Young Americans and Social Security

By Center, 2030 | Workforce, October 1999 | Go to article overview
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Young Americans and Social Security


Center, 2030, Workforce


Shattering the foundation for a common stereotype of young adults, new survey research focusing exclusively on 18- to 34-year-olds finds that this group has remarkably positive views of Social Security. Peter D. Hart Research Associates conducted a national survey on behalf of the 2030 Center, among a representative sample of 403 young Americans age 18 to 34. The survey was conducted by telephone from May 17 to May 24, 1999. The survey examined young people's attitudes regarding retirement security, the Social Security system, and proposals for Social Security reform. This report reviews the main findings of the survey research. For more about Social Security reform, read "Making Sense of Social Security Reform," in this month's issue of WORKFORCE, on page 76.

Strengthening and protecting Social Security is an important priority for young Americans. Long considered a "seniors" issue, Social Security emerges in this survey as a significant priority for younger Americans who are far from retirement age. Today's young people express support for Social Security that is of remarkable strength, consistency, and breadth.

Overall, 81 percent of young adults say that they support the Social Security system, including 39 percent who support the system strongly; only 16 percent are opposed to Social Security. Some groups-such as minorities (44 percent strongly support) and Democrats (52 percent)-are especially passionate in their support, but what's much more striking is the extent to which all groups of young people register support for the system. For example, more than three-fourths of whites, professionals and managers, Republicans, and those with an income of more than $50,000 a year say that they support 'Social Security.

The survey also gives lie to the idea that young people resent government's excessive generosity to seniors at the expense of younger generations. Just 12 percent of young Americans agree with the statement that "senior citizens generally get more than their fair share of government benefits, and that is unfair to young people," while an overwhelming 85 percent take the opposing view that senior citizens generally need and deserve the government benefits they receive, so it is not unfair to young people.

A tougher test of young people's support for systems aiding the elderly and disabled is posed when they are asked to choose among competing priorities for spending the federal budget surplus. By nearly two to one, they would prefer Congress to use the surplus to strengthen Social Security over paying for a tax cut (59 percent to 32 percent). An even larger majority give priority to strengthening Medicare (67 percent) when the alternative is supporting a tax cut (27 percent). While young working people may be interested in tax relief, they are more concerned today with strengthening Medicare and Social Security for the futureand this preference could play an important role in determining how they vote in the 2000 presidential elections. Interestingly, even young Republicans say that tax cuts are a lower priority than is Social Security (52 percent to 40 percent) or Medicare (55 percent to 41 percent).

Reform Rather Than Replace

Young people reject the notion that Social Security cannot work for their generation and that it must be replaced, and they think that the system's traditional mission of providing a guaranteed retirement income is more important than is achieving a higher rate of return. They were asked which of two statements they agree with more regarding Social Security and its relevance for their generation: Statement A: The Social Security system cannot work for young people the way it worked for previous generations, and it needs to be replaced.

Statement B: The Social Security system can work for young people when they retire if Congress will strengthen the system's finances.

Fully two-thirds (67 percent) chose statement B, saying that Social Security remains relevant for their generation, while just 29 percent feel that Social Security must be replaced with a different system.

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