Generation Greed and the Family

Those of you who have read my posts on Room Eight over the years, and/or might have read essays I produced previously, know that generational equity in public policy has been a recurring theme – and a theme that in my view has been virtually ignored in political discourse and the media. For 30 years, I find, virtually every major fiscal decision has provided more benefits in good times, and no reduction in benefits in bad times, for older generations – those now 55 and over. And every reduction in benefits and well-being has applied to future generations only. When I write about generational inequity, I don’t write about policies that transfer resources from working age adults to the elderly in a broad general sense; these can be justified as long as the transfers are sustainable and those who sacrifice when young can expect to receive the same benefits when old. As I showed in my general overview of what the government does in August 2007, in fact, the majority of U.S. government activities transfer resources from working age adults to the young (public schools and universities) and the old (Social Security, Medicare, nursing home care under Medicaid). I called this the lifecycle of need. When I write about generational inequity, on the other hand, I refer to public policies that have left younger generations worse off than those who came before at every point in their lives, from childhood through middle age, with the worst damage likely to occur when they themselves are old.

That is public policy. I have also noted that in the private economy for most (the non-rich) earnings per worker peaked nearly 40 years ago, with the effect on the typical standard of living covered over first by more hours worked (as women entered the workforce), then by the loss of compensation to be paid out in the future (pension and retiree health insurance) which did not affect current spending, and then by borrowing. This post is about the family. Like our federal, state and local governments, families transfer well-being from working age adults to dependent children and seniors. How have the collective personal decisions of those now age 55 and over, whom I have come to refer to as “Generation Greed,” differed from those who came before, and how do they compare with their collective decisions in public policy? How have those coming after been affected? And, returning to public policy, what will happen as those in Generation Greed reach deep old age when many will require custodial care, which is either extremely personally draining or extremely expensive to provide?

The genesis of this post dates back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I worked at the Department of City Planning downtown. Before the first World Trade Center bombing and the Oklahoma City bombing, one could walk right into the federal building at 26 Federal Plaza and spend a lunch hour browsing at the Census Bureau library or at the Federal Bookstore, which sold federal publications. I purchased many documents at that store, but one I didn’t buy (but later wished I had) was Family Structure and Children’s Health: United States, 1988. I had forgotten the title, and was unable to find it again for many years, but through the magic of the internet the 1991 publication is available here. (Information technology is one part of life in which younger generations are in fact much better off).

Most large-scale data sources, such as the Census of Population, are unable to accurately measure the family circumstances children are raised in, because they only measure household relationships at one point in time, and only capture the relationship of each household member to the head of household. Thus, children who have been through a divorce and remarriage are usually simply counted as being in married couple families. But the periodic National Health Interview Survey on Child Health, an occasional effort that takes place when there is money to fund it, does allow for a more detailed overview of family circumstances. It is part of the National Health Interview Survey and is overseen by both the Census Bureau and the National Institute of Health. Lets quote from the 1991 report.

Children’s well-being is strongly associated with family structure. In numerous studies, children from divorced families and those living with single parents have been found to have more emotional, behavioral, and academic problems than children living with both of their biological parents. Other studies have found that children from divorced or single-parent families are overrepresented among ‘juvenile delinquents’ and among clients at outpatient psychiatric clinics or other mental health facilities.”

These findings are of special concern because of the increasing proportions of children living in one-parent, disrupted (divorced or separated parents), and combined households. It is estimated that nearly half of today’s children will live in a single-parent family at some point during their childhood. About one-third will experience the divorce of their biological parents, and one- fourth will live with a stepparent by age 16.”

The report acknowledged that what is true on average is not true in all cases – some married parents are so overwhelmed or toxic that the children would be better off without one of them, while some single parents and parents who have divorced are so exceptional that they offset any damage from family structure. But the data from the 1988 study backed up the previous studies cited by the report.

Although the impact on physical health was mixed, “there was a strong relationship between family type and school performance. Children not living with both their biological parents had an increased risk of both academic problems (repeated grades of school) and behavior problems in school (expulsions or suspensions and parent-teacher conferences). Children living with a mother onIy or with a mother and stepfather were two to three times more likely than children living with both biological parents to have been expeIled or suspended at some time.

The real surprise to me, and the reason I remembered this report decades later, was the effect of family structure on emotional health. “The overall behavioral problem score (a count of the number of problem behaviors) was lowest for children living with both biological parents, slightly higher for those Iiving with never-married mothers, and highest for those living with formerly married mothers or with mothers and stepfathers. This pattern was repeated for the scores for antisocial behavior, anxiety or depression, headstrong behavior, hyperactivity, dependency, and peer conflict or social withdrawal.”

In the early 1990s single parenthood and welfare, statistically something primarily affecting the Black community at that time, had become an major political issue. Those families were more likely to be poor and, as the data in the report showed, their children did worse in school not only compared with children living with two biological parents but also with children who had been through a divorce. But with regard to emotional health and behavioral problems, the children who had been through a divorce were the worst off of all. And the severe indicators of bad emotional health that could be collected in a survey did not capture the lesser emotional wounds and hurts these children experienced.

Very few of the people I know best have become divorced, or have parents who had been divorced, or are or were raised by single parents, so I can’t really speak to what it’s like personally. The data in the report covers children age 5 to 17 in 1988; they would be adults age 28 to 40 today. I’m almost 50, most of my friends are about the same age, and I haven’t had many personal conversations with those younger. But to the extent that childhood has come up, what I have heard is some variation on what the author of this recent Wall Street Journal article had to say.

When my dad left in the spring of 1981 and moved five states away with his executive assistant and her four kids, the world as I had known it came to an end. In my 12-year-old eyes, my mother, formerly a regal, erudite figure, was transformed into a phantom in a sweaty nightgown and matted hair, howling on the floor of our gray-carpeted playroom. My brother, a sweet, goofy boy, grew into a sad, glowering giant, barricaded in his room with dark graphic novels and computer games.

I spent the rest of middle and high school getting into trouble in suburban Philadelphia: chain-smoking, doing drugs, getting kicked out of schools, spending a good part of my senior year in a psychiatric ward. Whenever I saw my father, which was rarely, he grew more and more to embody Darth Vader: a brutal machine encasing raw human guts.

Growing up, my brother and I were often left to our own devices, members of the giant flock of migrant latchkey kids in the 1970s and '80s. Our suburb was littered with sad-eyed, bruised nomads, who wandered back and forth between used-record shops to the sheds behind the train station where they got high and then trudged off, back and forth from their mothers' houses during the week to their fathers' apartments every other weekend.”

According to a 2004 marketing study about generational differences,” as cited by the author of the article, “my age cohort ‘went through its all-important, formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history.’"

I’m not one to romanticize the past. Members of the “Greatest Generation,” those born before 1930, and earlier generations may not have gotten divorced in large numbers, but some men did run off and some children were abandoned. In addition, in the past U.S. children were far more likely to have a parent die during their childhood, with an effect recently captured in recent PBS documentary on the early life of President Abraham Lincoln. The documentary held that he had a depressive personality in large part because he never got over the death of his mother.

Yet there is no doubt that a sea change in family life occurred during the adulthood of those who came of age during the prosperous 1950s through the mid-1970s, the so-called “Silent Generation” and the first half of the baby boom, the financially best of generations in American history, the group I have collectively referred to as Generation Greed. The former generation got divorced in drastically higher numbers than those who came before, while the latter was the first to become single parents with absent fathers in large numbers.

Again citing the WSJ article “People my parents' age say things like: ‘Of course you'd feel devastated by divorce, honey—it was a horrible, disorienting time for you as a child! Of course you wouldn't want it for yourself and your family, but sometimes it's better for everyone that parents part ways; everyone is happier.’ Such sentiments bring to mind a set of statistics in Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe that has stuck with me: In 1962, half of all adult women believed that parents in bad marriages should stay together for the children's sake; by 1980, only one in five felt that way. ‘Four-fifths of [those] divorced adults profess to being happier afterward,’ the authors write, ‘but a majority of their children feel otherwise.’”

Personalizing the change in social attitudes, consider the homily at our Catholic wedding in 1986. This has previously been THE homily in ALL Catholic weddings but the priest, who was also my wife’s Great Uncle, said no one used it any more, but he wanted to use it because he thought it was important.

As you know, you are about to enter into a union which is most sacred and most serious - most sacred because it was established by God Himself - most serious because it will bind you together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate that it will profoundly influence your whole future. That future - with its hopes and disappointments, its successes and failures, its pleasures and pains, its joys and sorrows - is hidden from your eyes. You know well that these elements are mingled in every life and are to be expected in your own. And so, not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death.”

These words, then, are most serious. It is a beautiful tribute to your undoubted faith in each other, that recognizing their full import, you are nevertheless so willing and so ready to pronounce them. And because these words involve such solemn obligations, it is most fitting that you rest the security of your wedded life on the great principle of self-sacrifice. And so today you begin your married life by the voluntary and complete surrender of your individual lives in the interest of that deeper and wider life which the two of you are to have in common. Henceforth you belong entirely to one another; you will be one in mind, one in heart, and one in affections. And whatever sacrifices you may hereafter be required to make to preserve this common life, always make them generously. Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome, only love can make it easy and perfect love can make it a joy.”

There it is kid. Your life is over! Your common life is going to have some entirely dissatisfying aspects, many sorrows, and might even turn out to be miserable overall, but don’t whine. Suck it up and do your job. No wonder it went out of fashion. But it was realistic.

Now only those involved can ever really know the circumstances surrounding an individual marriage that never was, or one that ended. In some cases, certainly, it was the least bad option, even for the child. But that isn’t the case on average, according to the data. Better for most parents? Perhaps, probably, I wouldn’t know. Better for the children? Not most of the time, the data says. And suddenly we have a society where half or less of all children are being raised by their two biological or original adoptive parents.

You don’t have to believe in God to believe in marriage; a belief in the theories of Charles Darwin would suffice. There must be a reason that marriage or something like it spontaneously arose in ancient human communities all over the world. That reason might have something to do with natural selection – the ability to raise successful offspring who would then go on to have successful offspring themselves. It has been said that by adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, people are doing an uncontrolled experiment on the planet with possibility disastrous results, an experiment that some deny but even believers continue to contribute to in order to maintain their lifestyles. It may also be said that the shrinking share of children being raised by their two biological parents, or by two adoptive parents who were there for them throughout childhood, is an uncontrolled experiment on society.

And what has been said about it in the world of political discourse? Not much. The report was written in 1991, and at the time the Republican Party was trying to become identified as the party of family values. And, for the first and last time that I can think of, family values came up in the 1992 Presidential Debate. The rhetorical criticism was focused on single parenthood and welfare, conditions generally affecting racial minorities at the time.

When asked about the families, future President Clinton talked about the need for federal programs to support families, including single parent families. Ross Perot talked of the need for the President to use the bully pulpit to encourage parents to make their children a priority. And President Bush (I) said this: “I'm appalled at the highest outrageous numbers of divorces -- it happens in families, it's happened in ours. But it's gotten too much.” But he then retreated to safer Republican territory. “It can be a single-parent family. Those mothers need help. And one way to do it is to get these deadbeat fathers to pay their obligations to these mothers -- that will help strengthen the American family.”

With that election and others at the federal, state and local level – and executive successions in business – leadership of our institutions passed from the Greatest Generation to those coming after. At the Presidential level the Silent Generation was typically skipped (despite John McCain’s efforts) and subsequent Presidents have been Baby Boomers. But it won’t take. Because ever since President Carter, who talked about need to sacrifice to secure our energy future, and Vice President Mondale, who talked about the need to sacrifice to avoid running up a huge national debt, lost elections, no Democrat has been willing to tell people they need to meet their social responsibilities. Telling people they don’t have personal responsibilities has proved more popular. As for the Republicans, “family values” crashed and burned in an inferno of sex scandals among prominent Republican office holders, and was never heard from again. Today the two political parties pander to Generation Greed by telling them which responsibilities they have no obligation to meet.

And what of the Catholic Church? For the past few months it has been busy asserting that the advice of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 does not apply to homosexuals, perhaps because whatever genetic mutation that makes them gay also makes every single one of the capable of celibacy. Said St. Paul “Yes, it is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman; yet to avoid immorality every man should have his own wife and every woman her own husband…I am telling you this as a concession, not an order. I should still like everyone to be as I am myself; but everyone has his own gift from God, one this kind and the next something different. To the unmarried and to widows I say: it is good for them to stay as they are, like me. But if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry, since it is better to be married than to be burnt up.”

Not that anyone has reason to care about my point of view on the subject, but I believe the Catholic Church’s teaching on sex and family has been a mess since Vatican II. Before, the ideal was for men and women to live in friendship and mutual care, rather than base their relationship on transient biological urges and somewhat disgusting biological acts that were only redeemed by the miracle of pregnancy. Everything else was a compromise (gay, straight, married or not), and not one to be endorsed or pursued, but the best most inherently imperfect people could aspire to in order to limit the damage. Sex wasn’t really a good thing, could easily become a bad thing, and in any event shouldn’t be of great importance in one’s life, something that would be realized with age and wisdom (and after the brief window of good looks had passed). Friendship, family or its (then more popular) alternatives were what mattered. This was replaced by – well frankly I’m not entirely sure. One may not have agreed that sex is pretty much sin, but at least back in the day the whole program was internally consistent.

What is not hard to say is that the Catholic hierarchy’s failure to heed St. Paul contributed to a scandal so devastating that it is in effect collectively out of the game in the public discussion of family morality for perhaps several generations. Not that any bishop will be ignored just because they are a bishop – it isn’t that bad, yet – but they won’t be listened to just because they are a bishop either, for better or worse. And unfortunately, to the extent they are listened to, while defending marriage from a small percent of the population who just want to lead the most decent lives they can given the circumstances they’ve been born into, they’ve ignored the elephant in the room.

And so, recently, have most others. Despite all the yelling and screaming, despite all the emotional “wedge issues,” despite the so-called partisan divide, the effect of the personal choices of recent generations with regard to household arrangements on their children basically never comes up. Aside from academic reports. It’s too painful. It’s something people don’t want to think about. It doesn’t attract votes, viewers or readers. It does attract anger, and accusations of hypocrisy, many of which turn out to be well founded.

But the data shows that on average, the same generations that have become increasingly worse off in public policy were in many cases also worse off in their family lives during childhood than those who came before. As a result of the decisions of those who came before, which benefitted or they believed would benefit from those decisions themselves. And because divorce is as much a part of the issue as single parenthood, it isn’t just an issue for minority groups. In fact because minority groups are in the minority, the majority of childhoods affected are those of non-Hispanic white.

Disrupted childhood isn’t the universal experience. It wasn’t my experience. It wasn’t my children’s experience. It wasn’t most of their friends’ experience. In some ways this has been the golden age of parenting. Previous social mores that locked men and women into particular roles may have provided a floor on parenting for some, but also represented a ceiling. Many of today’s children have had a combination of mothers who both mother in the home and work outside it, and fathers who father in the home and work outside it, in a way that hasn’t been the case since back in the day when most of the work was in fact in the home (or the store below it or the farm outside it).

But it has been the experience, apparently, of a near majority if not a majority of those my age and younger.

And now the lifecycle of need is moving on to another phase. The members of Generation Greed are moving into retirement, when those who came after – who are often worse off financially -- will have to support them. To be followed, for some, by disability and the need for constant care. To be provided or paid for by whom?

Back in 1996, I read a New York Times article on the effect of the coming wave of seniors on the nation’s finances (I continue to be amazed that Google lets you just bring this stuff up).  It was called “You Saved, But They Didn’t, So Now What?” and 15 years later it is still worth a read (don’t say we were not warned). The years that followed immediately after the article’s publication saw the federal government run fiscal surpluses. Rather than spend the Social Security surplus (leaving behind IOUs) and borrow on top of it. But this brief period of fiscal responsibility at the federal level (not so much at the state and local level, particularly in New York) was quickly reversed by the Bush II era national party (followed by the post-Bush national hangover from hell). And by a wave of retroactive pension enhancements for public employees, those who already had the best retirement benefits, to be paid for by future taxpayers with lower incomes.

Sort of quoting the title of the NY Times article, some time after the cost of mass retirement soars we will face “Your parents stayed together despite an imperfect marriage and put you first during your childhood, but their parents didn’t, and now they both need custodial care, so now what?” It’s going to be ugly, don’t you think? Can you point to any social, economic, fiscal or political trends that say it won’t be? What are the moral and public policy implications of this situation?

It might be a while before I have time to post again, but if you are willing to go there and think about that, read over the linked articles and reports and think about it for a while. You might also read the recently released follow up federal study based on data collected from 2001 to 2007, Family Structure and Children’s Health in the United States: Findings From the National Health Interview Survey, 2001–2007. Have things gotten better for the children of the children of Generation Greed? I haven’t had time to look at the data in detail, some of the categories have shifted, but my general impression is that on average the answer is no. Just as is the case in public policy. Every institution, public, private and personal, is going in the same direction, with values as the driver.