Facing a Generational Crisis

Last week, 400 students from Salt Lake’s Granite High School walked out of class to protest the lay-off of a beloved history teacher. Today, representatives from 160 countries meet in Madrid, Spain, to discuss the problem of a rapidly aging world population.

What on earth do these two events have in common? Nothing, except maybe the fate of humanity.

As the world’s population grows older, young people face the daunting task of shouldering a looming economic crisis. Yet today’s power brokers refuse to arm the next generation with the weapons we will need to fight a very different kind of war.

Policymakers in Utah, for example, seem either unable or unwilling to take the long view and make political sacrifices for the betterment of tomorrow. Instead, they insist on slashing education spending in order to achieve a balanced budget. Students pay the consequences in the form of overcrowded classrooms and limited resources. Yet the leaders of today will ultimately ask our generation to carry the weight of a retiring world.

A steadily graying population in the United States represents part of a worldwide trend. Today, nine working-age people exist for every one retiree. But the Center for Strategic and International Studies projects that the ratio will fall to four workers per retiree by 2050. Thus, the Second World Assembly on Aging convenes today in Madrid.

Delegates from around the world hope to address the problems that will likely arise in the coming decades.

Yet much of the work needs to occur at home. As future laborers and taxpayers, today’s young people will play the most vital role in managing the effects of tomorrow’s demographic phenomenon. Politicians and policymakers must understand this connection and adequately support education and job training.

If current patterns prevail, one-third of the earth’s population will be older than 60 by the midpoint of the 21st Century. Serious economic problems could surface much sooner than the year 2050, however.

In the United States, the baby boom generation will begin reaching retirement age in the next 10 to 20 years. As the middle-aged population prepares to leave the work force, concerns arise as to whether a sufficient tax base will exist to fund these retirements.

Beyond the issue of Social Security remaining solvent, other questions lurk. Can a younger generation fill the shoes of millions of retirees? Can this next generation support itself, its retiring parents and its own children? The answers to these queries will depend on our preparedness and our ability to maximize technology.

Unfortunately, Americans don’t appear willing to pay the cost of adequately preparing the next generation.

These stark demographic projections didn’t jar legislators in Utah enough to prevent them from cutting $31 million out of the state’s public education budget. While state leaders may tell young people that they represent the future, such lip service falls silent in the wake of reckless lawmaking.

Despite the belief of those on Capitol Hill, students know exactly what the Legislature has done to them. The students at Granite High School walked out on Friday because Granite School District’s budget shortfall will cause the lay-off of four teachers, including history teacher Jim Eakins. Anita Gardiner, a sophomore at Granite, told the Salt Lake Tribune of her frustrations. “They’re telling us that we’re the future, yet they can cut education funds,” said Gardiner.

The fact that half of Granite High’s student body walked out of class shows how passionate they feel about these issues. This contradicts the stereotype of today’s young people as a generation of apathetic slackers.

Ultimately, though, politicians continue to sacrifice young people?and thus the future?in exchange for immediate political payoffs. Because young people either cannot or will not vote, politicos gain little from making education a priority.

Meanwhile, seniors comprise one of the nation’s strongest voting blocs, carrying a high sense of political efficacy. The American Association Retired Persons continues to pack a massive lobbying punch, beating sense?or fear?into the heads of lawmakers. Programs like Social Security and Medicare, therefore, remain sacred political cows, safe from the threat of national budget restructuring.

Indeed, young people deserve part of the blame, because those of us old enough to vote usually do not. Yet a cyclical problem also prevails, where young people don’t participate because their issues don’t receive any attention. Young people need a vocal and articulate leader who will speak frankly to the problems that our generation faces when the baby boomers retire.

Unfortunately, no politician seems smart or brave enough to initiate a legitimate national dialogue on such issues. As long as elections hinge on retirement care for the elderly and job security for the middle-aged, the serious problems awaiting us will not receive adequate attention.

We can all hope that this week’s United Nations Assembly on Aging will produce constructive ideas on how governments can address the problems of aging. It seems inevitable that, at some point, the minimum retirement age must increase.

Yet this suggestion, along with the notion of privatizing Social Security, amounts to a political hand grenade. Whichever person or political party gets caught holding these issues will inevitably get blown up.

In order to find a solution, people must willingly come to the table to make sacrifices, realizing that the politically popular can’t necessarily remain economically feasible forever. For our part, young people must strive to become politically active. Don’t do it because it’s the cool thing, do it because your future depends on it. Otherwise, an aging generation will continue raiding the resources we need to prepare for tomorrow.

A demographic crisis?and potentially an economic one?lies somewhere just beyond the horizon. But with intelligent and honest debate, Americans can prepare to pass the torch from a generation that slowly makes its way into the twilight. The hopes of tomorrow depend upon our decisions in the here and now.

James welcomes feedback at: [email protected] or send letters to the editor to: [email protected].