Millennials and Boomers are the lead characters in the looming generational showdown by dint of their vast numbers and strategic location in the life cycle. But what gives the drama an almost Shakespearean richness is something more: they’re also each other’s children and parents, bound together in an intricate web of love, support, anxiety, resentment, and interdependence. Every family, on some level, is a barter between the generations—I care for you when you’re young so you’ll care for me when I’m old. Every society needs to strike a similar intergenerational compact, then renegotiate the terms if the underlying demographics shift.
That’s the challenge ahead. To understand it better, and to explore how these dynamics will play out in both the family and public realms, let’s start by concocting a prototypical Boomer. We’ll call her Jane Smith. She turns 65 in 2014, one of 10,000 members of the jumbo-sized Baby Boom Generation who’ll cross that threshold every single day from now until 2030. If the actuaries have her pegged right, Jane’s got 20 more years ahead, most of them in good health, during which time she’ll collect about half a million dollars’ worth of benefits from Social Security and Medicare. Like most people her age, Jane worries about her health, her finances, and her family. But thanks to these programs, she can take comfort in knowing she’ll never be penniless in her old age. She’ll never fully “outlive her money.” She’ll never go completely without medical care. And she has a good chance of never becoming a burden to her children and grandchildren. People don’t measure their lives in the vast sweep of history—they live in the here and now—so Jane probably doesn’t have much occasion to dwell on her good fortune. She might even assume this is what getting old has always been like. She would be wrong. In fact, she and her progeny are about to become the beneficiaries of a radical improvement in old age that’s not much older than she is: a publicly financed social safety net that eases some (though by no means all) of the frets and dreads of the golden years. Of course, nothing in life is free. Some back-of-the-envelope calculations show just who’ll be picking up the roughly $500,000 public tab for Jane’s old age. During the more than 35 years she worked in various clerical jobs and earned the median wage, Jane paid the equivalent of about $180,000 in Social Security and Medicare taxes, and her employers matched that with another $180,000 (though, by standard economic theory, that share also came out of Jane’s pocket in foregone wages). As for the unfunded gap of about $140,000, well, that’ll have to be covered by America’s taxpayers, today’s and tomorrow’s.
As it happens, one of them is Jane’s youngest child, John Jr., 29. Junior had the bad timing to start his work life just as the national economy went into a tailspin. After bouncing in and out of a run of low-wage, dead-end jobs, he’s scraping together a living as a freelance website designer. In 2014 he’ll take in about $22,000. Thanks to the deductions he qualifies for, Junior will owe no federal income taxes. Not a penny will come out of his pocket to pay for the nation’s soldiers, veterans, food safety inspectors, border patrol agents, diplomats, spies, or cancer researchers. However, Junior will have to fork over more than $3,300 in Social Security and Medicare taxes this year to help underwrite the social safety net that he hopes will one day support him in his old age—but that for now supports his mother and the more than 40 million other beneficiaries her age and older.
In his own small way, then, Junior is helping to bankroll Mom. But that’s only half their story. Mom is also bankrolling Junior. He boomeranged back to her home two years ago, when the mortgage insurance company where he’d been working as an appraiser’s assistant succumbed to the housing bust. He’s now living rent-free in his childhood bedroom, amid his faded soccer ribbons, creaky PlayStation, and zany graduation-day photos. This wasn’t Plan A, but it has been a pretty useful Plan B. He gets along fine with Mom, even better now than when he was growing up. The refrigerator is stocked, the laundry service free. Plus, he’s fortified by an almost eerie certitude that he’ll eventually land a good job, launch a career, move into his own place, find a wife, and start a family.
In short, all of Junior’s dreams are still intact—but on hold. Had he come of age a generation earlier, it would have been considered strange for Junior to be hunkering down at his mom’s home at this stage of life. Nowadays, there’s barely a stigma. Forty percent of all Millennial men ages 18 to 31 (and 32% of all young women that age) were living in their parents’ homes in 2012, the highest share in modern history. Call it what you will—post-adolescence, pre-adulthood—it’s become so hardwired into the zeitgeist of coming of age in the new millennium that it’s already the subject of its own genre of books, movies, sitcoms, reality shows, and PhD dissertations. But there’s not yet a settled take on the phenomenon. Millenial novelist Haley Tanner writes gloomily about her generation “wandering in the purgatorial landscape of postgraduate inertia, premarital indecision, and proto-careerist yearning.” Most commentators blame the wretched economy.
Boomer author Sally Koslow sees other aggravating circumstances. She goes after Boomer parents who, she believes, are foisting onto their children their own neuroses about getting old. “Boomers’ fury at the very idea that we have to age sends a subliminal message that there will always be time for our kids to get another degree or surf another couch, to break up with one more partner or employer, and to wait around to reproduce, while ignoring the reality that opportunities will evaporate,” she writes. “If parents aren’t old—and who among us doesn’t feel 35?—if parents aren’t old, with our titanium joints and botox, how can we expect our kids to grow up?” Koslow is the author of "Slouching toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest," and also pens advice columns for women who date men who live at home. Meantime, over at the Adult Children Living at Home website, the practical advice is for the parents, not the girlfriends. Rule one: Establish ground rules to cover who pays for what. Rule two: Decide in advance if overnight guests are permitted. Psychologist Carl Pickhardt, author of "Boomerang Kids," reminds parents that there’s a fine line between supporting and enabling. He encourages them to create an atmosphere of “constructive discomfort” by charging their Boomerangers rent and setting a departure date.
Family historian Stephanie Coontz finds some silver linings in the boomerang phenomenon; she argues that young people who postpone the major transitions to adulthood tend to wind up with more durable marriages and more stable careers than their early-maturing counterparts. That analysis gets no love from social commentator Kay S. Hymowitz, who takes a dim view of delayed adulthood, especially when celebrated in movies starring the likes of Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Zach Galifianakis, Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, or Jonah Hill, whose characters typically flounder around without life scripts, career direction, or the wit to see women as anything other than disposable estrogen playthings. This generation of leading men is a pretty steep downgrade from the glory days of cinema, when Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant set the cultural norms for manhood. Hymowitz, for one, is unamused. Her terse advice to today’s male slackers, whether cracking wise on the silver screen or surfing on their parents’ couch: “Man up!”
All of this makes twenty-something romance, courtship, and sex something of a minefield. In "F*ck, I’m in My Twenties," author Emma Koenig bares her serial heartbreaks (“There should be some kind of loyalty rewards program for getting hurt over and over again”). But it’s not just guys who can be commitment-phobic slackers. As author Donna Freitas tells it in "The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused about Intimacy," the sex-without-attachment rules apply equally these days to young men and women—and leave both genders emotionally shortchanged. In the hit HBO series "Girls," the opening scene of the first episode had Hannah (played by show creator Lena Dunham) throwing a fit when her parents announce they’re cutting off her monthly checks. The show follows Hannah (the self-described “voice of my generation”) and her angst-ridden girlfriends as they navigate awkward sex, dead-end relationships, lousy internships, and oceans of self-pity in the gritty never-never land between childhood and adulthood. For yet another pop culture exposition on growing up Millennial—this one with a quirky, intergenerational twist—there’s GrannyIsMyWingman.com by Kayli Stollak. Launched as a blog in 2011, it has since morphed into a book and possible TV series. It features Stollak and her septuagenarian grandmother, Gail—a “shit-talking, straight-shooting, adventure-seeking, gossipy yenta”—dishing with one another about their romantic adventures, good and bad, online and off.
Will the Boomerangers ever grow up? Eventually, perhaps, but not just yet. More than 4 in 10 of today’s twenty-somethings, like Junior, have returned home to live with their parent(s) at some stage of their young adult lives. As for marriage—for now, fuhgeddaboudit. Back when Jane was the age Junior is now, about half of all twenty-somethings in America were married. Today about 20% are. The Millennials’ two seemingly incompatible characteristics— their slow walk to adulthood and their unshaken confidence in the future— are their most distinctive traits. Despite inheriting the worst economy since the Great Depression, despite rates of youth un- and underemployment that are the highest since the government began keeping such records, despite the growing albatross of student loan debt, and despite not being able to think about starting a family of their own, Millennials are America’s most stubborn optimists. They have a self-confidence born of coddling parents and everyonegets-a-trophy coaches. They have a look-at-me elan that comes from being humankind’s first generation of digital natives (before them, nobody knew that the whole world wanted to see your funny cat photos). And they have the invincibility of youth. For all those reasons, Millennials are far more bullish than their better-off elders about their financial future. Even as they struggle to find jobs and launch careers, even as 4 in 10 describe themselves as being in the lower or lower middle classes (a higher share than any other generation), nearly 9 in 10 say they already have or one day will have enough money to meet their financial needs. No other generation is nearly as optimistic.
Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, and an expert on twenty-somethings, ascribes their optimism to their lack of life experience. “The dreary, dead-end jobs, the bitter divorces, the disappointing and disrespectful children . . . none of them imagine that this is what the future holds for them,” he writes. In an interview with Robin Marantz Henig for a New York Times Magazine article, Arnett elaborated: “Ask them if they agree with the statement ‘I am very sure that someday I will get to where I want to be in life,’ and 96 percent of them will say yes. . . . But despite elements that are exciting, even exhilarating, about being this age, there is a downside, too: dread, frustration, uncertainty, a sense of not quite understanding the rules of the game.” Arnett says that what he hears most often from young adults is ambivalence; 60 percent of his subjects tell him they felt like both grown-ups and not-quite-grown-ups.
When it comes to their economic prospects, are they clueless Peter Pans on course for an unhappy rendezvous with reality? There’s no shortage of elders who fear exactly that. “We have a monster jobs problem, and young people are the biggest losers,” says Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, who predicts the specter of unemployment will “haunt young people for at least another decade. . . . It almost makes you want to cry for the future of our country.” Harvard economist Richard Freeman says today’s young adults “will be scarred and they will be called ‘the lost generation’—in that their careers would not be the same had they avoided this economic disaster.” These and other pessimists believe America’s unemployment crisis is as much structural as cyclical—a by-product of a witch’s brew of globalization, automation, foreign competition, and a faltering education system. Millennials, they worry, are on track to become the first generation in American history to do less well in life than their parents.
All of these challenges will be exacerbated once the nation has to start coping with the full cost of the retirement of 76 million Boomers. The oldest turned 65 in 2011. By the time the youngest cross that threshold in 2030, America’s age pyramid will take on a shape it has never had before. About 1 in 5 Americans will be 65 or older, up from 1 in 7 now. The number of retirees on Social Security and Medicare will rise to about 80 million by 2030, roughly double the figure in 2000. Among them, the fastest growing cohort will be the “old-old.” The number of seniors ages 85 and older is expected to more than triple between now and 2050, to 19 million. Fewer workers supporting more of the old and old-old isn’t much of a formula for economic growth, standard of living gains, or social comity. “It’s like a seesaw—if one side is up, the other side has to be down,” says Andrew Biggs, a former deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration, of the challenge of preserving a safety net for the old without bankrupting the young. “Nobody wants to do the actual things you have to do so you don’t screw your kids on this stuff.”
From the book "The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown" by Paul Taylor and the Pew Research Center. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.