policy itself. In that sense the cause for or against a particular issue may itself become conservative in a sunk-cost way. Nancy Pelosi as an anchor for “establishment Democrats” could be conservative in this definition. Indeed, the solutions that establishment Democrats propose are often ideologically atrophied – recycling, not innovation – and therefore conservative by my behavioral definition.
In “It’s Even Worse than you Think” (2013), Mann and Ornstein showed that the most liberal Republican is now more conservative than the most conservative Democrat. We are not more vicious than in the past, but we are further apart and more distinct in our views – as parties we are more “set in our ways”. I’d like to propose a crazy reason for why positions on either side are hardening. It’s inspired by Mike’s “last gasp” comment. It’s the fear of pending death. You decide for yourself if there is a payoff, but if you are intrigued read on dear reader!
The Great Equalizer
Our population is aging. A host of boomers is already wearing high-waisted pants, eating the early bird special and using phones with giant buttons. Meanwhile, studies show that one out of one people will die. Human life has a number of pedal tones – underlying bass notes that pull on us as background noise. Death is the loudest. Like a rumbling low tonic at the end of a fugue, death drones louder as we near the finish line. Modern man is a master at playing over the note, but no matter how full our arrangement, death will be answered. It is a note that demands to be resolved. It eclipses all other motifs.
The Psalmist said that man’s days are like a flower in the field that withers:
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
(Psalm 103 verse 16)
Is it possible that the idea of death tickling at the back of our mind is pushing us to be more ideologically rigid as our population ages? Is fear driving our new partisan gulf? As a thought experiment let’s be brave and think about death for just a moment. Let me set the mood.
I visited my Great Grandma when I was seven. It was the only time I remember seeing her alive. She lived alone until age 93 and then moved into a nursing home where we visited. I remember an antiseptic smell. It seemed so alien. It was the smell of the closet – of fragile things put away. She was tall in her day, but by the time I met my great grandmother she was shrunken. She shuffled along with tiny steps as I held her hand. She smiled at me and said “My… ain’t you all grown up? I saw you once when you was a baby.” Her yellow dentures clacked up and down. It startled and disturbed me. I couldn’t take my eyes off of those teeth merrily clattering away in her mouth with a mind of their own. I smiled warily and thanked her.
Her room was a spartan rectangle with tiled floors and a throw rug. Bright tube-aluminum rails framed the bed. Those same bright tubes corralled the tub and toilet in the small bathroom. She had a plant on the window shelf carefully placed on a lace doily. As I look back on it now I can see her flower was fading. Her place on the earth had already begun to forget her even before her journey was complete. The baking of warm bread on a summer afternoon or the planting of flowers in a tidy garden replaced by grey tiled floors and aluminum tubes.
She was a tintype, antique picture of woman burdened with 96 years, living out the remainder of her days in a small room waiting to die. Wow, I really have to stop reading post-romantic Russian authors. “Ok”, you say, “I get it. We are here a short time, we all die. Either make a point or include the number to dial-a-shrink.”
Stay brave for just a bit longer. Let’s listen to that pedal tone together. Don’t block it out. You are going to die. Nothing you do can prevent it. You may be healthy and satisfied. You might come from a line of ancestors with terrific longevity. You may be anticipating marriage or a new job… In the end, you will die. You will spend your life chasing something but it will end in the grave as all lives have ended (so chase something big and force your mourners to acknowledge you lived!).
And…how Does that Make you Feel?
If you are like me this makes you squirm a little bit. That angsty feeling is common to all of us. Consider how this pending event grows and gnaws at us as we age. Fear like that can makes us fiercely protect what we have earned. We want to maintain our gains and minimize our losses. Perhaps fear of death makes us more prone to stand and less prone to move. Perhaps it helps drive the ideological rigidity of both the establishment left and right. Parties find fear hardening positions among its most loyal group, leading to institutional rigidity. That hardening means parties atrophy and continue to calve splinter groups – Bernie folks, Tea Party, and of course, Trump.
It’s a thin theory at best – probably crackpot. I’ve located no study to help me justify or disprove it. There’s plenty of research on conservatism being anchored in system justification (justification of the status quo). There’s great work on fear and the behavioral immune system – that fear’s evolutionary purpose is to keep us safe and minimize risk. And finally, there’s additional work on how aging tends to make us more rigid and results in a shift to the right. It’s not really a shift – more like maintenance of settled belief while the world itself moves on. But it’s perhaps a stretch to bring death into the picture.
Still, it’s worth noting that more young people voted for Bernie Sanders than Trump and Clinton combined. It’s not that Bernie’s ideas are new, but they sure seem new to a horde of young people getting their first taste of politics. And they sure seemed risky and “unrealistic” to folks over 50. Risk taking is for the young.
If I’m right, the world will move on again and the two sides will drift closer together as the bell begins to toll. I’m not sure I’ll be around to see that, but I’m going to ignore the organ for now.
You have a point, and the gap between millennials and boomers explains a lot (Gen-X & Xennials are smaller cohorts, so the gap is more pronounced).Report
Humans never really dealt with aging or death well. Its why the idea of eternal youth, immortal life, and the after life are such potent myth-fodder for humans. Baby Boomers seems to have an especially bad case of not aging well as the first generation. They are the first generational group that I can think of that kept their youthful dressing habits and tastes well into adulthood. They also seem intent on not retiring and giving room to Generation X or younger groups.Report
Much of this is true, but as ever, we humans are complex.
I remember Clint Eastwood remarking that he liked stories where characters who were older faced challenges and grew and changed.
When I was a teenager I imagined that this awkward messy conflicted phase of life would end, and I would plateau into an adult where I had everything worked out and resolved. Then life would sort of stay in that straight line forever.
And when I looked at my parents, who seemed like fossils in their 50s, that seemed to be borne out, that they were fixed, stable, unchanging.
Except…they weren’t. Later, in conversations with older siblings I learned how their lives were complex and even into their last decades, filled with discovery and changing direction.
And I never did reach that plateau, and I am now 57.
Life, for me, has been a series of shocks and twists and turns and painful lessons. I was that conservative who found himself laid off with a new house and baby, and discovered the humility of having to beg alms from the world, that devout churchgoing man who had to beg forgiveness for ugly behavior.
I’m now far more aware to the fact that there is so much I just don’t know, that other people live lives beyond my ability to imagine them.Report
Great response Chip! sounds like you have an interesting story. My hope is to continue to learn and grow. But… folks do tend to harden in their core views as they age. Not everyone thankfully. 😉Report
I think it’s less about baby boomers (full disclosure, I am one), and more about another demographic trend. These days the number of White Christians in the US has dropped below 50 percent. This happened in 2016. The trend has not slowed.
See, for instance (https://religionnews.com/2017/09/06/embargoed-christian-america-dwindling-including-white-evangelicals-study-shows/)
All human beings find change stressful, even when it’s a change you wanted. Some have figured out how to cope with change while others want to just resist the change for all they are worth. I think that’s what’s going on.
As for evolutionary advantage, I would say that it’s more like if you extend the hand of friendship, 95 out of a hundred times you make a friend. 2 times you find someone who tries to hurt you and you dispose of them, 2 times they hurt you and maybe 1 time you end up dead.
Those friends you made have value. They will help you protect yourself from the sociopaths. This way of being is not an evolutionary luxury, it is an evolutionary advantage. These sorts of strategies have been well observed in the animal kingdom beyond humans.Report
Cooperation is valuable to be sure. Kinship is the basis (in most models) and the building block of higher levels of cooperation. But the evolutionary story isn’t an easy one to construct and comes with caveats. How did such an adaptation manage to survive and cross beyond kinship? It’s not an easy puzzle.Report
I think on some level I’ve always been conscious of it 🙁
I have a hard time having “fun” and not-working because, not having had kids, all that will remain of me when I’m gone is what I’ve done. So I delude myself that people actually read the journal articles I publish, or that the volunteer work in parks or whatever that I do will actually last and be meaningful.
And yet, on the one hand, not being here any more troubles me less* than seeing the people around me go. My parents – who are probably the people I am closest to – are in their 80s and I know they won’t be here forever. A lot of people I knew when I first moved down here through church, work, or social groups are now gone. This spring, a good friend of mine who was only 10 years older than I was died v. suddenly – one day he was out doing Meals on Wheels volunteer work, the next day he was just gone…
(*Or maybe I am just better at putting that thought in a box labeled DO NOT OPEN, I don’t know)
I worry if I don’t hear from loved-ones in a reasonable time frame. Heck, I even worry when people I am kinda-sorta friendly with on social media are gone without explanation for a few days. (It’s gotten worse since Steve’s sudden death, but it was always kinda there; it’s one of my anxieties).
It may also be getting worse as I approach 50. I may be having a midlife crisis (worrying about “did I waste my life? Has anything I done had any beneficial effect?” is as close as I get, I guess, to going out and buying a sportscar or having extensive plastic surgery)
I don’t know about generational things. On the one hand I think generational cohorts is kind of a silly idea because I tend to act more like my Silent Gen parents in some ways than I do like my Gen X cohorts. On the other hand – yeah, I get annoyed when the news talks about Boomers and Millennials and I’ve griped about how we’re the neglected middle children, we’ll never have a president from our generation (Obama was, in my book, a late Boomer and not an Xer), we will be the ones told to retire later, work longer, take fewer benefits, etc., etc. because Boomers.
And I admit, as a Christian, I am regularly told I should not fear death and what might come after, but I don’t have the absolute assurance that apparently some of my co-believers do. (I guess “nothingness” though, would not be as bad as “eternal torture.” But still, on some level, I fear nothingness and being extinguished…. and my life here not having mattered because I left nothing meaningful behind.)Report
Thanks for this introspective comment. We all have a larger impact than we think. 😉Report
“all that will remain of me when I’m gone is what I’ve done.”
I didn’t have kids, and never thought this. I am not so ambitious that I want the world to remember me. I’d be happy with some friends and exes to recall my time in life warmly.
No, I want to see the world. I want to see it before it changes too much and things I love are gone: the wilds, the ancient cities-Places like Petra, Angkor Wat, etc.. I want to journey to lands strange, meet strange people, and eat their food. There is NOTHING like being 9 feet away from a 14 foot great white shark-swimming in the same water you are.Report
OK, I have a somewhat timely perspective on all this being a Boomer, and less than 2 months ago escaped death only by a series of unlikely events. (to briefly explain, I had a type A aortic dissection. I died and was revived a few times, had open heart surgery, and against all odds escaped with my wits and faculties as intact as they were to begin with.)
So I’ve been thinking rather more than usual about death. It doesn’t make me want to be safe. It hasn’t made me more conservative. Mostly I think people aren’t afraid of death, they are afraid to live.Report
You may be the exception to the rule. Many studies have connected aging to rigidity of belief. Note, I’m not saying “conservative” here as a marker for policy. I mean we change less in our core beliefs as we age.
Also note, readers of a blog like Ordinary-Times are probably not average. They are likely to be curious and willing to explore many different ideas and themes. Most people live in fairly narrow thought bubble where a great many things are settled for them. As they age the bubble walls get a bit thicker.Report
@atomic-geography Dude! Glad your still with us. And I think you have a point there that people are afraid to live. They think oh I’ll do that later now I have to do “X” because that is what I am supposed to do now. We aren’t guaranteed a later… live in the now
Course I need to take my own advice. I was very fortunate when I was younger (gen-Xer over 50 but damn it I still feel like I’m 21….not in body but mind) lived several different places, got to travel. I desperately want to travel more now other than occasional road trip. But life has gotten in the way of the grand plans. But I always try to find or do something new even if it’s just a small thing.Report
Thanks! It’s good to be alive!
The living in the now thing…mostly I agree with the general gist of what people mostly mean by that. But goals and plans really are important to structuring our thoughts. Having goals without thinking that we are owed their fruition is a big part of not getting stuck in our thinking.
Then, if we do accomplish them, the self defeating parts of our thinking are less likely to develop. It also helps us to readjust our thinking if the goals themselves turn out to be counterproductive or just not relevant anymore.
Two weeks ago my big goal was to wipe my own ass. It was pretty tough to feel I wasn’t owed that, and I have to admit I didn’t entirely succeed it accepting I might not be able to do that for myself. But now I can! So my current goal is to walk up and down the driveway without pain. Again, tough to feel I’m not owed that. To me, that struggle is living in the now.
That’s what I think anyway.Report
I don’t see the connection between conservatism and proximity to death. I have trouble tracking it to historical trends because I’m not sure if society used to be more or less conservative back when death was much more a part of our lives. Let’s face it, our society keeps death at more than arm’s length. We have buildings for our old people; we don’t farm; most of us have never lost a child. “I don’t know anyone who was killed by an animal” – this is the first time in history that people have been able to say that.
And are we less conservative than we used to be? I don’t know, at least not according to the particular dimension of conservatism discussed in this article.Report
I don’t see the connection between conservatism and proximity to death.
Wait until Trump starts his war with North Korea.Report
If by “conservative” you specific behaviors then no, we have moved the needle steadily throughout our history in something we usually refer to as “progress” (hence progressive), but if you mean are we as groups more intransigent, less yielding and more prone to stand our ground then I’m prone to argue, yes.Report
Are you saying that our society as a whole is less likely to be flexible than it used to be 100 years ago? Are you saying that individuals are more likely to be? Are you thinking about Earth, the West, the US, or some other level?Report
I think I’m saying (speculating really) that a demographic mix where a higher percentage of active voters are older is likely to be more rigid in their views – leading to a sharper divide between parties and less room for compromise. This in turn leads to internal party division as other cohorts (think Bernie or the tea party) splinter off in opposition to that rigidity.
The current move toward the left by the Dems may be a good example of this – establishment incrementalism vs. radical innovation. Note that Trump populism, while a rebellion against the establishment to be sure – doesn’t fit that demographic story precisely.
Also note that I said it was a thin theory – but as a way of talking about rigidity between left and right I think it’s useful.Report
I am skeptical of the idea that conservatism is easier to explain than liberalism from an evolutionary psychology prospective. I can easily make an intuitive sounding argument for why liberalism is more natural from an evolutionary standpoint because openness allowed small cave groups to thrive and not be a genetic mess. You can pool resources. You can find a mate that is not related to you. Etc.Report
As I’ve said elsewhere behavioral psychologists can explain cooperation but struggle to do so beyond the small bonds of kinship. Yes mating is a part of that equation. But it’s the scale that becomes more of a mystery.Report
Read the Order of Public Reason by Gerald Gaus. He says that liberal norms are an evolutionary stable state. This makes sense when you think of liberal norms as minimaxing dissatisfaction. Under a liberal order, the most dissatisfied person is less dissatisfied than the most dissatisfied person under any other order (at least given the heterogeneity of beliefs about the good and justice). The thought is that this explains why places have become more liberal (if slowly, in fits and starts with occasional backsliding) over time.Report
I think the explanation for that is that any culture that worked out the technology for doing it quickly exploded in size and power and dominated all their neighbours. It’s not that its easy to do, it’s just that those who did it loom very large in our history and culture.Report
Well there are some clear advantages to living in larger groups: more specialization, better ability to defend against smaller groups, access to a broader pool of ideas and knowledge….
You’re almost of necessarily going to have a wider range of variation in a larger group, and being able to get along with strange people enables trade, mating (as @saul-degraw said), and less time and energy wasted on hitting strange people over the head with rocks.
So yeah, better for urban living. And indeed people in rural environments being more conservative than people in urban environments is something we see a lot of in the real world.
I also think people overstate the degree to which liberals don’t have purity/disgust reactions. Liberals do, they’re just directed towards food. I have a crackpot theory that this is what happens when your food supply is stuff you don’t really know the provenance of, which would be historically much more common for city dwellers.Report
Interesting theory on foods. I’ll have to think about that.Report
@pillsy I don’t think that holds true as a specifically liberal issue. I know a decent amount of conservative people who are also pretty conservative about food. They might not have purity/disgust reactions around, say, a dead deer, in the way a steretypically liberal city dweller does, but put some live scallops in front of ’em (if they aren’t coastal), or ask them to eat a cricket lollipop, and the purity/disgust reaction will show up loud and clear. (Or heck, often even an unfamiliar veggie or fruit will hit them the same way.)
As far as we know (and admitting there’s a lot we don’t know in this area), purity/disgust learning around food is where that whole set of reactions *comes from* – we share those skills / that emotion set with other primates – …. so whittling it down to a liberal / city-dweller thing is not very plausible, I think.Report
Well I can’t bear scallops (or really any kind of shellfish) and I grew up in Boston, so I can definitely empathize.
I may have been over-reading the fact that food purity is much more of a politically salient issue on the (US) Left than the Right.Report
Full disclosure I live in a city of 450k (Omaha, NE) with a rural surrounding countryside.
I’ve been thinking about this. I’m not sold on my own conclusion yet but let me give my anecdote and you can tell me where I’m wrong. 🙂
I own a company with 30+ employees – computer programmers and network/sysops folks. While my management works “in the office” my employees (full time W2) are in 12 different states and work from home.
About 10 of them live a stereotypical tech worker urban lifestyle – apartments downtown, mostly in upscale or gentrified ares of Baltimore, DC, Seattle etc.
8 of my employees are decidedly rural in Utah, MN, IA etc. One programmer lives near a town of less than 2000 in Northern MN. She regales us with stories of ice fishing and snow showing and videos on how to properly gut an eel pout.
Other’s live in medium to small towns in IA, Utah, TN, SC etc.
Note these are highly paid (mostly 6 figure) tech workers for whom the stereotype is urban living. Remote tech work has allowed them to work from wherever they wish, but they are fully integrated into our business culture and into tech subculture if you like (gaming, cosplay, weird inside jokes and wars over Linux). We interact every day and sometimes I travel to visit them.
I’m aware that the ability to live where you want is an advantage that comes with high pay and skill, but it occurs to me that specialization, broader pool of ideas and knowledge, social interaction etc – many of the “advantages” of urban living – are being superseded by technology – at least for many knowledge workers, and perhaps eventually for a much broader set. It’s true that these things feel different when virtual and it reamins to be seen if that is “good enough” to sustain the needs you mentioned.
I’ll leave “ability to defend against smaller groups” for another time. That’s certainly a historical fact to be sure.Report
like Dan Quail I stand by all my misstatements.
That’s very funny.Report
I dunno. I always find the possibility of death weirdly reassuring. It seems to be deeply entangled in my upbringing, where people are far more afraid of the confinement and infirmity of those last days or years in assisted living or the like, and thankful that the span of time is necessarily finite.
Maybe I’ll feel differently as I got older and find myself staring it in the face, but my parents entering their 70s and haven’t changed as far as I can tell.
So it’s hard for me to connect with that.
I do think connecting age (and proximity of death) with political extremity in general rather puzzling, though. The support for Sanders you cite was concentrated among younger voters, for one thing, and it seems a youthful penchant for radicalism is something of a constant.Report
Political extremity is a running target in my view.
Think of a set point where a person’s views are largely made and not likely to change. As time passes, the mean of society’s set point (the window of middle range views) moves while one’s positions remain the same. That’s the theory anyway. 🙂 I’ve been looking for some age cohort research to help me understand it. I’ll come back if I find something – or it turns out I’m all wet.Report
I agree with you there. That I think it’s exactly the horror of the vampire myth – out of fear, the vampire has cut themselves off from the freedom of death, and their place in the order of life.Report
As I’ve grown older, I’ve lost patience with the radicals and utopians. Maybe it’s Chesterton’s Fence giving me more of an appreciation for the way things are, maybe it’s because I’ve had the same haircut for so long that I can mess it up all I want, but it would fall back to something that would make me look like a narc in those circles.
But there is a limit. I’m still basically a gradualist, technocratic social democrat.
I’m also not a boomer. I’m late-X or early Millenial depending on where the line is drawn. Yes, I went to schools that were largely segregated like a lot of boomers, but “segregated” meant whites, south and east asians as one group and African-Americans as the other. The idea of “pressing one for spanish” isn’t some major affront, as I listened to my friends press nothing at all for Urdu or Cantonese when talking with their parents. I had gay friends from relatively early on, though to this day, nobody I know has unusual pronouns. I’m in a liminal middle ground where diversity didn’t change anything I’ve come to miss, but I got out of school before the more toxic strains of identity politics arrived as received wisdom on campus.
Maybe that’s why I, unlike the Fox News elderly, don’t take seriously the “nyeh-nyeh, America will be majority nonwhite in a few decades and we won’t have to listen to you anymore” crowing from the left as it lurches from failure to failure in the current decade. It’s not a threat to (Jewish but white looking) me because I’m surrounded by intermarriages, assimilated second-generation immigrant kids and first-generation immigant adults who would much rather buy in to the system than scold members of their community for selling out.
In short, I don’t feel threatened like the Fox News oldsters because l don’t see the system as all that brittle in the face of demographic change.Report
“nobody I know has unusual pronouns.”
Not that you know me *well*, but I have unusual pronouns. Given that my pronoun set is “anything you want as long as you don’t correct other people about what they use,” it doesn’t show up much here – everyone here defaults to “she” – but in real life it does show up more. Particularly as I don’t always use the same one for myself. (Not that I refer to myself in the third person much.)
(Not that you should have counted me as “someone you know”, just thought you might be interested.)
Overall, fwiw, I agree with your perception. Most people are incrementalist by preference, including people who get “othered” – they want to stop being othered more than they want any radical changes, and they don’t even care *that* much about being othered if it’s done in a way where they can still do what they need to do in life without being mistreated or harassed.Report
My apologies, Maribou.Report
@ltl-ftc No need to apologize, I mentioned it more as a point of data than anything else.
I actually thought what you said was very gracefully phrased.Report
There are plenty of right-wing radicals and utopians.Report
Interesting and thought-provoking post. Having pondered this some more, I think some of that fear in Boomers is also simply mistrust. David Barnett wrote a great piece in March where he discussed that Baby Boomers and Millennials think they hate each other, but really they hate Gen X.
“What I do find curious, and indeed funny, is that the term slacker was really coined by the boomers because they just couldn’t understand generation X. And now it’s being used in an equally derogatory way by the millennials. Maybe both those groups don’t really have a gripe with each other. Maybe they have it with us. Maybe generation X has united them with a common enemy to glower at.”
There may be some truth to that. Baby Boomers see us as the ones coming for their jobs, and Millennials see themselves as entitled to the jobs we are about to take because they all went to college. I’ll give two anecdotal examples:
1) My director was supposed to retire next year. We have all had the date penciled on our calendars because he has gotten increasingly harder to work for. Now he is saying he might push it off two more years. The guy literally made millions off stock during our IPO in the 90s. He doesn’t need to hang around, but my boss, his successor, is a Gen Xer. Myself and my three colleagues who are next in line are all Gen Xers. The director jokes about how we are all valley girls because we say ‘dude’ and ‘like’ a lot but it’s clear he thinks were still Slackers. So instead of going out gracefully, he will probably have to be forced out.
2) In 2016 I was up for a promotion. Through various circumstances, the final two candidates were myself and one of my coworkers. He was 10 years my junior and a classic Millennial. He had a business degree from a prestigious school but had only been working a real job for 4 years. I had been working full time for over 20 years at that point, had a diverse resume and had 16 with my company. When I got the promotion he was so incredulous about it that our friendship basically fell apart. He eventually became so bitter about not advancing through the company as fast as he should that he sort of imploded and ultimately left the company. He truly believed that his degree trumped all those years of real-world experience that I had, not to mention that I also have a college education.
So I agree with @fillyjonk that Gen Xers are in a tight spot, being stuck between two enormous generations. I really don;t know how that will play out but I know it is going to be interesting.Report
@mike-dwyer Interesting article. Thanks for linking to it.Report
I think some of that fear in Boomers is also simply mistrust.
I’m a middle Boomer born in 1953. Let me give one perspective of some history over the last 35 years. Feel free to tell me I’m full of it :^)
In 1983 Social Security was on the brink of insolvency (ie, cut benefits in half). So Reagan set up the Greenspan Commission, which developed a plan, which Congress dutifully passed. Here’s what was going to happen: (1) the Boomers were going to pay higher SS taxes to keep the system solvent for their grandparents and parents; (2) the Boomers were going to pay even higher SS taxes to build up a trust fund which would be used to pay part of the Boomers’ benefits starting around 2015; (3) the trust fund would be spent down, and the surplus would disappear by about 2040 when the Boomers finished dying off. At the time it was set up, the plan said the time to consider changing SS was then (2040). Essentially everything has unrolled according to plan. All the things that the pundits gripe about, like increased lifespan and worker-to-retiree ratios? The actuaries got all of that right.
Now, 30-some years on, TPTB all want to claim that spending down the trust fund is a financial disaster, because in 2040 SS will be insolvent (although not as insolvent as it was going to be in 1983 since benefits would only be cut by 25%). Instead, the Boomers should suck it up and take a cut in their own benefits now. So far as I can tell, the intent is that the trust fund will never be spent. This is not a policy change designed to inspire trust. (Full disclosure: Personally, I can deal with it. But due to some good planning and some good luck, I have far more assets to draw on than most of my generation.)
Note in passing: if the formula for cap increases had been tied to the 80th percentile wages rather than to the median, the only SS tweaking anyone would be talking about would be reducing the payroll tax rates a bit.Report
I don’t disagree with anything you are saying, however I am not sure if a fear of losing SS benefits is driving that much of the anger we are seeing, but I will defer to your opinion as a member of that generation. It feels to me like it’s much more about fearing the Other and being mad at perceived freeloaders.Report
I dunno, I sure hear a lot of radio ads about the “weird tricks” potential retirees can do to max out what Social Security they’re going to get (and, I assume, not worry about the other guys).
I don’t expect social security will exist by the time I retire (and yes, I pay into it, which is weird for a university employee, but our system is weird). I HOPE our pension system, which is currently strong, is still strong when I retire. And I HOPE the money I’m socking away in a TIAA-CREF series of funds is still there. But I don’t KNOW for sure that it will be, and that’s what scares me. I don’t want to spend my golden years fighting for shifts as a greeter at the wal-mart just so I can buy food.
If you’re not making a big salary, it’s hard to save enough money to have anything like a comfortable retirement – that’s why I have to count on my pension fund and what I’ve invested going up n value.Report
So far as I can tell, the intent is that the trust fund will never be spent.
So here’s what needs to be understood about the trust fund: It’s money the government owes itself. So the SSA would collect those taxes and the excess would go into the trust fund. But what does the trust fund actually consist of? Treasury Bills. And a special kind at that; they earn a guaranteed fixed rate (5% IIRC) but can’t be publicly traded, they can only be redeemed directly by the Treasury. So the yield=rate.
So in effect, the Feds are on both sides of that transaction and they sort of pretend that the SSA is a separate entity, but it’s really not. It’s a fund in the same way that you may mentally designate so much of your paycheck to the mortgage payment while depositing the whole amount in the same account. That’s where the folks that complain that the government has been “stealing” from SS sort of have a point. If SSA had been investing those funds in the market or even just depositing them in a cash account at the Fed, the thievery wouldn’t be an issue.
But look what would happen: First, the yearly budget deficit would be increased by the amount of those excess funds and the current Federal debt would be about $2.5 trillion greater, equaling the current reported balance of the fund. And if you put it in the market, like a state pension fund, now you have an agency of the government stomping around in the private equity markets to the tune of a couple trillion dollars. Yikes!
So really, what they did was really the best option by leaving that money in the hands of the public to be spent or invested rather than have that investment directed by the government. So it wasn’t really theft, but it was lying. By not truly segregating those funds from the rest of the Federal balance sheet the deficit and debt were reported to be significantly less than reality.
So now the real problem is that for the SSA to draw from that fund requires an appropriation for the Treasury to redeem those Bills. And since one Congress can’t bind a later one they can just say, Nope. And people wonder why I have trust issues. And drink.Report
Those funds weren’t supposed to be segregated. There were two parts to the Grand Bargain — the raise in FICA rates to create the Trust Fund, and the general revenue tax cuts to make the plan revenue neutral so as not to distort the economy.
Congress was supposed to spend that money flowing into the General Revenue.
When the Trust Fund was to be redeemed, the process was supposed to be reversed — Congress would raise taxes back on those groups as needed to fund the sell-off.
And of course, what happens when the bill comes due is the very groups that got a big tax cut out of this don’t want to fufilll their end of the bargain.
In fact, as best I can tell, those lucky tax cut duckies pretty much started right away in laying the groundwork for not honoring their end of the deal. After all, there’s a lot of money at stake.
To the point now where educated people who pay attention to politics really think it was some sort of mistake that Congress spent the extra revenue, borrowing the excess FICA funds to pay for general expenses, rather than the point. Congress wasn’t supposed to use that money to pay down the debt, or put it into a savings account — it was earmarked to replace a drop in revenue due to the matching tax cuts.Report
Right. We’re on the same page here. The basic flaw was believing (or pretending to) that they could set in motion a plan that would be honored by a future Congress almost entirely consisting of people who weren’t a party to the plan, may or may not agree to it if they had been, and were at the time mostly in grade school, high school, or at best, college.Report
Alsotoo, it’s fairly consistent with other parts of Reagan’s legacy. When the top marginal tax rates were cut at the same time spending was increased, exploding the deficit and debt, what that essentially did for the upper percentile folks was trade off their tax bills for a nice, safe investment opportunity in Treasuries.Report
Yeah, well, they can both get off my damn lawn!Report
And they can stop telling me to cut it too!
(Seriously, the lawn lady is coming next week. But also I like it *better* as a wild meadowscape than a lawn…. sigh.)Report
I think that there’s some weird new dynamic here. I think it’s tied into this here:
My grandparents were two of the quintessential grandparents that Gen-Xers talked about having. Were kids during the great depression. Grandad fought in WWII. Gran grew up uneducated but made sure that her kids all went to college. Moon landings somewhere in the middle there. Computers at the tail end.
There was a *HUGE* amount of changes for them. Huge advances in the ability to mothball Malthus.
Stuff that I take for granted is stuff that they did without for huge chunks of their lives. Stuff that they considered a luxury when it was new is now stuff that I can’t even imagine living without. We make jokes about The Heritage Foundation’s list of things that even impoverished people in the US all have… but my grandparents grew up without entirely.
Indeed, there’s a bunch of stuff that the kids today are growing up with that I grew up without entirely. (“You’re going to have a computer a million times stronger than that Apple IIe and it’s going to be the size of a pop tart!”)
There are a handful of things that I see going on in the world that makes me wonder “hrm… is this going to jeopardize this new luxury that we’ve established for ourselves?” and I’m pretty opposed to the stuff that I see that might jeopardize these new luxuries that I can no longer live without (despite being one of the first generations in all of human history to even have it).
It doesn’t surprise me that the boomers are opposed to the stuff that they see threatening the things they see as essential to maintaining their lifestyles. It only surprises me how many of these things didn’t exist a couple of decades ago.
I tend to disagree with them on what the things are that are actually threats, of course… but the discussion of the things that are actually threats never end up in good places.Report
Afraid? I’m not afraid. You’lI have to live in Trump’s America longer than I will.Report
Western States of America, Mike. Or Greater California if you prefer that as a working title. Always room for another talented co-conspirator :^)Report
Trump’s in his late seventies isn’t he? Doesn’t exercise much, doesn’t eat all that healthily, doesn’t get enough sleep, probably gets his blood pressure up with his relay tantrums. Most of us here will outlive Trump’s America.Report
You’re assuming the thing he’s ruined get better when he dies.Report
Trump might not be around for that long but the damage he is doing to the system is going to take a lot longer to resist. You are particular seeing this in immigration, where the Trump administration is the most free to act. They are changing the Immigration Courts and USCIS into just as much as enforcement agents in a deportation machine as ICE. You also see the damage being done in the Courts where Trump is engineering a permanent hard right dominance or in the process itself. Trump is a symptom of Republican nihilism. There are tens of millions of people that support is policies regardless of how disastrous they are. There will be politicians who will compete to be Trump’s successor.Report
Exactly. The spirit of the age is a spoiled three-year-old.Report
Of course I’m going to die. Just not now, I’m busy.
I’m a Boomer, largely retired (if you have a small, interesting problem involving math, algorithms, and real-time code and can’t afford standard consulting rates, talk to me; we may be able to come to an agreement). I have a plan. I have had a plan for a long time. Now that I’m retired, I get to work on research questions that interest me, and not on someone else’s 50-hour-weeks schedule. I have a long-term research project that requires me to learn new things. I intend to write a book to organize all the material, thoughts, and predictions. I get to write odd software tools that suit what I want them to do. I can ride my bike in the middle of a weekday and have the trails largely to myself. The plan fits within my likely financial means.
So far as I can tell, the (very) large majority of my generation doesn’t have plans. They don’t know what they’re going to do. The ideas of self-direction and self-motivation are strange ones to them. Although the most unhappy of them are the ones that do have a plan, and then discover that they aren’t even close to having the means to carry it out.Report
It figures a post on aging and the fear of death ends up in lengthy discussions on social security and retirement. 🙂Report
Take it as a counter-statement by the readership that they don’t fear aging and dying generally, they fear aging and dying in poverty specifically. How many of your other great-grandparents fell into the largest category in the US — “died quietly in their home” — and were probably reasonably happy right up until it happened?Report
Well, a few years back, Maribou and I went out to Syracuse for her graduation ceremony when she got her Master’s Degree.
I remembered thinking, as she walked across the stage, “Now you can die.”
So, for the most part, I’ve done what I’ve needed to. There’s other stuff that will keep me entertained and I want to stay around to see what happens at Summerslam and Cyberpunk 2077 and that sort of thing… but I officially consider myself in the black.Report
Very interesting post, @mark-kruger . After pondering this for a couple days I’ve come to the conclusion that I need more numbers, charts, and graphs. How does conservatism vary with age and how does that multiply up with the rate of demographic change to change the conservatism of the populace? How is that reflected in Congress? How does that match up with the degree of polarization in Congress as measured by political scientists?
I have a competing theory that the polarization between the parties that ramped up starting in the nineties was due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union as an existential threat. Freed (relatively at least) from the external threat of the Cold War our attentions shifted to perceived threats from within.Report
Ooh I love that existential threat idea. Very possible. The idea that the cold war keeps a sort of low level rally around the flag effect in place making folks more willing to come together eh.
You can find information on increasing rigidity of views in aging populations – remember that my theory is conservatism as expressed in maintenance of the status quo. A liberal defending social security in the face of change is “conservative” in that context. So the marker isn’t support for various liberal or conservative policies – it’s the rigidity of that support. Looking back I wish I hadn’t used the word “conservative” but it anchors well in other ways.Report
Quick question; when you say conservative, do you mean in a small c sense, a la hardening of one’s already held positions, or do you mean in a large C sense, as in becoming a Republican?Report
Small c – characterized by maintenance of the status quo and a spectrum of moral traits al la Johnathan Haidt and others.Report
Another great piece, Mark! Really enjoyed it. Thanks.Report