This week in journalism is bringing the inevitable tsunami. No, I'm not referring to the boomer generations taking its first plunge past age 65, but to the onslaught of media articles predicting doom and gloom. One article after another has sympathetically shown the boomers struggling against the recession's winter freeze only to turn on them with accusations that they'd fiddled like grasshoppers, who failed to save for life's winter and now expected to gnaw federal and state budgets bare. These strangely contradictory articles have been filling screens and killing trees from the Charlotte Observer to the Associated Press. Perhaps most peculiarly, one of the few media outlets to get the story at least partly right this week has been The Economist.
In an asymmetrical nutshell, these stories tell us accurately that boomers are approaching retirement in a precarious state with their retirement funds damaged by the recession, their houses underwater or, if paid for, unsalable, and college costs skyrocketing for their kids. But, somehow, they haven't saved enough, that is, they've abrogated their personal responsibility, you know, to those kids.
For instance, here's there way the AP reported the issue this week: "By far the greatest shortcoming has been a failure to save. The personal savings rate -- the amount of disposable income unspent -- averaged close to 10 percent in the 1970s and `80s. By late 2007, the rate had sunk to negative 1 percent. The recession has helped improve the savings rate -- it's now back above 5 percent. Yet typical boomers are still woefully short on retirement savings. Even those in their 50s and 60s with a 401(k) for at least six years had an average balance of less than $150,000 at the end of 2009, according to the [Employee Benefit Research Institute]."
The problem with this and numerous other such articles is not, for the most part, in the factual reporting -- it's in the failure to connect the dots to the facts presented elsewhere in the article. So, people have fallen through a trap door, but somehow are at fault for not having padded the ground below well enough. What's worse is this kind of half-baked reporting caters to one side -- the well-funded conservative side -- of what needs to be a serious and complete national debate on the country's priorities.
Such reporting lines up the obvious effects of the economic bubble-bursts and then defaults to the blame game. That game may be based on legitimate studies, but they are automatically suspect for faulting an entire generation for profligate behavior. Such an approach simply fails the human realities well documented and dangling before journalists' eyes. Instead of prattling about poor savings rates, how about citing the many studies quoted in recent articles about the decimation of the American middle class.
Connecting the Dots
Let me lay out some other unconnected dots in these articles ... Wage stagnation since the 1970s; the drop in employer-based retirement pensions from about half of workers to about 30 percent; the waning of union-protected jobs to about 7 percent since the Reagan Administration; the weakening of age-discrimination laws by the Roberts Supreme Court, when older workers most need those protections to be able to meet those personal responsibilities; the fast-growing diversity of the boomer generation, meaning not all by far are middle-class whites; the concentration of national income by the top 2 percent of earners since 1970 from 8 percent to the current 23.5 percent (the highest hording by the super-rich since just prior to the Great Depression) -- and outright hubris (Alan Greenspan) and banditry (Goldman Sachs, etc.) and mismanagement of the U.S. economy that precipitated the current financial collapse.
Lest GBO readers think I'm seeing political spots before my eyes, here is some of how Robert J. Samuelson connected the same dots in his syndicated Washington Post column last Sunday, Dec. 26, in his usual direction -- dots that go off the right margins of the screen.
Samuelson, who has been slanting economic facts against middle class entitlements -- in the name of saving their children and grandchildren -- for three decades, headed his piece, "On Medicare and Social Security, Be Unfair to the Boomers." The article opens, "I received my Medicare card the other day, recognizing my 65th birthday and making me part of one of America's biggest problems. By this, I mean the burden that the massive baby-boom generation will impose on its children and the nation's future." Politicians talked bravely this year "about reducing budget deficits and controlling government spending," he goes on, but they failed to accomplish those goals, because they still need to make "significant cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits for baby boomers."
Read in vain for a reference to those politicians' failure to control runaway health care costs.
Although Samuelson takes care to acknowledge the recession's impact on retirees and near retires, he declares that not cutting social insurance programs now, such as by raising the full-retirement age for receiving Social Security benefits, would "be unfair to younger generations." Never mind that any proposal to do so would kick in as the boomers' children approached their own retirement. Well, Mr. Samuelson, I also got my Medicare card when I turned 65 this year. And I want you and your greedy patrons to keep your friggin' hands off my underfunded future and especially that of my economically struggling next generation.
I'll leave it to others to rebut Samuelson's perennially misguided missives. (See a list of experts at the end of this piece.) The point is that too much reporting that purports to be straightforward and factual isn't. Much of it merely feeds the beaks of budget hawks while disserving the full discussion, not to mention truly fair and balanced journalism.
A key factor missed by reporting that is narrowly focused on calculations about how much all these old people are going to cost our future is how much today's healthier, longer lived and better educated older Americans can continue contributing to the economy in years previously relegated to rocking chairs and golf courses. This week's entry supporting this premise comes, surprisingly, from The Economist. It's cover story for Dec. 18-31 touts "The Joy of Growing Old (or Why Life Begins at 46)."
The magazine's unsigned piece examines international studies corroborating that, far from being an inexorable slide into emotional decrepitude, people experience "the U-Bend of Life." That is, we hit bottom in midlife -- averaging age 46 across 40 years of data in many countries -- when most people are facing life's limitations and want their teenagers to stop screaming and become human beings again, and generally get happier.
To be sure, major researchers, such as psychologist Laura Carstensen at Stanford, have shown that people become calmer and more able to manage even intense emotional swings far better as we age. Some people tend to be too neurotic to benefit much from this longevity bonus. Others, who are more outgoing and positive, have been shown in various studies even to heal more quickly from minor injuries and better resist exposure to colds and the flu.
To wit: Older people tend to be happier than they were in their anxious youth or at the nadir of midlife. The upshot, says The Economist, is that "happier people are more productive."
No, this isn't the Yoga Journal or Cosmo. It's The Economist, you know, the British periodical that frequently hones the cutting edge for economic forecasts. The article concludes that "the cheerfulness of the old should help counteract their loss of productivity through declining cognitive skills, a point worth remembering as the world works out how to deal with our ageing workforce." The Economist continues, "The ageing of the rich world is normally seen as a burden on the economy and a problem to be solved. The U-bend argues for a more productive view."
Reporters interested in a more productive and complete analysis might interview one of the many progressive economic experts about the sources of trouble and potential productivity ahead for the aging boomer population. To name a few, Google: Eric Kingson, Syracuse University and Social Security Works (firstname.lastname@example.org); Maya Rockeymoore, head of Global Policy Solutions and former research and program director of the Congressional Black Caucus (email@example.com); Robert H. Binstock, Case Western Reserve University and co-author, Aging Nation, (firstname.lastname@example.org); Nancy J. Altman, Social Security Works, (Njalt@aol.com); Robert L. Borosage, Institute for America's Future; Richard Eskow, Campaign for America's Future, where Borosage is also co-director, (email@example.com); Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (firstname.lastname@example.org); Merton Bernstein, professor emeritus, Washington University School of Law, (Bernstein@wulaw.wustl.edu); Virginia Reno, National Academy for Social Insurance, email@example.com.
Paul Kleyman is the Director of the Ethnic Elders Newsbeat at New America Media. The article first appeared in Generations Beat Online, Dec. 31, 2010.