Taking Lisa Simpson’s Money

December 19, 2004 | By Randy Lynn

The Breakfast Club is old. Kurt Cobain is dead. The sewer-dwelling, pizza-devouring Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have long been replaced by teamwork-oriented heroes like the Power Rangers.

A new generation has possession of youth culture, even if the media hasn’t really made a story of it yet. And in the midst of all the hoopla and discussion about the financial security of the elderly, a crucial, quasi-heretical fact has been overlooked: the kids need the money more than their parents and grandparents.

Social Security, as conceived by FDR, was to be primarily a youth program. Focus shifted to the elderly during the postwar boom and the impending retirement of the WWII generation. The Nixon “Peace Dividend” was invested almost entirely in the elderly. By 1973, children had replaced the elderly as the poorest age group.

This shift, however, coincided with worsening economic conditions. The boom ground to a halt. Real wages have declined sharply since 1970, and the income gap has widened exponentially. The explosion of two-income households, the Clinton bull market, and the increasing use of corner-cutting maneuvers by big business have masked the unpleasant fact that it has gotten harder and harder to keep the American economy afloat. Today the dollar is plummeting and our budget deficit runs at $5.2 trillion.

Never have young people had to contend with such soaring college debt, such high property taxes with respect to value, such blatant Proposition 13 attacks against youth spending, or so many two-tiered wage systems. There are educational crises in almost every state. The youngest workers are the most expendable when it comes time to trim payroll. The dotcom bust was felt almost entirely by young adults. Estimates of the youth poverty rate run in the 20-25% range for the wealthiest nation on earth.

Maybe these realities were acceptable when Generation X was the youngest generation. But can they be justified when it becomes apparent that there is a new generation on the rise—embodied not by Bart Simpson but Lisa Simpson?

I am a senior in college, and I work part-time at a high school. The ninth graders do things my class never did. They circulate petitions at lunch. They are politically informed and active. They voted for Kerry because they know that the Bush damn-the-long-term-consequences creed means they’re not politically valued.

Meanwhile, a smattering of recognition has arisen over the deluge of youth horror stories in the media. William Strauss and Neil Howe, generational historians, have been describing the character of this generation since 1996. Mike Males spent almost 400 pages concluding that kids today have lower rates of every social pathology you can think of. Newsweek even ran a cover story in 2002 about lower adolescent rates of premarital sex.

We need these kids. They are united, talented, optimistic, and overachieving in a way older generations are not. We may erroneously decry them based on the bland pop culture that is fed to them, but they are doers in a rapidly disintegrating world. They are the ones who are suffering the most economically, and who may be asked in ten years to put 35% of their paychecks toward paying for a Boomer’s retirement. At some point we have to ask ourselves if it’s really worth taking Lisa Simpson’s money.

For the moment, older people—who don’t know about the new generation because the media hasn’t told them—don’t want to hear it. Anyone with whom I even broach the topic reacts with a sense of entitlement and outrage. They point out that they paid for their parents, so now I better pay for mine.

While I agree that the financial security of the elderly is a good thing, it’s also a luxury. It’s not a right. Social Security was conceived in the spirit of supporting youth. When it became an elderly program, it was in a time of unprecedented prosperity and targeted at the deserving generation that had served their country in World War II. Financial security for the elderly may be breaking, but financial security for the young is already broken. You can’t possibly convince me that in a time where painful decisions may have to be made about spending priorities, the young are less important than the old.

Ultimately, I hope the moral fiber of Boomers will assert itself. Boomers have always prided themselves on their morality, and they have also suspected for decades that Social Security will not be around for them. When they realize that they can have it only by taking money away from a generations of Lisas, will that materialistic sense of entitlement expose a gaudy hypocrisy? Or will they accept the lower standards of living for the undeniable fact that they are doing the right thing? The respect of younger generations may depend on the answer.