Helicopter Parents and Aloof Citizens

Generation X+ continues to play to type in 2016. We are poised to tarnish our parenting legacy with low voter turnout and poorly informed presidential candidate picks.

Generation X+ parents really love our children.  We love them so much that we will do everything in our power to get them into the “perfect” preschool because if we do not, we fret that they will not get into a college worthy of their talents.   We are not content to be “soccer moms” (or dads).  Driving our kids back and forth to their neighborhood sporting events is not good enough for them.  If we are going to drive, then we are going to travel.  We have created traveling sports opportunities for younger and younger kids because if we wait until they are 10 to play traveling sports, we worry that they will not reach their full athletic potential as adults. We now know that Marv Marinovich was a pioneer, not a pariah.  It is our job as “tiger mothers” (and fathers too) to do what it takes to make sure our children reach their full potential, whether they like it or not.  We are helicopter parents.

As a generation that is willing to do just about anything to see our children succeed, including (apparently) endless hours of toy research, you would think we would be among the most active and informed citizens and voters in the country, especially on issues affecting the fate of our children, such as our economic prosperity over the next 25 years.  But you would be wrong.  As citizens, we are more like hapless “Pigs in Space.”

Things That Make You Go Hmmm

In late 2011, the Pew Research Center conducted an analysis of generational views on a host of public policy and political issues entitled “The 2040_matters_6Generation Gap and the 2012 Election.”  It sheds light on two critical features of Generation X+:  (1) we are not nearly as engaged on civic issues as other generations, especially the Boomers; and (2) our views on key issues are often poorly informed and inconsistent.

With regard to civic engagement in late 2011, the generations broke sharply from one another when asked whether they were giving a lot of thought to the presidential candidates:  Millennials and Generation X were substantially less engaged than Boomers and older generations.  This result mirrors other findings, including a National Conference of Citizenship survey result from 2010, where Millennials and Generation X substantially trailed Boomers and the Silent Generation in virtually every measure of civic engagement, including voter participation.

Unfortunately, even when Generation X+ chooses to engage, it does so with a limited understanding of the most important issues facing us and our children.

In late 2011, as the country continued its very slow climb out of the Great Recession, both Generation X and Millennials ranked “jobs” as the most important issue (by wide margins) in the pending election.  The “deficit” ranked a distant second for Generation X and a distant third (behind healthcare) for Millennials.   “Social Security” ranked a distant fourth for Generation X and a remote fifth for Millennials.

At first glance, these results seem to suggest that Generation X+ was thinking about its financial future (jobs) as well as the financial future of the country (jobs, the deficit, and Social Security), with an emphasis on reducing the deficit. If we dig a little deeper, however, we find that this seemingly coherent view is anything but.

Pew asked a number of interesting questions regarding Social Security and Medicare. The answers reveal that regardless of what we said about the most important issues facing the country, we are not terribly concerned about the deficit or the financial burdens that “entitlement” spending will impose on our children.  When asked whether it was more important to maintain benefit levels in the entitlement programs or reduce the budget deficit, 53% of Millennials and 56% of Generation Xers voted for maintaining benefit levels.   When asked whether keeping benefits at their current levels would impose too much of a financial burden on future generations (in the form of higher taxes and/or larger debt), 58% of Millennials and 53% of Generation Xers stated that they were not concerned or only somewhat concerned.   Perhaps helicopter parenting is all about ensuring that our kids will be successful enough to pay for our retirements? Things that make you go hmmm.

Now, in partial defense of those who believe they are entitled to their full future benefits, they did attempt to reconcile their views by indicating that they were open to increasing taxes to fund these entitlement programs: Only 44% of Millennials and 32% of Generation Xers thought it was important to avoid payroll tax increases to fund these programs.  Although Generation X+ thus appears to be willing to pull our own weight by paying more in taxes to fund our own retirements, this apparent altruism neglects two key facts:  (1) the entitlement programs aspire to be “pay as you go” programs where today’s workers fund today’s retirees, so we would be taxing ourselves to pay for our parents’ retirements; and (2) the majority of these new taxes would be paid by our children and grandchildren after we have retired.  But why worry about higher taxes for our kids in an era of income stagnation when there are piano lessons to schedule and teachers to pester?

It’s All Greek to Us

Rather than suffering from generational cognitive dissonance, I suspect we are poorly informed. According to the Social Security Trustees, we would need to immediately impose an additional 2.6% payroll tax and exhaust the approximately $2.8 trillion Trust Fund in order to maintain program solvency for the next 75 years and avoid benefit reductions.  Would we support this tax increase if it negatively impacted job creation? Would Generation X+ support a payroll tax increase if we knew that such a tax would not eliminate the need for additional tax increases to cover the cost of redeeming the $2.8 trillion in U.S. bonds currently held in the Social Security Trust Fund?  Would we agree to these tax increases to fix Social Security if we knew that Medicare was in even worse shape and would require even larger tax increases to sustain current benefits?  With wages stagnant for the bottom 60% of earners, would we knowingly sign up for these additional perpetual tax increases, further reducing our already strained take home pay as well as our ability to save for our retirements and our kids’ college tuition bills?

Unlike many of the events in one of the greatest movies of all time, I believe this is actually “inconceivable.”  I don’t say this because I am against considering tax increases as part of entitlement reform. Rather, I simply don’t believe that our generation has any idea what a “taxes only” approach to entitlement reform would actually cost.  It seems pretty clear that when Generation X+ said we were concerned about jobs and the deficit, yet willing to raise taxes and our deficits to maintain current entitlement benefits—regardless of the burden on our children—what we really meant was:  “It’s all Greek to us!”  And it soon may be if we don’t start driving sensible public policy.

Unfortunately, the signs suggest that we’re still on our generational “road to nowhere.” We still don’t vote.  In the Iowa Democratic Caucus and the New Hampshire Primary, 30-44 year-olds comprised 19% and 22% of voters, respectively. On the Republican side, the turnout was even lower for this core part of Generation X+:  16% and 17%, respectively. Moreover, we are still poorly informed. For those Republican voters concerned that life for the next generation will be “worse than life today,” they voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump and Ted Cruz – two candidates who are entirely disinterested in generational justice, and they utterly failed to support the only two candidates with policy platforms that address this issue – Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. Reality may still bite, but so do we.  What the Boomers did to us through civic engagement, we are now doing to our kids through our civic dis-engagement.

Finding our Cruising Altitude

Generation X+ is simultaneously much too close to, and much too far away from, the challenges facing our children. Put another way, we haven’t found our civic and parental cruising altitude.  If we want the best future for ourselves and our kids, then we need to reduce our helicoptering, get informed on the big issues affecting our shared futures, stop drifting through the political universe, and start engaging as citizens to make a difference.  Not only is helicopter parenting counter-productive, but we are wasting our valuable time and energy sweating many things that may make no difference in the long-term well-being of our children.  How happy and content are the well-rounded and well-educated, yet unemployed and heavily taxed and/or indebted, young people in GreeceSpain?  Is this really the future we envision for our children?  What would happen if we put just as much energy into civic engagement as we do into picking the perfect toys, play dates, and extra-curricular activities for our kids?  Let’s find out.  2040 matters.

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Editor’s Note: This is an updated and revised version of the very first Post on www.2040matters.com.

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