The recent debate and negotiations this week in Congress over student loans has me fuming.  The primary question is whether or not to increase interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans, loans that go to students from families that earn less than $70,000 a year.  Regardless of whether they agree to raise or maintain interest rates on Stafford loans, it could very well be the case that young people will still get burned.  Graduate students may have to start paying interest on their loans while they are still in school and the government will no longer cover the interest on subsidized loans during the six month transition after undergraduate students graduate.  These changes could cost young people an extra $20 billion dollars over the next decade added on to a cumulative student loan debt that has surpassed $1 trillion.  Student loan debt is one of those things that haunts you well after you graduate, and as a person who is still trying to pay off a small part of that $1 trillion, I can imagine how much tougher it will be for these new lower-income students throughout their lifetime.  So, I am a bit angry; not only because of what this means for student loans but how this contributes to a troubling pattern in today’s policy making that only seems to be getting worse.  I must ask:

How long must the old continue to eat the young?

Recent research from the Brookings Institute finds that the U.S. spends $2.40 on the elderly for every dollar invested in the young.  It isn’t necessarily unfair for our oldest citizens, who have contributed their labor and energy throughout their lifetimes to this country, to receive more government benefits in old age, but researchers have found that the generational balance of cost and benefits have been skewed to favor the old in dramatically unfair ways.  Julia Isaaks from Brookings concludes that:

While it is not wrong to spend more on the elderly than on children, it is wrong to spend at levels that are becoming so high as to crowd out spending at other stages in life and that place a heavy tax burden on the children of today when they grow up to be working-age adults.  Likewise, low spending on children would not be a concern except for the fact that we are a society with high rates of child poverty and significant numbers of young people who falter in making a successful transition to adulthood.

As a member of the Millennial Generation (born 1982 to 2003), or as demographer Joel Kotkin calls it “the Screwed Generation,” I find it troubling to find my parents and grandparents (Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation) making policy decisions to ensure that they have a comfortable death while not making the responsible decisions to ensure that I can enjoy a prosperous and productive life.  Why is it that education spending, child health care, welfare, and job programs are such easy targets for cuts and criticism while Social Security and Medicare (by far the biggest contributors to our debt and financial insecurity) remain “sacred cows?”  Even the Tea Party,  a group of mostly white Boomers and Silents, seems to want it both ways. While they champion fiscal responsibility through a slash and burn mentality toward government spending, when it comes to their own Social Security and Medicare their anger and indignation are much more qualified.  David Frum, a prominent conservative journalist and former speechwriter for George W. Bush, wrote in New York Magazine about the Tea Party:  “This isn’t conservatism; it’s a going-out-of-business sale for the baby-boom generation.”  It’s interesting that Social Security has been set up so that it will remain fiscally intact just long enough until all of the Boomers have kicked the bucket.

How does this happen?

For starters, old people vote, young people do not.  It shouldn’t be much of a surprise then to see that the most recent 111th and 112th Congresses are the oldest in recent U.S. history (the average age of the current 112th Congress is 62), and that they mostly legislate to suit the interest of the Boomers and Silents.  While it was encouraging to see my young peers turn out at the polls at high rates in 2008, our parents are hard at work to prevent this from happening again in 2012.  “Voting Reform” and “fraud prevention” measures are being worked out among the states that will make it harder and more onerous for young people to vote than it already is.  For instance, as much as 18 percent of eligible 18 to 24 year-olds don’t have the photo-identification that would be necessary to vote under some of these proposed laws.

Millennials, therefore, are expected over their lifetimes to pay higher taxes to support the old, collect more debt because today’s policymakers refuse to keep the costs of education and health care under control, and encounter a future where Social Security and Medicare do not provide the benefits that they used to, if the programs continue to exist at all.

The saddest part of this demographic drama is that we young people seem to be okay with it…for now at least.  Unlike our counterparts in Egypt, Greece, and the UK, we have not been taking to the streets.  Sure, there was (is) Occupy Wall Street, but compared to the anger and influence of the Tea Party, it is an example that proves the point that young voices are not being heard by either political party.  Unlike the “Me Generation” (Boomers) that currently dominates the political discourse of this country in an utterly self-centered manner, the voices of the up-and-coming “We Generation” (Millennials) are being snuffed out.

The problem may be that today’s American youth are just too nice.  Demographers Morley Winograd and Michael Hais argue:

…millennials, unlike the boomers of 50 years ago, are not rebellious by nature.  If anything, millennials are unfailingly polite.  Their parents, whom they actually like, have taught them to seek win-win solutions to controversial issues.

So I, in true Millennial fashion, politely ask all of you Boomers and Silents in government to stop robbing us 🙂  As mentioned in my previous post on the Generation Gap, all of our fortunes are tied together.  You need us as much as we need you.  Just remember what has happening in the UK and Greece and the fact that America’s youth make up a much larger share of the population than in either of those countries…

Dustin Cable is a Policy Associate at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service where he conducts research on topics that lie at the intersection of demographics, politics, and public policy.