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Americans are getting older. While we were once a youthful country with fast growth propelled by high fertility and immigration, today Americans are getting older at an even faster rate than many European countries. This will have significant economic and social consequences over the next several decades.
But paradoxically, while Americans are getting older, they are also dying younger. Life expectancies have begun to decline, driven by so-called deaths of despair, which can be better thought of as man-made deaths. These deaths include not just suicide and drug deaths but also, in recent years, increased traffic accidents and homicides. Man-made deaths can account for 100 percent of the decline in American life expectancies: We are, on a national scale, killing ourselves. The result is even slower growth in the labor force just as baby boomers approach retirement. The fiscal strains of this one-two punch on local, state, and federal budgets will be enormous.
Meanwhile, American society is changing. As Americans have gotten older and more settled, our institutions have also become less dynamic. A country that was once typified by a sense that anyone could be or do anything is now hidebound by an increasingly heavy weight of rules and regulations. While this trend toward more regulation and greater constraints on regular life can be seen across all walks of life, this report focuses on five main areas:
These trends can all be traced back to policy choices made between the 1940s and 1990s. That is to say, while they disproportionately afflict younger generations such as millennials, they are problems created by baby boomers and their parents. If the United States is to have a 21st century as prosperous as its 20th century, these damaging legacies of the baby-boomer generation must be fixed.
In his play A Woman of No Importance, Oscar Wilde gives a British lord the remarkable line, “The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years. To hear them talk one would imagine they were in their first childhood. As far as civilization goes they are in their second.”1 The idea of America as a youthful country has captured the national imagination for centuries. From the virgin lands of the American West to the very idea of an “American experiment,” the American poet Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new,”2 or what Walt Whitman called in Song of Myself, “Urge and urge and urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world,”3 America has always thought of itself as a young country. A bold country. A country full of energy and optimism, with good things to share with the wider world.
And throughout our history, this rhetoric has basically been right: We truly were a young country. Our institutions were young, nimble, and able to change in response to new threats. Our society was dynamic, flexible, always maturing, and never quite settled. There was always a new American frontier. But Star Trek’s famous opening in 1966, “Space: the final frontier,”⁴ may have been a bit too on the nose. The generation that grew up with Star Trek would not conquer any new frontiers. Rather, they would subject our country to an avalanche of regulation, litigation, and indebtedness from which we may not recover.
America is no longer young. We, as a country, have finally, somehow, become old.
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