Fighting with mom over money

October 27, 1998|By Marilyn Geewax

THIS week, when astronaut John Glenn straps himself into the shuttle Discovery, younger Americans will marvel at the achievements of this 77-year-old hero.

He's been a combat pilot, space pioneer, political leader and family man. He embodies the best about his gritty generation, the one that triumphed in World War II and then built this great economy.

But don't let the glowing descriptions you'll hear from young TV reporters lead you to believe that goodwill toward older Americans is universal. Despite the family ties that bind us, the different generations seem to be growing apart as jealousy and economic conflict drive wedges between the various age groups.

Money worries

Many members of Mr. Glenn's generation believe they are losing ground financially now. At the same time, their children are getting sick of paying high taxes to support Social Security. And Generation Xers are afraid the baby boomers soon will create such a huge voting bloc of retirees that Congress will be pushed to further boost taxes to support the elderly.

Each generation has some legitimate gripes and fears. Today's over-65 Americans are frustrated because they are seeing their income decline at a time when younger people are flourishing. While jobs are plentiful and mortgages cheap for workers in the prime of life, retirees are getting pinched by a meager 1.3 percent cost-of-living increase in Social Security payments and a continuing decline in the interest rates paid on savings.

With their incomes stagnant or shrinking, many older Americans are getting angry with their children. They resent seeing younger generations buying bigger homes and cars. "I've never known a more self-indulgent, self-absorbed, self-centered generation as the baby boomers," one reader said in a recent letter to me.

But while senior citizens are complaining about "selfish" children, boomers are getting fed up with the kvetching of their parents, who are getting far more out of Social Security than they put into it. In the 1950s, the combined payroll tax for Social Security, paid by both workers and their employers, was just 6 percent.

Today, the combined tax is 12.4 percent. The World War II generation had nowhere near the tax burden that today's workers carry to fund benefits for aging veterans, Social Security, Medicare and other programs for the elderly. Largely because of that government aid, the elderly are the wealthiest demographic group in America.

But perhaps no generation has more to fear from their elders than Generation X, the people born from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s. Those young workers are vastly outnumbered by the boomers who were born between 1946 and 1964.

Heavy tax

GenXers may find themselves suffocated by much higher taxes to care for long-living boomers. Economists estimate that to maintain today's level of Social Security benefits, workers in 2020 will have to shoulder a 20 percent payroll tax.

Next year, Congress is supposed to take up Social Security reform. The arguments could get very ugly as each generation tries to cut a better deal for itself. For decades, the most bitter battles in U.S. social and political life were over race. In coming years, the most hostile debates may be over what one generation owes another.

Marilyn Geewax is an Atlanta Constitution columnist. Her E-mail address:

Pub Date: 10/27/98

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