Wedge issues and generation gaps

I’m 74 years old.  I’m a member of the most fortunate generation in American history so far.  Like almost everyone in my generation who was willing and able to work, I held reasonably secure jobs at reasonably good wages.  Between my discharge from the Army and my retirement, I had only two employers.  Now I enjoy a secure retirement, based on Social Security, a company pension and my own savings and investments.

Few people under age 55 enjoy are so fortunate.  They have typically experienced layoffs, downsizings, flat wages (in inflation-adjusted terms) and diminishing pension and health benefits.  During the late 1980s and the 1990s, when I reported on business for the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, some companies in Rochester negotiated two-tier wage contracts, under which existing wages and benefits would be maintained for the existing union members, but newly hired workers would get less.  The assumption was that people will fight to keep what they have, but accept being denied what they never knew.

Labor unions are based – or should be based – on the principle of equal pay for equal work, and the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all.  Besides being morally wrong, two-tier contracts are short-sighted.  The newly-hired second-class workers will direct their justified resentment not at the company, but at the union leaders and members who sold them out.  If sacrifice is necessary to preserve jobs, it should be shared by everyone, including management.

Now Paul Ryan, Alan Simpson and others propose a two-tier retirement system.  People of my generation would get to keep our Social Security and Medicare at current levels, but the new retirees would have to retire later and receive fewer benefits.  We current retirees would be foolish to fall for this.  The wrath of the generation behind us would fall not on those privatized Social Security and voucherized Medicare, but those of us who still enjoy retirement security.  I don’t believe that the proposed cutbacks are necessary, but, if they are, they should be shared equally by all.

You already see this in the split between union and non-union workers.  Some non-union workers, seeing the better wages and job security that union members get, do not conclude that they should have unions of their own.  Rather they think of the union members are enjoying special privileges that should be taken away.

Most of us Social Security recipients understand this.  We want to keep Social Security not only for ourselves, but for future generations.  It is younger people who have been convinced that Social Security is not going to be there for them – which could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the ones who are making that argument are the ones who want to take it away.

Click on Just Because Rep. Paul Ryan Keeps Saying It… for analysis of Ryan’s Medicare proposals by economist Jared Bernstein.

Click on GOP ignored Ryan plan red flags for political analysis by Politico of the pro-Medicare backlash.

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