Recently I argued that generations are more divided than ever in the United States. This is evidenced in no small part by the recent election, in which younger voters overwhelmingly favored Hillary Clinton, whereas older voters favored US president Donald Trump.
This political dissonance has coincided with an economic one: A comparably well-off older generation is moving further away from an increasingly disenfranchised younger one. Households headed by someone over 65 are currently 47 times wealthier than those headed by someone 35 or younger, a record high. And this disparity has been growing for some time: Since 1984, wealth of the under-35 age bracket has dropped by 68%, while that of those over 65 has increased by 42%.
It’s clear why Millennials would want to resolve this disparity in generational affluence. But a poor, underemployed, younger generation threatens Boomers’ own outcomes, too, as well as broader society’s. Boomers need the taxes derived from Millennial paychecks to finance their own Social Security and Medicare benefits, and could really use an uptick in Millennial home purchases to reflate the housing market and boost their equity. In addition, having America’s largest generation as its most unemployed isn’t exactly a recipe for success; the estimated cost of high Millennial unemployment rates is more than $25 billion to the US economy each year.
Identifying this growing generational chasm is one thing, but resolving it is another. To date, pundits have blamed both “selfish” Boomers for hoarding wealth by gerrymandering governmental policies and “entitled” Millennials for expecting prosperity without working for it. These contradictory critiques also largely fail to offer pragmatic solutions. So rather than pointing fingers, how do we work to repair generational ties?
Any solution must include three main points: (1) acknowledging the reality of an emergent, multi-generational era; (2) recognizing economic opportunities of bridging generations; and (3) understanding the myths and realities of generational differences. These aspects emphasize how generations will get much further ahead by working together than by drifting apart.
A demographic imperative
Any way you slice it, the population is aging. Already the highest proportion of older adults in history, the proportion of Americans over 65 is expected to swell to about 20% by 2030. For the first time ever, within the next few years, the world will inhabit more people over 65 than under 5. Growth in the over-65 population will outpace that of the 20-and-under population for the next 35 years.
At the same time, society has become more intergenerational than ever. With people living longer, a record number of distinct cohorts (essentially five) now exist. And as of 2015, Millennials—generally defined as those born in the early 1980s through the late nineties—now outnumber Boomers as the largest generation. The two biggest generations represent the fastest-growing markets, workforces, and business opportunities.
This growth on each side of the age spectrum has generated new concerns. On the older side, economists consistently cite the aging Boomer population as one of the strongest harbingers of fiscal downturn, due to lower labor force participation rates and steeply rising healthcare costs. Meanwhile, Millennials continue to face the highest rates of unemployment and debt and a host of negative perceptions. These issues necessitate societal changes. The US must find ways to generate economic value from an aging Boomer population and provide opportunities for Millennials if it is to avoid economic stagnation in a multi-generational world.
The profitability of unity
This raises the second point: Uniting generations is not only constructive, but also profitable.
The caregiving burden presented by aging Boomers could well become one of society’s largest unmet needs. The need is so great that some doctors have considered incentivizing young medical students to pursue geriatrics. One idea, put forth several years ago in Florida, is to reward geriatrics students by paying off their school debt. These campaigns seem to be working. Indeed, some Millennial medical students are already talking about the brighter career prospects offered by geriatrics.
On the business side, a variety of forward-thinking Millennial startups are starting to step up as well. One such example is Honor, which has raised over $60 million in total funding to offer home-based, on-demand care to seniors—sort of like an Uber for health care. Similar models have been developed by Hometeam and the UK-based CareZapp. At the annual Lifelong Tech Summit, various tech companies target older consumers with wellness- and lifespan-extending products, such as robot-based care.
Millennials who understand that technology appeals to all generations, not just the youngest, stand to benefit the most in an aging society. Nevertheless, there is considerable work to be done. A recent survey finds that nearly half of adults over 50 feel that youth-focused tech companies treat them condescendingly, despite the fact that 76% of them identify as moderate tech users.
Exaggerated generational clashes
As companies and societies adjust to an increasingly multi-generational world, it is important to clarify that proverbial differences are largely overblown.
Conventional wisdom suggests that older and younger generations are in direct competition for jobs, but recent analyses debunk these claims. A recent large-scale study shows that employment outcomes are positively correlated between the youngest and oldest workers in the United States. A similar result emerges in countries across the European Union. The take-home message: As the economy does well, all generations benefit; when it tanks, everyone loses.
Generational values are also surprisingly well aligned—even as the media portrays them as oppositional. Although Millennials are often given credit for being society’s modern social disruptors, prioritizing social equality and wanting to change the world, Boomers made their name in these same ways just a few decades ago. The tools may differ—Boomers took to the streets, whereas Millennials might take to their tweets—but both generations have shown a desire to have their voices heard on a large scale, intent on improving the world around them in the name of equality. Just as importantly, Boomers were similarly viewed as spoiled and narcissistic when they were younger.
Boomers and Millennials also have each other’s interests at heart more than many believe. According to Paul Taylor’s The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown, the majority of each age group believes that government does not do enough to support older adults. Meanwhile, student debt has been characterized as a concern for all generations, not just Millennials—jeopardizing Boomer retirement, as mom and dad dip into their savings to pay off Millennials’ student loans.
Moving forward together
As society grapples with a record number of generations, focusing on divisions is no longer constructive. Instead, understanding the pragmatic impetus to unite generations, and emphasizing cross-generational complementaries, is far more adaptive.
The two largest generations provide a good starting point. Millennials catering to Boomers will help facilitate their own aim of overcoming recessional obstacles. In aiding Millennial goals, Boomers can fulfill their own quest for continuing relevance and influence. These are steps toward successfully navigating our inevitably intergenerational future.