Martinez: Medicare is a drain on the young

September 12, 2012 

The most frustrating aspect of Campaign 2012 for me is the intense focus on Medicare benefits for the millions of Baby Boomers, or as I call us, America’s greediest generation.

While the presidential candidates debate the extent and method by which one of the richest demographics in the United States will have its health care subsidized, the challenges facing younger Americans go largely unnoticed, even though 20-somethings are suffering through Depression-like economic conditions.

Get a load of the statistics gathered by the interest group Generation Opportunity, led by Paul T. Conway, a former chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Labor.

The national unemployment rate in August was 8.1 percent (seasonally adjusted). Among 18-to-29-year-olds, however, it was a non-seasonally adjusted 12.7 percent. Throw in the 1.7 million young people who have stopped looking for a job and the unemployment rate for Millennials skyrockets to 16.7 percent. That’s a jobless rate normally associated with the Great Depression decade of 1930 to 1940.

Complicating the labor market for young people is the fact that they’re now competing with workers their parents’ age. In July, economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research concluded that workers 55 and older accounted for 57.9 percent of employment growth during the previous 12 months. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows the percentage of workers 55 or older in the labor force has risen by 8 percent since 2008.

These trends are alarming. Not only do we need younger people paying taxes to help fund massive federal spending, but many of them are starting their professional lives with a boatload of debt. Outstanding student loan debt stood at $914 billion as of June 30 according to the New York Federal Reserve. The under-30 cohort held the note on about a third of that total, or $292 billion.

The average student loan for the group is now up to $20,835. In North Carolina, more than half – 53 percent – of those leaving college with a four-year degree step foot into the real world nearly $21,000 in debt, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. That’s a good down payment on a house.

The scenario they face is getting even darker, since starting salaries for recent graduates appear to be falling. A May 2012 study by the Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University concluded that the median first-job salary for four-year degree holders who graduated from 2006 through 2010 was just $28,000. That low figure was, in part, because 60 percent took a first job that didn’t require a degree, in order to begin putting food on their table.

Eighty percent of Rutgers’ study respondents have transitioned out of their first jobs, but only 30 percent have found a gig in their chosen career field. Indeed, 36 percent who transitioned out their first job took their current job out of necessity, not for long-term career development.

These hard economic realities are having life-altering impacts in North Carolina. According to Generation Opportunity’s August survey, made available at the start of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, nearly 40 percent of our state’s 18-to-29-year-olds have put off buying a home. One in three has delayed the start of a family and 22 percent have postponed marriage.

For previous American generations, the 20s were the time of life for personal, professional, social and economic growth. Today it’s become a time of stagnation, lowered expectations and moving back with the parents.

This is unconscionable. And it brings me to this challenge to Baby Boomers: Look into the eyes of a 25-year-old and explain why Medicare benefits must be preserved as is.

The unpleasant truth is, Baby Boomers and seniors are eating this country’s generational seed corn by electrifying the third political rails of Medicare and Social Security. Reforms under which the older generations assume more of their own medical and retirement expenses and responsibilities are essential if today’s 20-somethings are to avoid becoming a lost generation.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez (rickjmartinez2@gmail.com) is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and SGRToday.com

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