Myers Urges Generational Unity for 2012 Election

Knowledge in Action:

Myers Urges Generational Unity for 2012 Election

By Cristy Lytal

Dowell Myers Dowell Myers leads a panel discussion at Tutor Campus Center.
Photo by John Roberson
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Few things in life are certain, but you can count on this: In 10 years, you’ll be 10 years older.

Dowell Myers, professor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy and director of the Population Dynamics Research Group, shared the implications of this and other straightforward demographic realities during a Feb. 1 discussion titled “The New Connectedness as a Strategy to Win Majority Support: Overcoming Divisions Posed by Class, Age, Race and Immigration.”

“In the immortal words of our former speaker of the house, Tip O’Neill, all politics is local,” Myers said in the opening of his talk. “But, of course, that’s not quite true. Really, all politics is demographic.”

The talk was part of Road to the White House: Politics, Media and Technology, a yearlong series of public conversations presented by the Judith and John Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise, the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s Center on Communication Leadership & Policy and the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

As the presidential candidates make their bids for the 2012 election, Americans hear an endless litany of divisions: red and blue states; Republicans and Democrats; the one and the 99 percent; the old and the young; native born and immigrants; whites and people of color.

“A lot of dialogue is about divisions, and then people begin to believe it and act like it. And then we become more divided,” Myers said.

Candidates and voters focus on separate interest groups, failing to acknowledge that society functions on the basis of a generational partnership, Myers explained. Working-age adults pay taxes to support education for children and to enable seniors to retire. These same working-age contributors were beneficiaries as children and will be beneficiaries again as seniors.

“Our tax schedules are based on income, but really it’s age groups who make contributions for different kinds of services that different ages need. You take your turn, and you pay along the way. You then pass it on to the next generation, because basically, we’re all in it together,” Myers said.

This generational partnership will be complicated by a soaring senior ratio with massive implications for the economy and for society as a whole.

“The baby boomers are 78 million in number, and they’re getting older, and they’re not dying that fast,” Myers said. “In the year 2030, the Census Bureau predicts there will be 56 million baby boomers still here, all voting heavily, with time on our hands and big interests.”

For decades, there have been 24 seniors per 100 working-age people in America. That ratio is about to increase by 64 percent.

“This is driving all of the economy and policy for the next 20 years,” Myers said. “It’s as simple as that, and it’s very predictable. It’s far more predictable than global warming or the deficit or anything else because just add 10 to everybody’s age, and you can figure it out.”

The high senior ratio will trigger crises ranging from funding Social Security and Medicare to replacing a highly educated generation of workers and taxpayers. Retiring baby boomers who want to sell their expensive homes won’t be able to find younger buyers who can afford them.

The gross domestic product will not grow as quickly as it has previously because the labor force won’t grow as quickly. Tax increases will be necessary to support the large retired segment of the population, but benefits to these seniors almost will certainly be reduced.

On the positive side, there will be a tremendous demand for young workers, including minorities, to replace the retiring generation. The reliance on immigrants also will increase.

According to Myers, presidential candidates and politicians don’t mention the senior ratio because they don’t have a solution to propose.

“The problem with aging is that nobody can figure out how to stop it,” he said.

However, Myers believes that a true leader could create unity by explaining that so much of society is fundamentally based on the life cycle.

“Basically, we need to get citizens mostly on the same page,” he said. “Right now, they’re not. They think they’re all separate. They think they’re not getting older. They think they’re not connected in any way. We need to talk about it.”

Panelist Dyana Mason, a Ph.D. candidate at USC Price, gave her perspective about how politicians might convey that message. As a former activist who campaigned for gay rights in Virginia, she has firsthand experience communicating across divisions.

“You have to be optimistic and believe people can make the right decision if they’re given the right information,” she said.

Another panelist, Alaina Jackson, a Doctor of Policy, Planning, and Development candidate at USC Price, underlined the importance of recognizing the nation’s connectedness by sharing her experience as an immigrant’s wife.

“He has been treated in some very horrible ways,” she said. “And that has really made me rethink some of my positions on immigration and on what I’m expecting political leaders to talk about on the road to the White House in terms of building bridges, closing gaps and addressing some of the disparities that exist.”

Moderator Dan Mazmanian, director of the Bedrosian Center, concluded the discussion with the observation that the United States is not alone in facing the challenge of soaring senior ratios and major demographic shifts.

“I understand places like Japan and China and the nations of the European Union are going through comparable demographic tippings of enormous scale with similar profound implications,” he said. “We may learn from how others are doing better, if they are, at managing the transition.”