Millennials To Bear The Burden Of Boomer's Social Safety Net

There is a big demographic shift underway and it's reshaping the U.S. David Greene talks to Paul Taylor about his book, The Next America. He's the executive vice president at the Pew Research Center.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're going to hear about a new book now. It's called "The Next America," and the next America it captures is a place where millennials, the younger generation, are growing in numbers and influence. Among other things, they are reshaping this country's political landscape. The book, packed with charts and numbers, raises questions about federal programs that seem to treat millennials unfairly.

The author is Paul Taylor. He's executive vice president at the Pew Research Center and he oversees research on demographics. His book is really a picture of what America looks like now and what's to come. Paul Taylor, thanks so much for coming in. We appreciate it.

PAUL TAYLOR: My pleasure.

GREENE: You bring up a couple important numbers in the book, and one is that there are 76 million baby boomers out in the country right now. There are 80 million millennials. And if we look at things like Social Security, Medicare, if you have almost a one-to-one, I mean, that would make you think that things are going OK, things are in balance, but you actually paint a picture of things very out of balance and suggest that's one reason millennials are in trouble.

TAYLOR: Things are out of balance. Our Social Security and Medicare systems, which, in the public's mind, have done brilliantly in doing what they set out to do, they were based on the demographics of the 20th century. You had, literally, at the beginning, 150 workers per retiree, by the time all the baby boomers move into taking those programs, we'll only have two workers per retiree.

The math of those programs does not work. Everybody who looks at the demographics knows that those systems are going broke with 15 or 20 years and the longer you wait, the more the burden of the solution is going to fall on the millennials.

GREENE: You suggest that that's something millennials are going to start thinking about and it's going to create some tensions between the baby boomer generation and millennials. How does that tension play out?

TAYLOR: Well, what's so fascinating is there isn't any tension at the moment. You have a generation coming in that isn't wagging its finger with blame at mom or grandma, in fact, they're living with mom and grandma. Forty percent of them have boomeranged back home. There's a lot of generational interdependence and maybe that is the best basis upon which to go forward and rebalance our books on Social Security and Medicare.

GREENE: In terms of the finances of these millennials, you know, on this program and on NPR, we've heard a lot of voices of people questioning whether it is worth paying these enormous bills to go to college these days. But you put out a report recently called the high cost of not going to college. Explain to me what you found.

TAYLOR: We looked at the older folks in the millennial generation presumably through their formal education and we looked at their economic experiences on all the indicators you would - wages, employment, unemployment, debt, poverty, et cetera - and what we found is that today's generation of young adults that age, there is a bigger gap in economic outcomes between those who didn't go beyond high school and those who went to college than there ever had been in the past.

The biggest reason that the gap has increased is not so much that today's college graduates are doing better than yesterday's, it's that today's high school graduates are doing so much worse. In this age group, today's unemployment rate, 3.8 percent if you have a college degree or more, 12 percent if you have a high school degree or less.

Now, listen, the folks who did it right are getting jobs, but they are saddled now with this albatross of debt that makes it very hard for them to get started. So this is a generation of young adults that isn't buying houses, isn't buying cars and isn't getting married. And there are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is, they don't feel like they have a sound enough financial footing to go forward.

GREENE: You know, Paul, one thing we know about millennials, that there are a lot of them. How are they reshaping the political landscape?

TAYLOR: Well, we saw a lot of their power in 2008 and 2012. They were a very important voting bloc that helped elect Obama twice. They are now about a 15 or 16 percent of the electorate. By 2030, they will be about 30 percent of the electorate. So the simple demographic churn assures that they will become very important. Woe be it to the politician who doesn't understand who they are and doesn't understand their dreams and aspirations and fears.

GREENE: You make the point several times in the book that you're a numbers guy. How do you perceive the numbers? I mean, you leave this book thinking what?

TAYLOR: I leave this book thinking we have very serious demographically driven challenges, that we have a political system that at the moment isn't stepping up to the plate, but we have a population that isn't spoiling for a fight over these issues. We've got to rebalance the social safety net so it's fair to all generations; the numbers just don't work going forward. That cries out for political leadership.

At the moment, it's hard to find it in Washington. My hope is that in the coming years, you'll find it in the millennial generation, you'll find it from people of goodwill in all walks of life and we should step up to the plate on this one sooner rather than later because the longer you wait, the tougher the solutions become.

GREENE: Paul Taylor, it's always good to talk to you. Thanks so much for coming on.

TAYLOR: Thank you much.

GREENE: His new book is called "The Next America."

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