Few images evoke the acrimonious relationship between America’s younger generations and the old fogies that govern us more than Francisco Goya’s early-1800s painting: Saturn Devouring His Son. In this Romantic-era masterwork, the gigantic Titan feasts on one of his children with startling savagery. According to the myth, Saturn decided to chow down due to his fear that he would one day be overthrown by his brood (an act eventually accomplished by everyone’s favorite mythological pervert Jupiter/Zeus). Now, America’s elderly leaders may not yet be tearing the flesh from our collective Gen. X, Millennial and Gen. Z bones. But their behavior certainly feels like an act of metaphorical, Titan-like cannibalism, reflected in their neglect of our “entitlement” programs and the environment, a betrayal made all the more glaring by their protracted, seemingly endless grip on power.
To understand fully why Goya’s painting feels like an apt description of today’s generational tensions, it’s helpful to understand its historical context. As part of what eventually became known as The Black Paintings, Saturn Devouring His Son was a work painted directly on one of the walls in his home at some point between 1819 and 1823. It is believed that the painting was never intended for public distribution, instead serving as a cathartic exercise for the old artist who needed to work through the physical, social, emotional and perhaps spiritual malaise that had gripped him at this point in his life.
You see, Goya had developed a dark and pessimistic outlook by the early-1800s, shaped, in part at least, by a mysterious illness that nearly killed him and rendered him completely deaf. Perhaps even more impactful, however, and generally acknowledged as one of if not the most credible interpretations of Saturn Devouring His Son, is the social and political situation going on within his native Spain at the time.
Following the ascension and later abdication of Ferdinand VII in 1808, Napoleon made the not-nepotistic-decision-at-all to install his brother Joseph Bonaparte as King of Spain. Naturally, certain sections of the Spanish people had a big problem with this, which eventually helped launch the Peninsular War. A ghoulishly violent struggle, the war is considered one of the bloodiest in Spain’s history, grinding nearly 1,000,000 people into a gory paste. It is theorized that Goya viewed this cataclysm as yet another example of the age-old phenomena in wartime: where the old feed the young into the war machine. Taken in that light, the Peninsular War feels like an extension of the French Revolution itself, of which Jacques Mallet du Pan famously said that “Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.”
While the potential inspiration for Goya’s painting are events that happened nearly 225 years ago, they feel disturbingly relevant to understanding today’s older generations. The Boomers and the Silents also appear ready to advance their goals at any cost – even if that means foreclosing on their children’s economic and ecological futures.
We’ll begin with the economic. “’For younger people coming along, we got to be able to find a way to balance these programs or we’re going to find ourselves in a heap of trouble,”1 Mitt Romney said back in March of 2022.
At the time, I didn’t think too much about these sentiments from Romney, who falls just behind Liz “I Love Torture” Cheney as liberals’ favorite Republican. They were merely the latest call to chip away at a cornerstone of the welfare state by a wealthy, out-of-touch corporate toady. My hackles weren’t even raised when he continued and said he was not “in favor of raising taxes as a way of balancing the books but was open to adjusting ‘long-term benefits not for current retirees.'” I viewed this selfish plutocrat as simply doing what most of us do: following his programming. As one of the few remaining Republicans in Congress who has not bought into the MAGA doctrine, Romney is a true dinosaur, remaining largely wedded to traditional Republican corporatism. All that matters to the man is cutting the federal government to the bone, while avoiding any blowback from his generational peers that may complicate his political career. When he started flapping his gums last spring, I rolled my eyes and moved on.
It wasn’t until Social Security’s impending cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) was announced that I felt this issue merited a closer look. To summarize what happened, it was recently announced that Social Security recipients will be receiving an increase in benefits in 2023 of 8.7%.2 The program is projected to rise to this degree not due to any sudden change of heart from the insider traders that hold the purse strings in Washington. Instead, the program has been tied to the inflation rate since 1975, when Nixon of all people signed it into law. Since we have all been suffering inflation’s vice-like grip for more than a year now, the program has increased its benefit payouts accordingly.
Why is this a problem? Well, it’s because this increase will dramatically impact the long-term health of a program that has already been hyped to have a funding problem. The consensus these days is that the Social Security trust fund is set to run out by 2034. During the brief news cycle that focused on the SS COLA, it was reported that the 2023 increase will potentially eat away further at the Social Security trust fund, accelerating its decline and forcing the rest of us to soon contend with a program that can only pay 77% of the benefits it did to our elders.3
I want to make clear that I don’t have any issue with Social Security payments going up for current or soon-to-be retirees. What I do have a problem with is that these benefits are going up for the elderly with no conversation about how we will ensure parity between generations. Barring that, it is very difficult to see things like COLA or Romney’s comments as a willingness to sacrifice America’s younger generations in favor of today’s elderly. Worse, it feels like the whole situation is calculated. Just think for a minute about the timeline. By 2034, exactly when the SS trust fund is set to expire, the youngest members of America’s elderly will be turning 70 while the oldest will have already been worm food for quite some time.
A disturbingly similar situation emerges when we consider the ecological future of America’s younger generations. As Greta Thunberg once noted bitterly, the pursuit of the “fairy tale of eternal economic growth” has firmly imperiled the planet’s health and the well-being of anyone under the age of 60. Just like with Social Security, America’s elderly leaders have done very little to address this encroaching disaster. And again, it feels intentional, a comfortable complacency with not addressing climate because they simply don’t have to.
The timeline here reveals the potential source behind this complacency. Back in 2018, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted the world’s temperatures would blow past the disaster-level 1.5-degree increase between 2030 and 2052. It subsequently revised this projection downward in 2021, stating that new data shows temperatures will potentially “rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next 10 years.”4 So, just like with our beloved albeit beleaguered welfare program, the impacts of climate change will reach a proverbial point of no return around the early to mid-30s, right as our gerontocracy and the elder generations that support them are enjoying the privilege of heading gently into that good night.
Assigning culpability for these two impending crises is not something to be taken particularly lightly. If America’s geriatrics were merely benefitting from a system that they had had no opportunity to influence or change, it would be one thing. But that just doesn’t wash upon closer inspection. A large swath of America’s wizened lawmakers have had every chance in the world to fix things. And how do we know that? Well, by the simple fact that so many of these lawmakers have been in power as these crises have continued to grow, fester and accelerate.
Let’s first look at COLA and the long-running issues with Social Security solvency. While it’s true that most current members of Congress weren’t around when SS was tied to inflation in 1975, a couple of them remarkably (or horrifyingly) were. More importantly, over 30 of our current sitting senators were holding positions of power during the 10 major updates to the Social Security program in the interim since the mid-1970s, none of which doing much regarding its long-term health and viability.
When we look at the climate crisis, the results are even more galling. While many of our current representatives and senators weren’t around to vote during the 1975 decision to tie SS COLA to inflation, by 1988, several were firmly ensconced in power. From Chuck Grassley, who was elected over 40 years ago in 1981 to Ed Markey, who has been lurking in Congress since the late 70s, the current Congress is stacked with old timers who have occupied their seats for decades.
Now, why do I bring this particular date up? Well. as I write this in 2022, I am currently 34 years old. Those in power have unequivocally known for exactly the same amount of time how damaging the unmitigated burning of carbon has been for our biosphere. “On June 23, 1988, in the sweltering heat, [James] Hansen told a U.S. Senate committee he was 99 percent certain that the year’s record temperatures were not the result of natural variation. It was the first time a lead scientist drew a connection between human activities, the growing concentration of atmospheric pollutants, and a warming climate.”5
Since that balmy June day all those years ago, evidence for a near-term future of continuous climate chaos has only compounded. Conversely, action has been sparse at best and non-existent at worst – from the performative, unratified posturing of the Kyoto Protocol, to funneling subsidies to Tesla’s sociopathic owner, to the toothless hijinks of the Paris Climate Accords and the Inflation Reduction Act. What we can see here is that, as decade after decade has gone by, America’s olds have largely sat on their hands and done nothing. It’s enough to make you feel crazy, prone to blurting out things like our fearless Commander in Chief (who was also in Congress in the late 80s) when he said, “I no more think of myself being as old as I am than fly.”
There is that old adage that youth is wasted on the young. And while I see some truth in those words, I would also counter them by saying that old age is wasted on the old. While many elderly people seem to recognize their responsibility to the young, there is also a sizable cohort who appear willing to let the world burn – both figuratively and literally – if it guarantees the continuation of perks and comforts they have long enjoyed. While such a decision may maximize immediate benefits, you have to imagine that when they look back upon their legacy they will feel anything but comfort. From a tattered safety net to a collapsing environment, America’s gerontocracy is leaving behind a world that is less safe and less prosperous than the one they knew. As we have seen, they have also had every opportunity to lay a stronger foundation, as many of them have been sent back to the highest echelons of power election after election.
A staunch proponent of the Enlightenment, Francisco Goya once said that “The dream of reason produces monsters.” America was similarly founded on such Enlightenment principles, ideals that supposedly prioritize reason over everything else. Yet America’s geriatrics have chosen to do the opposite, to fall asleep at the wheel and abandon reason-based governance in favor of dreams of short-term material gain. When looking at the state of our country today, one wishes they would have heeded Goya’s words instead of becoming a living-embodiment of the most horrifying depths of his art.