To save Social Security, we need to make it ‘hip’ with millennials

Survey after survey reveals that millennials are resigned to the idea that Social Security, as we know it, might not be there by the time they reach retirement age. According to a Transamerica survey, 81 percent of millennials polled believe this to be true. This is in contrast to a 2011 survey, which found that only about 50 percent of millennials at that time didn’t feel they would receive Social Security upon retirement.

It’s safe to say that Social Security is facing an impending funding shortfall that threatens to cripple the future financial security of countless Americans.

The reality is that Social Security can be secured for future generations only by legislation passed by Congress to increase funding or change benefits. However, Social Security is not a hot-button issue for many millennials. The reason: Benefits of Social Security seem foreign and too distant to young workers.

Yet the future of Social Security hinges on energizing those millennials to be concerned about this dilemma. And the way to do this is by making the issues around fixing Social Security relatable to them.

Since millennials have demonstrated that they care deeply about social justice, equality and fairness, it seems to follow that they should care more about the future of Social Security. Millennials poll with strong support for Medicare for all and higher federal minimum wages, but they have not mustered the interest or the will to demand necessary improvements to the existing Social Security program. From a purely selfish perspective, they should be more motivated to protect their own financial futures — starting now.

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Getting millennials engaged and motivated has worked in the past. Just look at the recent ban on plastic drinking straws in 2018.

We have known about issues with plastic for decades, and who hasn’t seen pictures of the massive garbage island floating around the Pacific Ocean for years? Yet it wasn’t until the graphic video of a plastic straw being pulled out of a sea turtle’s nostril went viral that there was a visceral reaction among America’s youth, and the move to ban straws took the national conscience by storm. Millennials have also shown interest in other political areas, such as health care and student debt, which has pushed these issues into the political discussion.

Taking a page out of Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s behavioral finance theory of decision-making might be one approach.

Kahneman defines two systems by which we think. The first system is the more intuitive, immediate part of our thinking, while system No. 2 is the kind of thinking that requires more concentration and effort. Recognizing that short-term, intuitive decision-making often wins out over longer-term, system-two type thinking, it follows that appealing to one’s more reactive cognitive decision-making process could be the best way to get them to care about something — as with the viral video of the turtle.

In the case of Social Security, we need to appeal to millennials’ intuition, and create a sense of immediacy about this benefit that is not there now. The analytical approach that has focused long-term speculation simply has not worked.

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