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Tom Purcell: Timing the American experience just right

| Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, 9:03 p.m.

My parents' generation timed it just right.

Born in the thick of the Great Depression, they were taught from an early age how to pinch a penny.

Though they were little at the time, they experienced the sacrifices of World War II. My father was drafted and served two years in the Army during the Korean War.

By the time my parents married in 1956, America was on its way. Like many couples of the Silent Generation, they were filled with confidence and optimism that the world was secure and the American economy would prosper.

It prospered beyond anyone's wildest imagination for the next five decades.

My parents would have six children between 1957 and 1971. My father worked hard to generate income, as my mother worked harder at home to minimize the costs of running a large household.

My father never expected to live a long life. His father died at 34. His mother died at 69. My father didn't expect to make 70.

So when he had an opportunity to retire at 60, after 37 years of 60-hour weeks, he took it. He was able to do so, in part, because his Social Security benefits would supplement his retirement income.

He's 79 now, retired for nearly 20 years, and he is saddened by the mess our country is in. America's massive debt, deficit and spending worry him.

His generation could never borrow and spend so recklessly.

How will younger generations foot the bill? What will the country be like for his kids and grandkids long after he is gone?

Will they ever get to enjoy the sort of retirement he's still enjoying? The answer is probably “no” for most of us.

It's simple demographics. My mother and father entered the world with little and acquired more in wealth and good fortune than they ever would have asked for.

After World War II, as politicians established a number of entitlement programs, the costs were initially sustainable.

The population was growing. The economy was growing. And so the politicians kept on promising and spending and, for the most part, all was well.

Until the collapse of 2008.

America is broke now. We are producing about $1 trillion less in government receipts than we are in government expenditures. We need massive growth to meet our obligations but our growth rate is anemic.

Medicare and Social Security are two big reasons for our indebtedness. As baby boomers begin to retire, those entitlements' costs are growing by leaps and bounds.

Consider: When the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, there were 16.5 people working for every person receiving benefits. The average lifespan was much shorter than it is today.

Now, every person receiving benefits is supported by just 2.9 workers. The average recipient is getting thousands of dollars more than he or she ever paid in.

Medicare spending is growing massively every year. It cost nearly $600 billion in 2011 — accounting for about 60 percent of our current budget deficit — and will double over the next decade.

The average Medicare recipient's benefits are well in excess of $100,000 more than he or she paid in.

It is the younger generations that are footing the bill for these costs. Anyone with basic math skills can see that these programs' future is not looking so good. Their costs are soaring so rapidly that there are not enough working young people, or tax revenue, to cover them.

That certainly isn't my parents fault. They worked hard. They contributed well to their country and community. They produced six responsible children who are working hard — and generating far more tax revenue than my parents are receiving in Social Security benefits. (They have private insurance and do not use Medicare.)

Still, my parents timed their American experience just right. They had a fantastic run at a fantastic time in American history.

And they worry that if America doesn't get its affairs in order, their kids and grandkids may never enjoy the sort of golden years that they have been so blessed to enjoy.

Tom Purcell, a freelance writer, lives in Library. Visit him on the web at E-mail him at:

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