(Thanks to @BryanAlexander for highlighting this.)
A month or so ago, I was walking with a few colleagues back to our offices. They were all older than I am, and all of them have worked here much longer. They were discussing the possible phase-out of a retirement benefit that’s only available to people hired before a certain year. If you were hired after that year, no benefit for you. They were strategizing when to put in their retirement letters so as not to miss the benefit.
It was all I could do not to tell them all to go pound sand. The benefits available to folks of my generation and younger (Gens X and beyond) are reduced so theirs won’t be.
I try not to dwell on that sort of stuff. I make a good living, and my family is fine. Yes, we’re staring down some impressive tuition payments, but still. The point isn’t “poor me.” It’s that the ratcheting-down of living standards by generation sometimes gets so blunt that you can’t not see it.
That happened Tuesday on Twitter. NBC News tweeted out a story about a program at the University of Minnesota, but it isn’t all that different from programs everywhere. The university allows senior citizens to take classes for $10 each. The story presents it as a feelgood tale. The comments took it differently. “Boomers gonna Boomer” was one of the less inflammatory ones. My personal fave, from @SL8RGirl:
“Wait. Those bootstrapping, I did it myselfers are getting to take classes for the price of two shitty lattes … and probably still complain that the reason current students are in debt is avocado toast and participation trophies.”
The objection, in a nutshell, is that the group that got a college education for much less, even after correcting for inflation, is getting to return for much less again. Meanwhile, each succeeding generation has had to pay more, take on more debt, and graduate into an economy less likely to offer full-time salaries that align with local housing costs. Worse, now, the strapped young are actually subsidizing the rapacious elders. We see it in labor contracts in which older workers are “grandfathered” into higher wages than their younger counterparts will ever receive. We see it in tuition levels. We see it with the increasing geographic concentration of higher-paying jobs into a few areas, in which the cost of housing has skyrocketed, producing windfall gains for the folks who bought when wealth was more evenly spread at the expense of younger people trying to start their adult lives.
The social scientist in me feels compelled to point out that the missing term from that critique is “politics.” As blunt as it is, though, there’s enough truth to the critique that it’s hard to dismiss.
A few months ago, David Leonhardt published a piece with a statistic that should have received far more coverage than it did. Drawing on Federal Reserve data, it showed that since 1989, in the US, the median net worth of the age groups from 65 on up has increased dramatically; for those over 75, it nearly doubled. The 55-64 group has held relatively steady. Folks under 55 took double-digit declines. That is to say, everyone after the Boomers got hit, and hit hard. (My own cohort took a hit of about 30 percent. Outside of a natural disaster or massive war, that’s extraordinary.) When you account for those changes, the snark aimed by younger people at the University of Minnesota program makes sense. For that matter, so does the increasingly pronounced political divide among generations. Combine a dramatic divergence in economic outcomes with a dramatic change in the racial makeup of each successive generation, and you get a recipe for two camps talking past each other. The baseline assumptions each group makes are different, because their lived realities are different, and becoming more so every year.
Colleges are on the front lines of these conflicts. Our students are overwhelmingly from the age groups that have been hit hard. The median age of a student on my campus is 19. The college hasn’t had an increase of state funding since before our median student was born. And, like so many others, we allow senior citizens to take classes for next-to-nothing, even as the cost for credit-seeking students increases inexorably. It’s a goodwill gesture.
In this light, calls for free community college are hardly radical. They’re a bare minimum, a small down payment for a much larger set of changes that need to be made.
Some statistics give me hope. In 2018, for the first time, Gen X and younger voters outnumbered Boomers and up. And that wasn’t just a function of aging and death. It was largely a function of increased turnout among Millennials. A group that has been hit hard is starting to hit back. It’s a sign of life.
I don’t begrudge older citizens the chance to sit in on college classes for cheap, again. I’d just like to see everyone else get that same chance.