There's a growing tendency for public policy leaders and commentators to warn one generation about another when the topic of entitlements arises. But the truth is that it's bad advice -- refuted by research. The good news is that all generations benefit when the needs of older generations are addressed, and new institutions can and should be created that amplify those mutual benefits.
A recent column by Frank Bruni in the New York Times highlights the problem. He quotes former Nebraska Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey as saying, "If we're trying to figure out how to advance the next generation's future, we need to be spending more on the next generation, and we're spending it on yesterday's generation."
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman in another recent column wrote about Stanley Druckenmiller, the famed investor, and his speaking tour to students at major U.S. colleges and universities. On the tour, Druckenmiller urged the students to start a movement to protect their interests, and to wrest societal resources away from the old.
There's no doubt that funding for safety net programs for older Americans -- primarily Social Security and Medicare -- skews the numbers when comparing generations. As Bruni added in his column:
The Urban Institute released a report in 2012 that looked at figures from 2008 for the combined local, state and federal spending that directly benefited Americans 65 and older versus spending that went to Americans under 19; the per capita discrepancy was $26,355 versus $11,822. Julia Isaacs, a senior fellow at the institute, told me that while data for subsequent years hadn't been analyzed yet, it wouldn't show a significant change in that gap.
The mistake is in thinking that only older Americans benefit from those programs, when in fact they were created as family policies. While the funding goes to the older Americans, the programs were designed as social protections for working-age people as well as older adults, to protect both generations when parents have financial needs. Without those programs, many younger adults would be bearing the cost of supporting their parents, which could be debilitating.
Disinvestment in one generation does not secure the future of the next. In fact, the evidence is the opposite. Research shows the following:
- Nations that are aging successfully are wealthier;
- All generations do better when older people receive pensions and are healthier;
- More older people working does not take jobs away from young people;
- Investing in health across the life course leads to people being healthier in old age, with potential for lower medical care costs;
- Young people do better when older people are involved, collaborating in intergenerational teams at work or in the community, and invested in their success.
What our nation needs now is to develop new civic institutions that serve the mutual needs of multiple generations. A great example is Experience Corps, a program that I designed more than 20 years ago and brought into being with my colleague Marc Freedman.
Now part of AARP, it operates in 23 U.S. cities and several other countries, harnessing the social capital of older adults for high impact for critical, unmet, societal needs for our future. The older adults volunteer in schools to support the academic success of children; at the same time Experience Corps is an evidence-based health promotion program for those older adults. Through this carefully designed public health intervention, the older adults become healthier, while the children perform better in school. And the older adults stay at it because they see that they, themselves, are critical ingredients, in this program designed for high impact in the childrens' success.
We should be creating more institutions like Experience Corps that provide win-wins for multiple generations. Adults in the United States are living longer than ever before, with life expectancy at birth at about 80 -- nearly 30 years longer than in 1900. Americans, therefore, have many more active years of retirement that can be put to use for others and ensuring society's future well-being,as long as they maintain their health.
Building institutions that help older adults stay healthy and active while serving the interests of younger people should be a national priority. Such institutions would strengthen our nation while building cohesion and demonstrate on a larger scale than ever the good news that comes when generations work together for the common good of our nation.