Channeling our love for our children into well-informed civic engagement on the biggest issues affecting their futures
Those of us who have become parents—oh, in the last eighteen years or so—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 sincerely believe that they will not get into a college worthy of their talents. Many of us 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 genuinely believe 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 love our children so much, in fact, that psychologists have coined a term to describe our parenting style: We are “helicopter parents.”
“Although the term is most often applied to parents of high school or college-aged students who [perform] tasks the child is capable of doing alone (for instance, calling a professor about poor grades, arranging a class schedule, manage exercising habits), helicopter parenting can apply at any age. ‘In toddlerhood, a helicopter parent might constantly shadow the child, always playing with and directing his behavior, allowing him zero alone time,’ Dr. Dunnewold says. In elementary school, helicopter parenting can be revealed through a parent ensuring a child has a certain teacher or coach, selecting the child’s friends and activities, or providing disproportionate assistance for homework and school projects.”
As a generation that is willing to do just about anything to see our children succeed and be happy, including (apparently) endless hours of toy research,1 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 national security and economic prosperity over the next 25 years. But you would be wrong. As citizens, we are lost 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 Generation 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. 2
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:
This result mirrors other findings, including a National Conference of Citizenship survey result from 2010, where Millennials and Generation X trailed Boomers and the Silent Generation in virtually every measure of civic engagement, including voter participation:3
These studies are quite consistent with widely-held views (as evidenced by any number of Google searches) that: (1) Generation X is politically cynical and apathetic; and (2) the Millennials retreated from public life as a result of the Great Recession and disillusionment with Washington DC in the years after President Obama’s election.
Unfortunately, even when Generation X+ chooses to engage, it does so with a limited understanding of the most important issues facing us as well as younger Millennials 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. (Presumably those who ranked the deficit high on their issues list did so because they thought it was too big, rather than too small, although this is not specified in the methodology). “Social Security” ranked a distant fourth for Generation X and a remote fifth for Millennials.
Although the survey methodology is not specified, it appears that “national security” did not make the list for any generation (or was not included in the survey of important issues facing the country). Either way, this lack of emphasis on national security speaks volumes about our understanding of the threats to our future in an era of nuclear proliferation, an increasingly militaristic Russia, an expansionist China, and rising Islamic terrorism (or “violent extremism” depending on where you stand on circumlocution as a tool of diplomacy).
At least on economic issues, 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 the two old-age “insurance” programs that we now refer to as “entitlements” — Social Security and Medicare.4 The answers reveal that regardless of what we said about the most important issues facing the country: (1) we are not terribly concerned about the deficit or the financial burdens that entitlement spending will impose on our children; and (2) we are open to tax increases to fund entitlement programs, notwithstanding the enormous burden the required taxes would place on future generations as well as their potential negative impact on job growth and net pay in an era of income stagnation for most Americans.
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, 58% of Millennials and 53% of Generation Xers stated that they were not concerned or only somewhat concerned. Perhaps we helicopter parents want the best for our kids so that they will have enough money to pay for our retirements? As the ever-insightful C&C Music Factory put it: “Things That Make You Go Hmm.”
Now, in partial defense of those who want 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 their 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; and (2) the majority of these taxes would be paid by younger Americans who have far more working years ahead of them than Generation X+.
It’s All Greek to Us
Rather than suffering from generational cognitive dissonance, I suspect we are under-informed. We simply had no idea what we were talking about when we answered these Pew questions. I certainly didn’t know how bad things were in the entitlement programs until I completed the research for this Post and read the 2014 and 2015 Social Security and Medicare Trustee reports.
According to the Social Security Trustees, we would need to impose an immediate payroll tax increase of roughly 2.6% (presumably split evenly between employers and employees) and exhaust the approximately $2.8 trillion Trust Funds in order to maintain program solvency for the next 75 years and avoid benefit reductions. Would Generation X+ accept this tax increase if it meant that we could not pay for the extra-curricular activities that our kids require to get ahead in school and sports? 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 Funds? Because the U.S. is running chronic budget deficits, the only way to pay Social Security the $2.8 trillion the government owes itself (in the form of bonds purchased by Social Security from Treasury over the years) would be to borrow more money, drastically reduce spending in other areas, or raise taxes (or some combination thereof).
Would we agree to even larger tax increases to cover the costs of Medicare, which are spiraling out of control by any measure? If we wanted to pay for Medicare spending today with tax revenues rather than borrowed dollars or spending cuts, we would need to increase payroll taxes immediately by roughly .6% and increase other federal taxes by roughly $275 billion/year. And this latter tax increase will go up every year to keep pace with the irrepressible growth of Medicare. Again, 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 get our act together.
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 in many ways, 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 Greece? Spain? (If you don’t want to read the articles, the answer is, to put it mildly: “not very.”). Is this really the future we envision for our children? In contrast, imagine what would happen if we put just as much effort into researching entitlement reform and writing our Members of Congress as we do into picking the perfect toys and extra-curricular activities for our kids.
- You are a helicopter parent when your child wants a doll and “[y]ou have to first research specs, check out on online rules and ask around before you acquiesce. You’re so afraid that a toy won’t be educational, safe or fun enough that you can’t make a decision without 10 hours of online research first.”
- Although Pew did not include a “Generation X+” demographic, it did occasionally reference older Millennials and younger Boomers in its findings, noting how these groups often look like Generation X. As I have noted, there is ample evidence that older Millennials and younger Boomers look very much like Generation X. Thus, for the purpose of defining Generation X+ positions based on Pew data, we could use Generation X data. Or, because Generation X+ includes all of Generation X and more older Millennials than younger Boomers, it is possible to roughly extrapolate Generation X+ positions on topics by looking at Generation X and the Millennials together in some cases. This Post provides both sets of data for the reader.
- Corporation for National and Community Service and the National Conference on Citizenship. Civic Life in America: Key Findings on the Civic Health of the Nation, Washington, DC. 2010.
- The full name for Social Security is “The Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds.” The full name for Medicare is “The Federal Hospital Insurance and Federal Supplemental Medical Insurance Trust Funds.”