More young Americans believe in the existence of UFOs than the future existence of Social Security. But in spite of our generation’s deep skepticism, we’ve been left out of the national debate. Ostensible concern for our generation is invoked incessantly under the hackneyed banner of “for our children and grandchildren,” but the opinions of these very people are nowhere to be seen on the national stage. Students for Saving Social Security is beginning to fill this void. Social Security reform concerns our generation more than any other, and it concerns us now: When we graduate, our jobs and salaries will be on the line.
As college students, we are preparing to enter the workplace, where we will begin our contributions to Social Security. Our very first paychecks will be siphoned into a system that cannot fulfill its promises to us. But our payroll taxes are being saved by the government for us until we retire, right? Wrong: All payroll taxes have already been spent. But we have a legal right to our retirement benefits, right? Wrong: The Supreme Court has ruled that Congress has no legal obligation to pay us back. And that is in fact what will happen without reform. Based on current projections by the Social Security Administration, we can expect the government to be able to afford to keep its promise to two out of every three of us. It’s no wonder the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) described Social Security as “outright thievery” from our generation.
True, most young Americans find Social Security nauseatingly complicated and tedious and have made little effort to voice their interests. And many opponents of reform hope that we will remain silent because we will consider our retirement too distant to concern us. But Social Security reform is not merely a distant crisis concerning our retirement. Social Security reform affects many issues of vital, and immediate, importance to us: the ability of employers to hire us as we graduate, our opportunity to save for our future and the economic growth and prosperity of our country in the years ahead.
Increasing payroll taxes to cover Social Security’s future shortfall, as some members of both parties have advocated, will burden employers with additional costs and fetter their ability to hire us as we graduate. And for those of us who do find employment, our salaries will be smaller, handicapping our ability to save for our future. This is not simply abstract theory or inveterate pessimism — this is an economic reality. And it is a reality many young workers experience outside the United States right now. Just look across the Atlantic to the two largest economies in Europe: France and Germany are both saddled with the burdens of un-reformed retirement systems ill-suited for the rising generation. France just reported an unemployment rate over 10 percent. Germany’s economy shrank 0.2 percent in the last quarter. Only a few decades separate us from Europe.
But declining employment and salaries and an anemic economy need not be the fate of our generation. Genuine reform of Social Security, by curbing the growth of promised benefits and by introducing personal accounts, will increase national savings by billions of dollars each year, spurring significant increases in national investment, productivity, wages and jobs. Harvard economist Martin Feldstein estimates that Social Security reform would add $10-$20 trillion to our economy, something that would create at least a million new jobs for us as we enter the workforce and increase our incomes by $5,000 for a family of four.
Social Security reform presents a prodigious opportunity to save our generation from economic debility. Ownership of personal accounts means personal property will replace government promises, and retirement will be secure for generations to come. Without personal accounts, benefits must be cut by over 25 percent or payroll taxes increased by 50 percent.
Seizing this opportunity, however, requires immediate action. The longer we wait, the more difficult reform becomes. Alan Greenspan has repeatedly called for reform sooner rather than later. And former President Clinton said many years ago that “We all know a demographic crisis is looming. If we act now it will be easier and less painful than if we wait until later.” But in the face of such an opportunity, many in Congress are stalling. Congressman Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) has opposed reform because he’ll “be dead by then” when the crisis strikes. Our generation shouldn’t be amused. Such delay will directly hurt our generation more than any other.
Politicians know that an entire generation of young voters will be politically molded by an issue with such extensive and extended effects. Securing our future will be rewarded; profligacy and delay will not. With genuine reform and personal ownership, Social Security can offer our generation a secure future, not just pie-in-the-sky promises as illusory as UFOs.
Jonathan Swanson, a junior in Davenport College, is co-founder of Students for Saving Social Security (www.secureourfuture.org), a grass-roots campus network advocating reform through personal ownership.