Senior Citizen Discounts and Generational Conflict
by Jerome F. Winzig
The middle-class couple in line at the movie theater asked how old they had to be to qualify for a senior citizen discount. When the ticket-taker said, "55," they purchased two tickets at a 30 percent discount. Some hotels now offer discounts for members of the American Association of Retired Persons, which offers membership to those who are 50 or older. Some banks offer special checking account privileges for those 55 or older.
Someday soon, this new entitlement will make for an interesting court case. Suppose someone who is 54--or 24--files a complaint charging age discrimination. Such a case would present the Supreme Court with a difficult challenge.
More importantly, the existence of preferences for seniors is destined to cause generational antagonism. In just a few years, half the population will qualify for such preferences--regardless of income or need--while the other half will not. As social policy, this is idiotic and dangerous.
Preferences based solely on age pose difficult questions. Should seniors with high prescription drug costs have those costs subsidized by the government, while younger patients with serious illnesses that also require expensive drugs receive no such subsidy and receive none of the other benefits of Medicare?
As uncomfortable as these questions are, they must be addressed. The combination of preferences for seniors and problems with social security mean that the next 15 to 50 years have the potential for massive political struggles between younger and older generations. The stakes are high, and such struggles may be fought in Congress, in state legislatures, in the courts, and even in the streets.
The potential for bitter conflict will increase if our current policies continue. As the number of people over 50--many of them financially secure--increases, so does the burden on those under 50 to pay for preferences for seniors. The end-result will be a two-tiered cost structure for many goods and services, one for the old and another for the young.
If social security is left unchanged, federal income taxes will have to be increased starting in 2013 to start paying back the social security trust fund. Many politicians and the social security administration pretend that there's no problem until the year 2054, when the social security trust fund will be exhausted. They fail to point out that the funds in the trust fund aren't in a bank vault somewhere; they've already been loaned back to the federal government in the form of IOUs and have been spent.
If nothing changes between now and 2013, there will be just two impossible choices: cut benefits or raise taxes on those still working. On one hand, baby boomers, who will have paid significant amounts into social security--as much as $250,000 per person--will be loath to forgo any of their benefits. On the other hand, younger people will be justly upset at the prospect of having their standard of living decreased significantly by massive income tax increases designed to support a huge retired population that will enjoy a period of leisurely retirement longer than any in human history.
Now is the time for a thoughtful reassessment of the notion of senior citizen discounts. When marketing gimmicks become generational preferences, the seeds for generational strife are also sown. Now is also the time for careful consideration of privatizing social security, before this Ponzi scheme either cheats retirees out of their expected retirement or imposes excessive taxation on the working population.
The time is now. If we wait another 15 years, it will be too late and the conflict will be fought in the streets of cities and towns across the United States.