In Samuel Beckett’s 1953 play, Waiting for Godot, the foppish aristocrat Pozzo reflects on his own angst and sadness, lamenting, “Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not unhappier than its predecessors. Let us not speak well of it either. Let us not speak of it at all.”
These lines of theatrical absurdism were written during a short period of comparative wealth equality. One partner, usually the man, could earn enough with a single salary to buy a home and a car, see the doctor, and go to work every day without the existential dread of climate change making his life unlivable. Those coming of age in the 1950s and ’60s in America would likely earn more than their parents, live in greater comfort, and die at an older age.
A lot has changed since Beckett first wrote his lines. Never in American history has a generational divide in wealth and outlook been so pronounced. Americans are dying younger and poorer than their parents. They are more likely to live their last few decades in chronic pain, and more likely to live in debt. This is not an accident or the accumulation of millions of individual random choices. It is the product of deliberate policy decisions that have stripped younger generations of opportunity so that older ones can live in relative comfort.
And last week, the Republican Party made clear its decision to continue down that path, shedding all pretense of caring about young voters. A 2024 budget proposal released by the Republican Study Committee sets out the party’s priorities: Make the next generation work longer, and essentially guarantee them an unlivable planet.
Although it is rare that both parties agree on anything, it is an established fact that Social Security is headed fast off a funding cliff. At its current rate, the pension scheme will be insolvent by 2033, meaning that recipients will see an up to 25 percent decrease in their monthly benefits unless something happens.
There are two ways of fixing this problem. One is to increase revenue so that the fund has more money and can pay for the increasing number of retirees. The second is to raise the age of full retirement, which at 67 is already three years above the OECD average. A third but less palpable solution, to Republicans, would be to increase immigration so there is a larger ratio of workers to retirees.
After months of deflection, with Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy vowing that cuts to entitlement programs are “completely off the table,” the Republican Study Committee’s 2024 budget scheme proposes $16.3 trillion in spending cuts and $5.1 trillion in tax cuts. Eliminating so many trillions isn’t easy, especially considering that Social Security and health spending eat up nearly half the entire federal budget with a yearly price tag of $2.7 trillion.
One key figure that haunts Republicans isn’t the size of the national debt or the ever-decreasing tax rate paid by the richest Americans but rather the average age of GOP voters that make up their constituents. The only age group that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in the 2020 election were those over the age of 59 and therefore the most likely to be rattled by any changes to their retirement plan. Given that young people are consistently and increasingly rejecting the Republican Party, this left lawmakers with only one acceptable solution: raise the retirement age for everyone except boomers.
The 2024 budget plan proposes what Republicans believe are “modest changes” to raise the retirement age from 67 to 69. Virginia Representative Ben Cline, chairman of the group’s budget and Spending Task Force, said the plan would not apply to Americans who are current retirees or nearing retirement but would only kick in for those below the magic boomer age of 59, who would see an increase in the retirement age of three months per year starting in 2026. Everyone born after 1971 will have to wait until they turn 69 to retire.
Raising the retirement age for everyone except those who consistently vote for them was not the only solution to shaving trillions from the national budget. Included in the budget was a plan to scrap all funding from what the Republicans called a “radical green agenda” that would make the planet livable for generations to come. Although Biden’s Green Deal was supported by the majority of Americans, 38 percent of those over the age of 59 opposed the legislation, compared to just 18 percent of millennials.
Nowhere in the budget was funding for things that would make life easier for younger generations, such as childcare provisions, public transportation projects, or funding for higher education. This month, President Biden vetoed a GOP-sponsored bill that would cancel his plan to provide $20,000 in student loan relief. Of course, if university was as affordable now as it was in 1964, when the average boomer paid $553 per year for tuition at a four-year public college, there would be no need to forgive all those student loans in the first place.
On display in the budget proposal is a rejection of the very sort of governmental protections that allowed older generations to thrive and accumulate wealth. Although voters in Ron DeSantis’s MAGA-dominated state of Florida reported that affordable housing is their number one priority, Republicans lawmakers are more concerned with banning trans people and books than they are with making owning a home and raising a family achievable for anyone without inherited wealth for a home deposit or childcare. And while funds for things like anti-poverty programs and the National Endowment for the Arts would disappear, money for defense and building The Wall would be guaranteed.
One solution that would have allowed more Americans to retire at a younger age would have been to scrap the cap on payroll taxes that fund Social Security. In 2023, those earning a salary below $160,200 per year are taxed at a rate of 12 percent, with 6 percent coming from the worker and 6 percent from the employer. According to the Center for Economic Policy and Research, 94 percent of workers earn less than $160,000 per year. The remaining 6 percent pay no additional payroll tax, even though they are more likely to live longer than those earning near the poverty line. A millionaire earning $88,000 per month stops contributing to Social Security by the end of February. This means that the burden of paying for Social Security falls disproportionately on low- and middle-class earners.
It is the propensity of every generation when they are young to complain about the old, and when they are old to complain about the young. And while each generation grows and faces its own unique struggles, one constant is the desire to make the world a better place for those who come after you. But never in the history of U.S. politics has one party advocated so fiercely to take so much from the young and give to the old. The world is literally burning, and for millions of young Americans, finding a home and earning a decent living is something they will read about in textbooks as a promise once given to their ancestors. A generation ago it may have been true that speaking ill or well of a generation was absurd. Now it would be an absurdity not to.