Saturday, February 11, 2012

Generational angst

Pop demographers would have us believe we're all card-carrying members of various birth cohorts - leading to clashes, of late, between boomers and millennials. But is that really the case?

By Robert Wright, For Postmedia News February 11, 2012 

Members of the Occupy movement in Vancouver and around the world were looking for a redistribution of wealth.

Photograph by: Nick Procaylo, PNG Files, For Postmedia News
The Occupy Movement that swept across North America this fall was widely criticized for lacking focus, for having no firm demands, and for its refusal to coalesce into a structured political organization. As a result, the various encampments attracted all manner of protesters, objectors and social outsiders.

But one constantly recurring sentiment has been the feeling of intergenerational grievance: that youth unemployment is at record levels, that student debt is skyrocketing, and that this generation of kids will be "the first generation to do worse than its parents."

It has been more than a decade since North American educators and other sympathetic observers began sounding the alarm on the chronic downward mobility of youth and young adults.

In those days, the plight of marginalized, impoverished and debt-ridden kids was exacerbated by the propensity of older citizens to blame the mess on the kids themselves.

When Canadian pollster Michael Adams dismissed 1.9 million Canadian youth as "aimless dependents" and "slackers without a cause" in his celebrated 1997 bestseller Sex in the Snow, he captured the '90s zeitgeist.

That was before the Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street. Now, instead of slackers, we have a new pop-demography zeitgeist: boomers versus "generation debt" or "the screwed generation."

But here's a news flash: How-ever appealing this model of Canadian society may be to tabloid journalists, opportunistic cool-hunters, overpaid cyber-gurus and angry young job-seekers, it is a complete fiction.

Thanks to pop demographers like David Foot (remember Boom, Bust and Echo?), we have been fully conditioned to think of ourselves as card-carrying members of various birth cohorts - boomers, Gen-X-ers, millennials.

For Foot and his count-less imitators, the only social dynamic that matters is generational competition, where each cohort occupies a distinct social, cultural and especially economic space that must continually be staked out and defended vis-a-vis the others.

Generational conflict displaces all other forms of social struggle, pitting parents against children, middle-aged boomers against both the elderly and the young, even the living against the unborn.

In this brave new world, Canadians have vested interests rather than traditions. Far from having anything of value to teach each other, each cohort lives in a world of its own making, deeply suspicious of the others and concerned only to prevail in a world of shrinking resources and growing demand for them.

There are two main problems with this way of looking at the world. The first is that pop demographers get it wrong - sometimes really wrong.

Foot once singled out 1961 as the worst year in which to be born in North America because "you're one of a huge crowd of late baby boomers."

Really? Canadians born in 1961 include Jim Balsillie, Tony Clement, Douglas Coup-land, Wayne Gretzky and k.d. lang. Barack Obama was born in 1961, and he seems to be doing fairly well. Ditto George Clooney, Sarah Brightman and Wynton Marsalis.

One of the most notorious books in the pop demography oeuvre is The Big Generation, written by Canadian business consultant John Kettle in 1980. Never heard of it? That's because the ink had barely dried on the page before Kettle's scathing attack on baby boomers had become completely anachronistic.

According to Kettle, self-absorbed boomers had conspired to turn Western Civilization on its head, abandoning the Protestant work ethic along with earlier generations' noble willingness to "live vicariously on future hopes and their children's prospects."
Patriotism? Forget it. Boomers could never "identify them-selves and their interests with national interests."

Law and order? Same. The boomers' "capacity for hostility and violence is enormous."

Seen from Kettle's pre-boomer, pro-business, civic engagement perspective, the future was a nightmare. Lazy, unambitious and cynical about power, the boomers would elevate the NDP to official Opposition by the end of the 1980s, Kettle predicted, and elect it the Government of Canada before the end of the 20th century.
Of course, things did not turn out this way. Most of the political watersheds in recent Canadian history - Pierre Elliott Trudeau's Charter federalism, Rene Levesque's sovereignty-association, Jacques Parizeau's separatist gambit, Preston Manning's neo-conservatism - were pioneered by pre-boomers.

Exempting Kim Campbell's brief (and unelected) tenure as prime minister in 1993, the first boomer PM is Stephen Harper, the man credited not only with obliterating Canadian socialists, Red Tories and natural-governing Liberals, but with fundamentally redrawing the Canadian political map and catalyzing a new form of right-wing Canadian nationalism.

In the hyper-caffeinated late 1980s, somebody predicted that the 1990s would be the "leisure decade."

But as we all know, life in the wired, globalized, 24/7 world grows more and more frantic, and less and less human, with each passing year; futurologist Jeremy Rifkin's 1996 book The End of Work was obsolete before it was even published.

Anyone who believed the boomers would usher in a Jimmy Buffett world of unencumbered hedonism must still be reeling from the frenetic, real-time, on-demand world that boomers like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Michael Dell actually gave us.

The only thing that appears not to have changed is the timeless refrain of intergenerational warfare: kids these days are all ungrateful, self-absorbed slackers, while their elders are the bloated beneficiaries of a demographic lottery.

"Occupy a job," shouted the signs of the thirtysomething stockbrokers on their way past the Occupy Toronto protests.


The second problem with pop demography is less obvious, but more pernicious.

The basic social unit in Canada is not the birth cohort. It is the family. This is not the fabled "working family" invoked by our politicians' cynical sound bites, but real, actual Canadian families, in all of their intergenerational complexity, working quietly to do the best they can with the hands they have been dealt. In most Canadian families, "generations" are not at war.

They work together. And in most boomer-headed house-holds, parents are not "committing younger generations to a fate of austerity and stagnancy," as one newspaper article so elegantly put it. They are supporting their children and even their grandchildren well into adulthood.

To begin with the obvious, not all boomers are the leisured, jogging beauties of the "Freedom 55" commercials. They are as varied by class, ethnicity and gender as other Canadians. Their wealth mostly takes the form of real estate equity - the one advantage of being part of a large "pig in the python" demographic.
Big cohorts like the baby boom may have had to compete tooth and nail for jobs, but the same competition also drove real estate values into the stratosphere.

Inflated housing values not-withstanding, not all boomers are wealthy, and many never will be.

Some, like female boomer divorcees, face a bleak future. According to research sponsored by the Salvation Army, the number of "financially vulnerable older women" in Canada is about to jump dramatically.

Financial planners also report a statistically significant number of boomer women leaving the workforce to care for elderly parents and young grandchildren - evidence, as if any were needed, that social services, once underwritten by the state, are quietly being privatized within families.


One of the enduring myths of our time - you can read it practically daily in the financial pages - is that boomers who have been hammered by declining investment returns since 2008 have decided to "cling" to high-paying jobs that would otherwise fall to young Canadians.

The reality is that older Canadians are delaying retirement as part of a family-based strategy for economic survival, and they have been doing so since the mid-1990s. They are keeping their well-paying jobs precisely because their own kids do not have access to them.

The labour market is, after all, the labour market. Com-plain all you like about boomers clogging it up but, to state the obvious, there is no way for older workers to hand-pick their successors.
Boomer entrepreneurs may leave their businesses to their children, but for the rest, in this dog-eat-dog economy, where is the material incentive to hand a lucrative and rewarding job to somebody else's kid? In the academic world, for example, faculty renewal would be a growth industry if professors could hand-pick their replacements from their favourite graduate students.
Boomers are also pilloried for adopting a careless "work till you drop" attitude toward their poorly planned retirements, but this, too, is a myth.

The overwhelming threat to boomers' quality of life in retirement is longevity, itself the product of medical advances and healthier living. Thus, while it is true that Canadians are retiring later than earlier cohorts, what is less well known is that the length of time they will live in retirement is not changing.

Male boomers retiring in 2008 could expect to live 15 years in retirement, females boomers, 18 years. Boomers may be the first generation to live decades past the conventional retirement age of 65, but they won't be the last. By 2100, Canadian life expectancy is likely to exceed 90.

Academic studies show that older working boomers still con-tribute massively to the national tax base, and also that Canadian productivity would drop if their expertise were to disappear from the economy en masse.

One Canadian pundit who has begun thinking seriously about Canada's aging population, Jeffrey Simpson, acknowledges that the government should be encouraging boomers to retire later - to fatten government revenues and to reduce the bur-den on public pensions.


What about "skiing," an acronym for "spending the kids' inheritance"?

Contrary to prevailing stereotypes, financial planners report that boomers are keenly interested in inheritance tax planning. Why? Because many know that young Canadians' best shot at a decent start in life begins with a leg up from their parents and grandparents.
A recent TD Canada Trust "boomer buyers report" reveals that the adult children of boomers are directly affecting their parents' retirement and investing decisions. Seventeen per cent of boomers who expressed a desire to "downsize" their residences (i.e. move to smaller homes or condos) added that they were postponing such plans in order to accommodate their adult children and grandchildren.

Have boomers conspired throughout their lives to vote their generational interests in a selfish and ultimately socially destructive way? Iain Reeve, a grad-student contributor to the Queen's University Journal, believes so.

"After benefiting in their youth from the most permissive social welfare state ever," says Reeve, "the baby boomers moved into career employment and the years where most people's dependence on government ser-vices declines. The result was a gutting of the welfare state, lower taxes and a greater reliance on the private sector."

But the myth of baby boomers as the most politicized generation, capable of mobilizing their electoral clout to advance their own selfish agenda, is simply wrong. Academic studies of the famed political disengagement of youth show that it started with the boomers.

The "generation" the politicians have been courting shamelessly since the 1970s are not boomers but today's seniors - roughly 90 per cent of whom can still be counted upon to cast a vote.

The greatest triumph in late 20th-century social policy was not the fattening of middle-aged boomers: it was the virtual eradication of elder poverty. As The Economist pointed out in December 2010, it is the over-65 crowd that self-identifies as conservative and votes accordingly.

In truth, far from rapaciously exploiting the ever-widening social safety net in the Canada of their youth, many boomers today concede that they completely missed the boat. Take university education. By the late 1970s, tuition was virtually free, and government grants and loans were extraordinarily generous. Nobody knew the party would not go on forever. Boomers who misread the tea leaves and opted not to go to university have been kicking themselves ever since.

Their regrets extend to their debt-burdened children. The best evidence that nobody thought much about saving for their kids' education is that there was no government-subsidized Registered Educational Savings Plan nor any demand for one. Boomers can hardly be blamed for failing to save for their kids' education when everyone believed it would remain a bargain.


Finally, where do Canadian kids themselves stand, those who ostensibly camped out in the nation's parks as part of the Occupy movement's 99 per cent?

Last month, the B.C. Securities Commission published the results of a remarkable poll. Three thousand recent Canadian high school graduates en route to post-secondary education were asked about their financial futures. They told pollsters they believe they will be earning $91,000 per year within a decade, that they will own their own homes within the same period, and they will have their student loans paid off in half that time.

Groping for an explanation for why young Canadians appear to be so utterly deluded, the authors of the report concluded bluntly that they must be financially illiterate.

Maybe. But there is another explanation. Maybe these kids have been so well sheltered by their parents' largesse and generosity that they expect it to continue indefinitely. Maybe boomer parents will continue to provide their children with free room and board, child care and a sympathetic ear, as well as money for tuition, tuition debt, home purchases, car payments, insurance, transit, grad school, start-up business costs, cellphones, whatever.

In the past, when youth problems were perceived to be "out of control" - delinquency, crime, unemployment, social tensions, drug problems - governments stepped in to restore stability.
This time, although young Canadians are obviously facing enormous challenges, the indicators of social tensions, particularly violent crime, are actually receding.

Is it possible that the net effect of Canadians' family survival strategies are creating a more conservative society overall? Is it possible that young Canadians' identification with their parents' economic interests, combined with a lifetime of deferred gratification, explains why they are less rebellious than their parents?

It does not have to be this way, of course. No one wants a lost generation of young adults delaying house-buying and child-bearing into their 30s and 40s.

As Paul Kershaw of UBC has said repeatedly, many of the challenges confronting young Canadians, particularly young parents, can and ought to be addressed politically, as matters of public policy.
Kershaw wants government to help out young families by introducing a $22-billion "New Deal" that would include a national child care strategy and more generous federally funded parental leave provisions.

He is right. These are things a rich country like Canada can and should do. We could also make tuition affordable and tuition debt manageable.

We could make more of an effort to redistribute wealth on a national scale and to redress the trend of worsening wealth polarization - priorities the Occupy movement has put squarely on the national agenda.

We could also find some creative financial mechanisms for redistributing wealth within families, so those with big homes full of adult children can "downsize" while providing their kids entrée into the real estate market.
We could do what we said we would do almost two decades ago and end child poverty.

The next decade is going to be difficult, everyone agrees on that.
Austerity is once again the watchword in the industrialized West, as we wrestle our deficits and debts to the ground and try to rebuild our floundering economies.

Now is not the time to engage in silly pseudo-demography about competing generations, as if this alone accounts for the myriad problems facing young Canadians. It is time for serious people to start thinking about serious solutions, and the kids themselves know it.

Robert Wright is a professor of history at Trent University in Oshawa, Ont.

Thank you to The Vancouver Sun

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