The War Between the Generations

08/17/2009 12:01 am EST

Focus: MARKETS

Terry Savage

Author, The Savage Truth on Money

Nearly ten years ago I wrote a column called “Generation Warfare,” and I was proud that Steve Forbes featured it in his “quotable” column in Forbes. I predicted then that the next American cultural battle would not be between the red states and blue states or over the divisions between races. 

Instead, it would be a battle between older Americans who had been promised government benefits in retirement and younger Americans who would be paying the taxes to support the old folks. Now that time has come.

You didn’t need a crystal ball to forecast that the rising costs of Medicare and Social Security would come to a head when Boomers started retiring. And now it is in the headlines because of the current debate over health care reform.

Rightly, current Medicare recipients and the soon-to-be “elderly” are concerned that when rationing comes—and it will—they’ll be the targets. It’s now estimated that end-of-life care (in the last 30 days of life) consumes nearly 40% of Medicare dollars—roughly $135 billion a year. And if there’s going to be any control of Medicare’s expected runaway costs, this has to be one place to look.

But we only know that it’s “end of life” care in hindsight. Who’s to say that a new treatment might not extend life much longer than expected? And who should make the decision to withhold that care in those allegedly final days—the patient, the family, or some decision-making board? 

Probably only seniors can understand the full and immediate impact of this aspect of the health care “reform” packages being discussed. Economists and legislative aides and bureaucrats can sort through the numbers. But the issue is a very personal one to those depending on Medicare for health coverage in their senior years.

Certainly, health care will have to be “rationed” in some way during the coming decades because the government doesn’t have enough money to pay for it all. But should it be rationed by age?

Unless this administration simply appoints a “health care czar” to join the many other “czars” already in place (and how ironic that is, since I thought czars went out with the Russian revolution)—this debate is supposed to be dealt with through legislation.

And that brings us back to generation warfare. Let’s assume that in our democracy, it’s still true that every vote counts. Our elected representatives are aware of that. Now it’s down to simple math: There are more seniors than juniors in America. And as I long ago predicted, the vote is starting to split along age lines. Generation warfare is upon us.

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