Monday, March 13, 2017

Book summary: The Next America

Paul Taylor. The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown. PublicAffairs, 2016.

To paraphrase a famous scientist, the nice thing about data is that it doesn't matter whether you believe it or not. This book contains a tremendous amount of (summarized) data about the current and future demographics of the United States, gathered from both public sources (eg statistics published by the Bureau of the Census, the IRS, and other Federal agencies) and from one of the world's best-known nonpartisan survey-based research foundations (Pew).

I'd summarize the biggest takeaways as follows:

Generational attitude shift. The combination of immigration, intermarriage, and changing social morés among younger generations (the author identifies today's primary generational groups from oldest to youngest as Silent, Boomers, GenX, and Millennials) mean that the social attitudes of current and future voters lean overwhelmingly towards what most people would associate with "progressive values" or with the Democratic Party. In particular, as the Republican Party has tacked farther and farther to the right, the segment of the electorate receptive to their messages is shrinking and in fact dying. On the other hand, these younger-but-growing segments of the electorate have a much poorer voter-turnout record than their older and more conservative counterparts. This combination of elements has profound consequences for future elections.

Socioeconomic consequences of an aging population. The biggest coming "showdown" (to which the subtitle alludes) is the aging of the world's population. Japan, China, and some European nations will get there ahead of the US, in part because although birth rates are falling everywhere throughout the developed world, in the US that effect is partially offset by immigration, especially economically (since most immigrants arrive ready to work rather than newborn). But all these countries are rapidly approaching a point where fewer and fewer working people are supporting more and more seniors. (In Japan the ratio will approach 1:1 by about 2040 if current trends continue.) There is an unfortunate positive feedback loop in countries like the US where most legislation is made democratically: the older generations constitute a large and growing voter bloc to whom politicians must cater, and that bloc has been using its influence to appropriate a growing share of government wealth redistribution. In the US, Social Security and Medicare are basically on the ropes. At some level most of us know this, but the statistics and trends presented to quantify the situation are stark.

In other words: not only will the older and younger generations find themselves at odds economically on how to redistribute wealth, but their positions will be even farther apart because their social contexts are so different. As the author states in the introduction, "either transformation by itself would be the dominant demographic story of its era."

The book does a nice job of including enough charts and graphs inline when necessary to illustrate or back up a point, but relegating vastly more charts and tables to an Appendix you can browse at leisure or for more detail.

There is also a fascinating and well written appendix describing in high level terms the survey methodologies used by Pew and other professional research organizations, for those who think surveys are just a matter of asking some questions and tabulating answers. The appendix covers random sampling; a lay-person explanation of sampling error and reweighting; various biases including recency, confirmation, and self-selection; running meta-surveys to test the effect of different phrasings or presentations of the same questions; and much more. Indeed, this appendix is useful reading for anyone involved in doing rigorous surveys, whether they are interested in the rest of the book's content or not.

Whether it cheers you up, depresses you, or just causes you to raise an eyebrow may depend on where you fall on the political spectrum, but regardless of where you do, this is essential and well-reported information.

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