Boomers Go Bust

Article excerpt

A long, long time ago I had a boss in the newspaper business whose favorite column lede (thus we ink-stained wretches were accustomed to spell "lead") was, "I hate to tell you so, but I told you so." It was an arch and at the same time muscle-flexing way to begin a disquisition: /knew how this thing would work out; you tried to argue with me, didn't you? Well...

I think sometimes of my former boss as I read demographic stories-tales of weeping and woe, fashioned from dry-crisp statistics about the graying and, soon enough, the whitening and drying-out of whole populations, especially in the West but also in Japan and even China.

It's not that world population isn't increasing. It is. It just isn't increasing fast enough to provide a reliable support base for the lavish promises government has made the boomers.

Yes, the boomers-them. That's what it always comes back to, doesn't it?-the vast, self-regarding cohort of people born between 1946 and 1964, and now starting to retire; starting in fact to wonder whether government's promises to them are worth the newsprint on which those promises get discussed and anguished over. What if the Social Security well runs dry from lack of sufficient contributions? What if there's not enough cash for Medicare? Projections have it that, to meet obligations, nearly 40 percent of American workers' wages in 2050 will be needed to finance Social Security and government health-care programs. If there's anything left over, we can pay our soldiers and sailors and maybe keep the national parks open.

What, in light of these circumstances, retrieves from memory my ex-boss's prized reproach? What was it that plenty of people heard yet disbelieved and consequently ignored-to their cost? That birth is good, that's what. That without the natural cycle of decline and replenishment, encouraged to operate in a natural way, all manner of unforeseen circumstances can strike, and strike hard.

I hate to tell you, but I told you so. Or, more accurately, many, many folk-theologians, pastors, writers, attorneys, mechanics, assembly line workers, teachers, homemakers, volunteers of different stripes-have pointed passionately to the consequences of devaluing and depreciating life; of portraying this life or that one as of no great interest to the larger society. Their warnings now start to come true, if in a peculiarly practical way, shorn of theological and moral postulates.

I'll get to those consequences in a minute. Something I caught on "Good Morning America" this week encapsulates present concerns. I want first to mention it.

It was a segment on couples who elect not to have children. I don't mean can't have children; I mean don't want the little rugrats around the house. The story highlighted two such couples. "Both the Smiths and the Jacksons," the GMA reporter related, "said that they love children, but added that it's hard to do it all, and that they're not willing to sacrifice their freedom for the sake of having kids."

One of the two wives elevated the matter to the level of political principle: "This is America. We're supposed to have a choice."

When later I got on ABC's website to check the actual quotes against my scribbled notes, I discovered that 262 people already had blogged about the story. What did they say? Most said the Smiths and Jacksons, if not necessarily right, were within their rights. Among the more trenchant comments:

"This is a personal decision that society's 'norms' should not dictate."

"It should be a lifestyle choice like any other."

"NO ONE has the right to judge another's choice."

That took care of the philosophical considerations. What of consequences?

Well, for one thing, deciding not to "start a family," as we used to say, is a measure of supreme economic prudence: "Instead of saving for a college fund, I save for travel."

It reduces the surplus population: "Having kids is a pretty selfish thing to do these days. …