The XX Factor

Hey, Seniors: You Can’t Call My Generation Entitled While You’re Demanding Freebies

I’m all confused about which age group is supposed to be the Entitlement Generation. I thought it was mine; after all, I’m always hearing my elders snark about how today’s twentysomethings never graduate in four years, won’t submit to cubicle culture , and can’t get out of our parents’ basements. But it looks more and more like seniors are trying to strip us of our title.

Yesterday, Philip Rucker revealed that seniors are fretting over proposed Medicare cuts that might result in them losing some benefits. Sen. John Kyl of Arizona (a member of the over-60 club himself) is livid. “Seniors like the choices they now have, and they don’t deserve to have them ripped away,” Kyl complains. “That’s not right, that’s not fair to take these benefits away from seniors.” What benefits so concern the good senator-doctor’s visits? Prescriptions? Hip replacements? No, no, and no. Kyl and his constituents are flipping out because the cuts could affect a special Medicare program that bestows “freebies” on seniors: free aspirin, free thermometers, free Band-Aids. Nancy, a 68-year-old Tuscon resident who gets a free gym membership, “said she supports health-care reform but does not want Medicare Advantage subsidies to decrease.” Health care reform is all well and good, as long as the taxpayers continue to bankroll my yoga classes.

As though complaining about health care reform (ironic, given that health care expansion is by its very nature a transfer of wealth from the young to the old ) weren’t enough, seniors are being pandered to by officials who have decided to give them all $250 in January, just for being old. Usually seniors get a cost of living adjustment in their Social Security benefits at the beginning of the year. Never mind that there shouldn’t be such an adjustment in 2010, because the recession has driven the cost of living down. Never mind that 2009’s adjustment was artificially inflated by high energy prices that dropped quickly, giving seniors a huge boost in their buying power over the past year. It’s apparently unthinkable that we might start a year without doling out more cash to old folks, so $250 a piece it is. That’s $13 billion total.

It’s maddening. But the young people who are watching our national debt balloon while our statesmen fight for the right to free Band-Aids have no one to be mad at but ourselves. You can’t blame seniors for liking free stuff-who doesn’t? And you can’t blame politicians for representing the interests of the people who put them in office. That’s their job. But why, exactly, is it seniors who propel politicians to success? It’s not their numbers. (18-to-34-year-olds have an edge of about 30 million people on people over 65.) It’s their voting record. Old folks vote. Young people don’t. And unfortunately, this is accepted wisdom that we don’t look willing to subvert anytime soon. Despite the much-hyped ” youth vote ” in the 2008 presidential election, fewer than half of eligible 18-to-24-year-olds voted, while 70 percent of seniors did. Even worse, election experts say the youth turnout then was about Barack Obama, not about a sustainable surge in political interest among young people.

If we want to begin to wrest control of the political system away from the Centrum Silver set, we’re going to have to start rolling out for every state and national election, not just getting on board when a particularly cool candidate comes along to replace a particularly loathsome one. Until we start competing with seniors’ numbers at the polls, we should have zero expectation that we’ll compete with their influence on politicians-or that we’ll be able to stop the politicians from spending workers’ money on retirees’ freebies.

Photograph of senior woman by Digital Vision/Getty Images.