I’ve followed the work and writing of Joseph Sternberg on the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board for several years now. I find his insights to be helpful, particularly in understanding political movements in Europe, where he’s based. When I heard that he was writing a book, the title alone drew me in.
While I was excited to read this book, diving into it shortly after its release last month, I come away disappointed. Sternberg makes his case, but the text was overdone with statistics. Hardly a paragraph went by without multiple statistics. I found it incredibly difficult to follow his point, although it was in there somewhere.
Here’s what I come away with. In governance, the Boomers have dismal track record. Like petulant children, they’ve used the levers of power to make their own life’s journey more comfortable, with little regard for the broader consequences. Generous social safety nets, circling the wagons for homeowners, and focusing on their own problems instead of looking to the broader country. Some they did on purpose, others were done out of fear. Many of the theories they pursued, by Republicans and Democrats, had failed before and, unsurprisingly, they failed again. They’ve left us with runaway debt, entitlements that devour the federal budget, and locked out of the traditional path to American wealth, homeownership. In the job market, they have created a two-tiered system where Boomer employees are lavished with generous benefits and higher pay, while Millennials are hired into a more vulnerable second-tier with less pay and benefits.
The argument that Sternberg puts forth is that the short-sightness of the Boomer governments will leave the Millennials with few good options to right the ship. Throughout the history of the United States, public debt was used for a particular purpose, for a specified duration, and repaid by the generation that incurred the debt. Starting in the 1990s, that paradigm was discarded and now the debt is out of control. All the while, Boomers padded their landing by increasing social safety net programs to ensure they would receive benefits far and above the taxes that they paid into the system.
There will be a reckoning and the checks will not clear. No amount of tax hikes can mathematically pay out the Social Security and Medicare benefits that Boomers enacted. There aren’t enough workers, and Boomers will live longer than any actuarial table could predict. There will be benefit cuts. As Sternberg points out, those cuts are already happening at the state level with regards to pensions. There simply isn’t enough money.
I also came away hopeful. Hopeful because we will finally get to solve many of these problems. If we do it right, our children won’t have to face this generational burden. We can be noble like the Silent Generation that bore the brunt of global war so that their children and grandchildren would know unbelievable peace. Hopeful because we have so many examples of how not to run an economy, what tax policies don’t work, and how our social safety net needs to be for the truly poor among us. We have a tremendous capacity for compassion. We can be a great society; instead of looking for a handout, we can be our own safety net, with enough to help those around us.
Sternberg does an excellent job of highlighting the areas where Millennials face challenges as a result of coming of age in a time of financial crisis. All is not lost, the future is bright, if we engage our American drive and ingenuity. We were dealt a bad hand, but we’re up to the task.
Unfortunately, the overwhelming number of statistics makes this book a very uncomfortable read.
Would I recommend: NO