Generation X Faces a Bleak, Impoverished Old Age

Image result for old man dumpster

            In 1991 the demographers Neil Howe and William Strauss published their awkwardly-titled tome “13th Gen,” about Generation X—the Americans born between 1961 and 1981. If Xers had paid attention they would have committed suicide.

            “Child poverty, employment, wages, home ownership, arrest records — in every category, this generation, the 13th since the American Revolution, is doing worse than the generation that came before,” New York Times book critic Andrew Leonard wrote at the time. “Indeed, for the first time since the Civil War, the authors of ‘13th Gen’ keep reminding us, young people are unlikely to surpass the affluence of their parents.”

            Tellingly, the Times titled Leonard’s review “The Boomers’ Babies” as though their relationship to The Only Generation That Mattered at the time was their status as offspring. Which, equally tellingly, was incorrect. Most Xers’ parents belong to the Silent Generation that came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, not the Boom.

            As Gen Xers passed through each stage of life, Mssrs. Howe and Strauss predicted, they would find themselves living through the worst possible time to be whatever age they happened to be. They attended secondary schools turned threadbare by budget cuts. As they entered young adulthood the government restored draft registration and abolished financial aid grants for college. When “13th Gen”came out the oldest Xers were in their late 20s, in the middle of a deep recession that decimated their job prospects and made it impossible for them to pay off their student loans or save for retirement.

            The trend continued. The oldest Xers are in their late 50s but 47% have nothing saved for retirement; only 13% have more than $100,000.

            Though frequently mocked by corporate journalists, Howe and Strauss have proven prescient, not least because they coined the word “Millennials.” If anything, demographic fate has become even unkinder to Gen X, now ages 36 to 56. Under “normal” circumstances, these Americans would be dominating businesses and cultural institutions.

            Instead, political power and cultural influence have neatly leapfrogged from the ubiquitous Baby Boomers to their actual children, the Millennials.

            Silicon Valley is one barometer. Tech is the nation’s most dynamic sector. The Valley wields influence disproportionate to its quarter of a million employees. Tech is militantly, brutally, cartoon-villainously ageist. People over 35–the “olds,” Millennials call us—need not apply.

            Five years ago, I wrote: “The median American worker is age 42. The median age at Facebook, Google, AOL and Zynga, on the other hand, is 30 or younger. Twitter, which recently got hosed in an age discrimination lawsuit, has a median age of 28.” Silicon Valley hasn’t done anything to reverse this dismal record.

            Google just settled another age discrimination lawsuit. But they haven’t learned anything.

            Brazen ageism sticks out even more in a PC culture where discrimination against women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQA people and others prompts horror, as it should. Young people who don’t tolerate ethnic slurs call older folks slow, out-of-touch and stupid—remarks all the more baseless since they increasingly segregate themselves into dorm-like apartment complexes and hipster bars where they don’t encounter anyone older than 40.

            “Google in 2014 began publishing diversity statistics and vowed to hire more women, minorities, and LGBTQ workers. But Google didn’t include diversity statistics for age in its diversity report, or even reference age. Incredibly, age remains invisible in Google’s 2019 diversity report,” marvels employment discrimination attorney Patricia Barnes.  

            Meanwhile, coverage of generational issues in mainstream media has deteriorated beyond the Howe-Strauss model of consistent discrimination to downright Orwellian: being “disappeared.” In articles and broadcasts conflicts between age groups lists the combatants as Boomers versus Millennials, or more broadly, between Boomers and Millennials and the generation after, Generation Z. Generation Xers aren’t mentioned. They—we—no longer exist. Which, considering why Gen Z is called that—first came X, Millennials were Y, then Z—is really weird.

            True to “13th Gen” the book, America’s invisible generation is heading into its final chapter, old age, at yet another awful time to be that age.

            The Boomers will shuffle off into the sunset, Social Security and Medicare benefits intact. Gen Xers stare into the abyss, bleakly contemplating starvation and dying of diseases for which they can’t afford medical treatment as the political system moves closer to granting corporate conservatives one of the dearest items on their agenda: abolishing or privatizing—which, if you’re poor, is jargon for eliminating—Social Security.

            “Out With the Old, In With the Young,” an opinion essay by 40-year-old Gen Astra Taylor in the New York Times, provides a glimpse at how the ruling classes plan to take away government entitlement programs from Generation X: by disempowering them politically.

            Taylor makes some good points. “From age limits on voting and eligibility for office, to the way House districts are drawn, to the problem of money in politics, our modern political system is stacked against the young,” she writes. Unlike adults, teenagers are forced to learn about the politics and history in school. They should be allowed to vote. Why should someone be able to drive, vote and join the military at age 18 but have to be 30 or older to serve in the Senate?

            But Taylor’s piece is riddled with ageist assumptions such as the notion that younger people care more about climate change than older ones. She promulgates the disappearing of Generation X: “The boomers who came of age in the 1950s and ’60s benefited from boom times while Millennials and Generation Z have been dogged by the aftermath of the mortgage meltdown, an underwhelming recovery and Gilded Age levels of inequality.” “Generation X” does not appear in her piece—yet we’re the post-Boomers who got screwed first.

            “Age-based inequities “and “the geographic biases of the American electoral system,” Taylor complains, hasten “the coming gerontocracy.” What she fails to see is that the gerontocracy is already here. The “olds” control power over big business and its pet politicians now—not because they’re elderly but because they’re Boomers.

            The fortunes of an age group ebb and flow as different generations pass through it. When I was a kid in the 1970s, many older people were so poor they ate pet food. Now they are Boomers. Boomers are many, so they have power, thus they are rich. As throughout human history, the rich and powerful make things work for themselves.

            The corollary is, Taylor doesn’t understand that as Boomers die and Xers replace them in nursing homes—or not, since they won’t be able to afford them—the elderly will become a dispossessed, disadvantaged, consistently screwed-over age group, just as Xers were as kids, young adults and during middle age. Taylor and her Millennial allies will be killing a gerontocracy that will already be dead.

            As Millennials ascend and age into their 40s, they’ll join the call to get rid of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid so they can save on their taxes. Propaganda like Taylor’s will support the movement to disenfranchise the elderly.

            Used to be, the olds voted in vast numbers to protect their political interests. Xers will be wandering the streets, dumpster-diving and dying a dog’s death, with no address to enter on a voter registration card.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)


  • For the last 40 years, money has gone from the median Boomer to the 0.1%. A very few Boomers (and pre-Boomers) accumulated a LOT of wealth, while most of us saw our incomes decline after adjusting for inflation (the annual raise for the median Boomer was less than the COLA).
    In the ’50s, the top marginal rate was 50% on earned income and 91% on unearned income, and the IRS said any CEO who paid himself more than 5 times the average wage only earned 5 times, the rest was unearned (and so taxed at 91% Federal, plus state and local taxes). So the average CEO income was just 5 times as much as the average income for all workers. Unemployment was low, and the average worker earned 20% as much as the richest CEO.
    Them days is long gone.

  • alex_the_tired
    October 21, 2019 5:13 PM

    Well, I wasn’t feeling suicidal enough today, even though I spent two hours waiting in a clinic being treated like a thing in order to get a refill. Thanks, Ted.

  • Beach Watcher
    October 22, 2019 7:18 AM

    The term “entitlement program” does a disservice to people like me who have been paying into these programs for five decades. Social Security and Medicare are more correctly called earned benefit programs. I’m surprised the oligarchs haven’t managed to steal those funds through privatization–yet.

  • Steal what funds? The Social Security surplus has always been “invested” in US Treasury Bonds. Any funds generated by the sale of T-Bonds goes in to the general operating fund, and spent every year. The nearly $3 trillion surplus is a IOU to the Federal Government by the Federal Government. From 1984 to 2018, over billion dollars has been added to the surplus each year.

    The surplus was $24B in 1983. That’s 120x increase in the surplus, or an extra $2.87 Trillion in federal spending over the last 35 year. I’m sure the businesses owned by the rich received a health portion of this spending.

    • Working people’s earned income gets taxed in order to finance future Social Security payments, but it ends up as a debt owed to Social Security,

      So, new taxes on the earned income of working people must be raised in order to pay the debt owed to Social Security.

      So working people will be taxed twice, once to create the debt and once to repay the debt.

      Does anyone else find this means of financing to be suspect?

      • To Glen,

        As I understand it Social Security is a transfer payment system. The tax on current workers pays the benefits that are, at that “moment” (as opposed to the future), being provided to retirees.

        Any excess of taxes taken in less benefits paid out are invested in US treasury debt instruments, as noted by Rakle2, above. So yes, the treasury is in debt to the SS administration.

        Presumably, the vast surplus thus accrued will be to small by (2030?) to be able to pay the projected benefits due by the projected SS tax collected.

        Outside the “who’s fucking over Gen-X now” meme, I know of no other US government agency solvent for the next 10+ years. In fact, as soon as the budget is passed, all, together, are projected to be some $trillion in debt by the end of the fiscal year

        Thus Social Security must be considered a pristine model of a successful and (at leas semi-) sustainable government program in the sense that it can fulfill its mission while operating at a fiscal surplus.

      • “So yes, the treasury is in debt to the SS administration.”

        The money taxed to fund the future SS shortfall went to general revenues and was used as a means of reducing other national debt instead of raising other tax revenues.

        A few years ago there was a fuss about where the money was to come from when the SS surplus began to be spent down.

        Money has to be paid to reduce the debt held in the Treasury Bills bought with the excess SS contributions.

        There is no money in a Treasury Bill, there is an obligation to pay its holder the value of the bill in order to reduce its debt.

        The money to redeem does not come from within the T Bills, it must be paid from other sources (taxation or revenue from sales) to redeem the T Bill.

        This is the concern about foreign holders (or SS) of Treasury debt such as China. If China demanded US currency to redeem its US (trillions $) T bill holdings a tax would have to be raised to accomplish this (unless the money was simply printed, which in itself is a form of taxation through inflation).

  • As a fellow member of Gen X I do see what Ted has written here. However, generational warfare is playing into our adversaries’ agenda. We could appeal to the younger generations’ openness to socialism to ally with them to strengthen Social Security and Medicare and other “entitlement programs”. We would have to reframe the arguments to get them on our side by emphasizing socialistic ideas behind the programs.

    • Maybe we could work to repeal the 16th Amendment so that the Feds would have to beg the States for two billion dollars per day of war funding, instead of the States having to beg the Feds to end the poverty caused by endless wars.

      I couch this request in terms of money because sociopaths don’t care more about people than about money.

  • alex_the_tired
    October 23, 2019 9:33 AM

    I can fix it.
    Put Mark Zuckerberg in Supermax.
    Honest to God. Trust me. Put him in Supermax for 10 years. I guarantee it will solve the problem.
    Put him in for what?
    Completely irrelevant. Just lock him up in a little box, isolate him from the entire human race for a decade, and I’m quite confident it will solve the problem.
    And if I’m wrong, well, pencils have erasers.

  • Ted, may I suggest that the economic situation in which many belonging to the so-called «Generation X» – by your definition above, US residents «born between 1961 and 1981» (not all of whom, of course, are poor ; Jeffrey Preston Bezos was born in 1964, Lawrence Edward page was born in 1974, to take just wo examples) – is not the fault of the mass of so-called «Baby Boomers», nor that of the mass of «Millenials», but rather that of Capitalism as she is in the United States today, over which the majority of those belonging to these two generations have not the least control. After all, in a country where three people hold more wealth than the lower 50 % of the population, a lot of people, from all generations, are going to be suffering. (Note also that of these three people, only one, William Henry Gates, is a «Boomer», Mr Buffet is too old, and Mr Bezos – who seems to be doing alright financially even after his divorce – as noted above, is a member of your own «Generation X».) The problems poor people in «Generation X» are facing, like those of the poor in other generations (and they are legion), are due not to their date of birth, but to a political and economic system very deliberately rigged against them. Intergenerational warfare is not the solution to this dilemma, but it does, like i«dentity politics» constitute a distraction welcome to those responsible for it, as, for example, Bernard Sanders, who missed being a «Boomer» by two years, knows. Keep the focus on the billionaires – and the system rigged in their favour – rather than on older or younger generations ; find, instead, allies among them….


    • Hi Henri,

      Thanks for pointing out, ONCE AGAIN, the diversionary effect, if not cynical intent, of the apparent “generation wars” narrative.

      A quick look at Howe @ Wiki shows that the book under review is 32 years old and that he (+/-) Strauss have an entire library of them that has spawned a cottage industry. To wit:
      On Borrowed Time (1988)
      Generations (1991)
      13th-GEN (1993)
      The Fourth Turning (1997)
      Global Aging: The Challenge of the
      Next Millennium (1999)
      Millennials Rising (2000)
      The 2003 Aging Vulnerability Index (2003)
      Millennials Go To College (2003, 2007)
      The Graying of the Middle Kingdom (2004)
      Millennials and the Pop Culture (2005)
      Long-Term Immigration Projection Methods (2006)
      Millennials and K-12 Schools (2008)
      The Graying of the Great Powers (2008)
      Millennials in the Workplace (2010)

      You pointed out the existence some very wealthy among the alleged (exclusively) finacially oppressed generation.

      My point is the converse: 1) by definition the oldest Gen-Xers are still 4 years away from drawing minimal Social Security benefits 2) therefore the stories that have circulated for the generally woeful financial situation of American retirees must refer to Boomers, (one of) the alleged, uniformly oppressor generations
      afflicting the X-ers.

      Yes Boomers, X-ers and Millennials: you’ll get nothing of what you want and deserve by heeding the pervasive, controlling meme to be at each others’ throats.

      • Divide et impera….


      • Hi Henri,

        Re: “Divide et impera …. ”

        Yes, indeed, and our topic of discussion here is only one of many such memes (media, think tank, political parties etc., etc) being hammered endlessly … for the same “democracy”-destroying purpose.

  • Ted, if you are still watching this thread and if, indeed, Schadenfreude ist die schönste Freude, then this Vice article is bound to fill you with joy. The Boomers and their predecessors are dying off, and it seems that your generation – Generation X – will also get to bury the Millenials. King of the Hill !… 😉


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