Members Only | November 5, 2021 | Reading Time: 6 minutes

It’s time to overthrow the gerontocracy

There’s a reason we never talk about these things out loud: the counterattacks and accusations seem devastating.

Image courtesy of the Pittsburgh City Paper.
Image courtesy of the Pittsburgh City Paper.

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There’s a deeper battle happening in Washington than the ones we usually hear about. It’s lurking right under the surface of the Build Back Better (BBB) bill. It’s woven into the established order in this country. It’s something we’re afraid to say out loud.

America has become a gerontocracy.

It’s time to overthrow it. 


This isn’t exactly rocket science: investments in younger generations mean more people living healthier lives, costing the government less, paying more taxes and having more of their own resources later in life. 


This isn’t about our country’s leaders being in their 70s and 80s, though that matters. This is about how we lavish so much of our limited resources on our elders at the expense of younger generations. 

Americans over age 65 make up only 17 percent of the population. Yet we spend about 40 percent of our entire federal budget on them. This is an outgrowth of a long-ago senior poverty crisis in America. 

That’s why we created Social Security and Medicare, and they worked like gangbusters: over the last five decades, the poverty rate among seniors has dropped by two-thirds. Today, seniors have the lowest poverty of any age group in America, the greatest wealth and the most home equity and home ownership, the least debt, and their overall household income has risen at double the rate of everyone else’s.

Meanwhile, children under age 18 are the poorest age group in America. One in six children of this country lives in debilitating poverty. In fact, Americans under age 35 have twice the poverty rate of Americans over age 65, and the gap is steadily widening. 

This is insane.

If we accomplish nothing else through the Biden agenda, it will be to start dragging our society’s investment levels across the generations back to some kind of coherence (the American Rescue Plan lifting 5 million kids out of poverty is a good start). But eventually we have to go much further. There are three big reasons why.

First, things are about to get a whole lot worse. The amount we spend on seniors is set to explode, dwarfing every other item in the federal budget and everything we do as a society. In 10 years, 50 percent of our federal budget will go to people over age 65. Far worse, over the next 30 years, Medicare faces a $71 trillion shortfall and Social Security faces a $31 trillion shortfall (the rest of the budget faces only a $3 trillion shortfall — so 98 percent of our debt comes from two giant programs mostly for seniors). 


Social Security is an insurance program, not a savings program. You don’t put money in some giant Social Security bank and withdraw it later with interest (that was actually the Bush plan). You pay premiums in what is an insurance plan against poverty in old age. And after all, if you pay homeowners insurance, you collect if, and only if, you have a fire. But it’s better if you never have to. 


And because we pay interest on all that debt, by 2050 half of all tax dollars will go to paying interest. Forget investments in health, education, housing, infrastructure, the economy or even defense. Everything will get crowded out by our addiction to senior subsidies.

Second, spending on seniors manages to be contrary to both progressive and conservative values (a mind-bending feat in today’s politics). Senior subsidies are profoundly regressive. As noted above, older Americans are the most well-off age group in our society. In fact, there are currently 4 million retiree households that hold more than a million dollars in investable assets, 2 million who are earning over $200,000 a year after retirement. 

Yet many of these wealthier seniors get an opening annual Social Security benefit as high as $50,000 per person, which they clearly don’t need, and is higher than what the average retiree gets. Overall, this well-off group will receive $1.6 trillion in Social Security benefits over the next decade alone. And by the way, for anyone who cares about racial justice, seniors are much, much whiter than younger Americans. 

Amazingly, this setup is also at odds with conservative values. Conservatives are of course not exactly fans of an expansive social safety net to begin with. But if we are going to have social programs, it would be far more conservative to spend society’s resources on giving young people health, education and training so they have an equal opportunity to be successful in life and develop their own resources than to have the government step in after someone has worked throughout their life and throw in a bonus regardless of need. 

Third, spending on younger people is simply a much better investment in our economy, society and federal budget. The economic return of providing pre-k to 4 year-olds is $83 billion for each cohort of kids. We could be stacking that up year after year. Even getting kids the basics like more food and health coverage through food stamps and Medicaid creates better health and lower health costs in adulthood. Not to mention that expanding child care and parental leave increases women’s labor force participation, income, and tax revenue. 


Conservatives are of course not exactly fans of an expansive social safety net to begin with. But if we are going to have social programs, it would be far more conservative to spend society’s resources on giving young people health, education and training so they have an equal opportunity to be successful in life and develop their own resources than to have the government step in after someone has worked throughout their life and throw in a bonus regardless of need. 


All told, this isn’t exactly rocket science: investments in younger generations mean more people living healthier lives, costing the government less, paying more taxes and having more of their own resources later in life. 

Of course, there’s a reason we never talk about these things out loud (certainly politicians are afraid to): the counterattacks and accusations seem devastating. But looking closer, they are pretty thin gruel. 

The primary charge is that any reduction in benefits for seniors amounts to elder cruelty. It is nothing of the sort. Social Security and Medicare are two of the great achievements of our society. Removing fear and misery from old age is something to celebrate and defend, and no one is arguing for a return to senior penury. 

Rather, this is about dialing back the spending spree on the people who don’t need it to help the people who do. It’s the same argument against the Trump tax cuts, the same argument for the Biden BBB … shoot, it’s the same basic argument from the story of Robin Hood.

Another attack: you want to take away people’s money. After all, these are contributions that seniors have made to Social Security and deserve to get back. But this represents a fundamental, often willful misunderstanding of Social Security, and was the exact same mistake that George W. Bush made when he argued to privatize it. 

Social Security is an insurance program, not a savings program. You don’t put money in some giant Social Security bank and withdraw it later with interest (that was actually the Bush plan). You pay premiums in what is an insurance plan against poverty in old age. And after all, if you pay homeowners insurance, you collect if, and only if, you have a fire. But it’s better if you never have to. 


Ultimately, we have to make choices, not pretend that math is simply a Fox News conspiracy. As for Medicare for All, that is a non sequitur. If we want to have a robust debate about a single-payer system and how it would benefit younger folks, that’s great. Helping younger folks is the name of the game. But let’s not sneak in single payer through the back door by expanding Medicare now and then giving it to more people … maybe … later. 


A final criticism — this is just an argument to oppose the Sanders plan to give vision, hearing and dental coverage to seniors, or even the broader push to provide “Medicare for All.” Not really. 

There is actually an excellent case to cover those three critical aspects of health. But if we want to provide those things, we must show how we are going to do it within the context of refocusing our society’s support toward younger Americans. 

Ultimately, we have to make choices, not pretend that math is simply a Fox News conspiracy. As for Medicare for All, that is a non sequitur. If we want to have a robust debate about a single-payer system and how it would benefit younger folks, that’s great. Helping younger folks is the name of the game. But let’s not sneak in single payer through the back door by expanding Medicare now and then giving it to more people … maybe … later. 

None of this is intended to blame seniors for where we have landed. This wasn’t necessarily intentional. Seniors vote, young people barely do, and our kids can’t … so it’s not surprising that voters voted for their interests. But we can’t continue to let things slide any further. It’s time to look at reality. It’s time to end the gerontocracy.


Matt Robison covers public policy and governance for the Editorial Board. The host of Beyond Politics Podcast and Great Ideas Podcast, for WKXL in Concord, NH, he lives with his family in Amherst, Mass.

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