One byproduct of the modern, incessant news cycle is shared concern. As we become more inundated with content meant to alarm us and capture our attention, we become subject to a force that can steer us together, as a society, beyond panic and toward collective action.  

Of course, when we turn our attention away from certain troubles, we bypass this phenomenon altogether, opting for collective ignorance instead. It is because of this ignorance we run into some serious problems – think of how Americans ignored the risky trading practices that directly fueled the Great Recession or supported misguided drug policies while permitting lax oversight of the goliath pharmaceutical industry decades before the opioid epidemic.

Not that it is easy to call attention to issues that would otherwise fly under the radar. As far as policy issues go, government regulation of subprime mortgage markets and novel approaches toward narcotics abuse don’t exactly rile up audiences or invoke sympathy the way special counsels or polar bear habitat depletion do. It is only by directing attention to these issues now, however, that we can avert full-scale disasters from appearing at our doorstep years down the line. America’s elderly population is this next issue.

As a demographic, retired Americans, along with those soon to retire, may very well precipitate the country’s next economic crisis. The benefits they collect constitute a politically vast and monetarily gargantuan liability that, for many decades, Americans have assumed to be rightfully bestowed and forever sustainable. This has largely proven to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as elderly voters’ overwhelming confidence in the ethical justifications as well as the financial guarantors of retirement benefits has afforded them near-complete political immunity.  

Penetrating this veil of sustainability requires that we first come to terms with the true nature of Social Security. Indeed, it is not the simple pension system it has been made out to be since its inception, as the meticulously crafted notion that retirees receive only what they paid in through payroll deductions completely ignores the postwar fertility spike that ushered in the Baby Boomers. Now retiring in droves, Boomers have proved to be uniquely disruptive as they tax the Medicare and Social Security systems more than these programs can bring in, setting the stage for exclusive reliance on taxpayer contributions for retirees by 2028 for Medicare and 2034 for Social Security.

Millennials and future Americans, already footing the bill for a sizeable chunk of retirement benefits, have good cause for concern: Between 1960 and 2016, the ratio of American workers to social security beneficiaries – essentially, the number of employed taxpayers to retirees – fell by nearly half and is projected to fall even further. That current retirement benefits were predicated on the preeminence of pension payouts, as opposed to taxes on an increasingly outnumbered workforce, means that 2034 will see a gaping divide between planned benefits and funds collected.  If nothing changes, younger generations will see little return on a system that hastily demanded their acquiescence.

So far, the country has done a pretty fine job at avoiding possible solutions to this untenable status quo.  At the root of this perpetual inaction is, as usual, the electoral strength of the constituency whose self-interest is in question.  Boomers, in keeping with the generally positive correlation between age and electoral turnout, vote at a much higher rate than younger segments of the population.  Putting the retirement benefits that sustain most of them in jeopardy, therefore, is politically inviable for Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike, a mutual understanding underscored by the lobbying clout of the American Association of Retired Persons.

Party dynamics have borne little fruit.  In the past, the Republican Party’s efforts to reshape Social Security into a field of privatized investment failed for their excessive reliance on risky financing. Future initiatives are rather unlikely in the wake of the 2016 election, which has pivoted an increasingly blue-collar GOP away from a traditionally reflexive aversion to government welfare. On their end, Democrats have maintained steadfast in their mission of expanding Social Security’s coverage, buoyed by valid concerns over the declining value of retirement benefits but nonetheless unwilling to look beyond the current generation of retirees.  

Short of payroll tax increases, which would soon do nothing but sustain the current amount of benefits, cutting benefits or increasing the age for Social Security eligibility are the only realistic options. Both tax increases and benefit reduction inflict the most grief upon younger generations (who were only called upon to support the elderly in the first place because of generational divides in poverty that have since been reversed). Meanwhile, restricting which retirees qualify for benefits clearly reinvigorates the system, but punishes much of the elder population unfairly.  

Though none of these options are ideal, we should not overlook the consequence of maintaining such a flawed welfare system, a prospect reflected in its scale.  In fiscal year 2016, nearly a quarter of the entire federal budget was allocated to Social Security, while a whopping 15 percent was reserved for Medicare.  Absent a comprehensive solution to the Boomers’ mass retirement, it is clear an accordingly massive bailout will be required to keep two of the government’s biggest programs afloat.

Unfortunately, as things currently stand, this outcome is increasingly the most likely.  Unlike the last restructuring of the Social Security trust fund, compromise on a solution this time around has been made ever so difficult by perpetual procrastination.  This will most likely lead to Congress hastily coming up with (read: borrowing) funds to sustain the system, furthering unwise government spending practice and inviting a whole host of deficit-induced ills.  

As tempting as it is to lament the dearth of palatable solutions, the looming insolvency of America’s retirement programs will not become any less likely the more we wait.  Addressing the issue head-on will prove to be a challenge, but we owe it to current and future generations to make those difficult choices. The first step in solving this problem is acknowledging that one exists.


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