Is There Really a Generation Gap on Social Security?

It’s reasonably clear that younger and older Americans think differently about tattoos. And maybe there’s a divide over e-mail versus texting. But now that Congress and the President are resuming talks about long-term federal budget issues, proposals to reform Social Security to stabilize its costs are back on the table. In contrast, opinion leaders like Paul Krugman and Senator Elizabeth Warren) say we should expand Social Security, arguing that current retirement policies will leave too many Americans living in poverty in their later years. So that raises a question: Are the views and preferences of younger and older Americans really at odds when it comes to Social Security? What do polls show, and what happens when Americans of all ages have a chance to talk together about this issue? The answers to these questions will be important for us to explore as we and our elected officials discuss and negotiate solutions to the issue of Social Security. A quick glance at some recent polling does seem to show some wide gaps among the generations:

As you can see in the charts above, a solid two-thirds of people over 65 say preserving Social Security is more important than reducing the federal deficit, while less than half of Americans under 30 agree. Also, fewer older Americans worry that the costs of Social Security and Medicare will burden the next generation. Numbers like these fuel claims that the nation’s seniors are “greedy geezers” preoccupied with protecting their turf no matter what the consequences. Looking at these numbers alone sets up an “us-versus-them,” zero-sum public discussion from the get-go. That might be unavoidable in some situations, but it doesn’t look to be the case here. For one thing, a closer look at a range of polls suggests that the country isn’t neatly divided into diametrically opposed camps. As you might expect, ninety percent of seniors say Social Security is very important to them personally, but so do a whopping 8 in 10 Americans between 35 and 64. The numbers drop for people under 35, but more than half of this group also says the program is personally important to them.

Furthermore, if you ask about some widely-discussed ideas for stabilizing Social Security’s finances for the coming decades, you’ll also find the generations pretty much in agreement.

  • More than 6 in 10 Americans of all ages support the idea of raising payroll taxes on higher income earners, with only a few percentage points difference between older and younger people.
  • More than half of Americans of all ages say reducing benefits for high-income seniors is an idea they can support, again with very little variation by age.
  • But proposals to increase the retirement age aren’t that popular with anyone. Among people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, fewer than 4 in 10 back this approach. Since nearly all proposals phase in the higher retirement age, most people over 65 wouldn’t even be affected by it. Nonetheless, fewer than half of seniors see this as a good solution.

The prospect of the generations warring over Social Security, with “greedy geezers” blocking any and all reforms and younger Americans blithely cavalier to the economic problems facing seniors, may make good headlines, but the public’s views on Social Security are actually far more nuanced. And this is even more evident, we find, when people of all ages have time to think and talk about the issue together.

"Nobody wants to touch it, but it has got to be looked at."

Last year, when the National Issues Forums convened citizens in conversations across the nation to deliberate on the federal budget, older participants repeatedly said they had decided to attend specifically because of their worries about how government debt might affect their grandchildren. Rather than refusing to talk about Social Security, seniors in the forums often brought it up. Younger and older participants alike agreed that political leaders lack the courage to discuss needed modifications. A Kansas man made a fairly typical comment: “Nobody wants to touch it, but it has got to be looked at.” But forum participants also talked repeatedly about the need to protect Americans who struggle economically in whatever decisions we make about the budget—especially in the wake of the Great Recession: “Some people lost a lot,” one woman in the DC area pointed out. “They lost a lot of their IRA money.” It’s normal for people to approach public policy issues based on their own experiences and situations. People on Social Security or nearing retirement see the program as a concrete factor in their personal lives. At ages 25, 26 or 27, not so much. But that doesn’t mean that younger and older Americans are gearing up for battle on the future of Social Security. In fact, as we’ve seen in the National Issues Forums, given the chance, citizens of all ages are ready to weigh the options pragmatically, bringing a spirit of empathy and good will to the discussion. Beyond the Polls is a joint endeavor of Public Agenda, the National Issues Forums, and the Kettering Foundation. Sign up to receive an email update when we have a new Beyond the Polls post.