Boomers, seniors aren’t to blame

VancouverSun.com – opinion – As a society, we haven’t implemented social policies that could eliminate intergenerational conflict
November 7, 2011.    By Paul Kershaw, Vancouver Sun

Eight weeks ago I invited readers to envision a Canada that works for all generations. The conversation gained momentum thanks to feedback from across the country.

Much of it has been positive, suggesting the columns have helped to name what many in Generation Squeeze feel. But there has also been criticism.

As an academic, I welcome critique. It can signal where one may need to adjust thinking. I therefore wish to carry on the conversation this week by engaging directly with some of the concerns readers have shared.

Andrew Wister, Simon Fraser University professor of gerontology, succinctly captured a common set of criticisms. In a letter to the editor, he worried that my columns blame boomers and seniors for the squeeze on those who follow (Pitting young families against older generation isn’t helpful, Oct. 25). Wister is correct that generational conflict is not helpful. But let’s be clear about its origins.

The potential for conflict exists because social and economic trends over the last four decades have worked to increase average incomes and wealth for those approaching retirement, while squeezing the time, income and services for many in the following generations who are raising young kids. If there is a tension, it is because there has been a slow seismic shift in the Canadian environment, and we didn’t change with it. We abandoned our beaver logic, neglecting to build policy in response to the declining standard of living for Generation Squeeze.

The discussion of “blame” to which the professor referred has arisen several times in response to my columns (see also the Oct. 24 letter to the editor, Occupy protests raise doubts, inspire hope, from Robert Ages of Delta). Blame is not a game for me. I aim to be very careful about this issue, generally emphasizing personal responsibility.

For instance, I have argued that much responsibility for the bad intergenerational deal rests with Gen X-it – adults in their prime child-rearing years who are less likely to use their political voice, especially during elections. I compliment the boomer generation on their higher voter turnout, noticing that political parties respond when developing platforms. I observe many of today’s older seniors – the parents of boomers – were among our greatest policy builders, who paid down debts from the Second World War.

More generally, I have directed much blame away from politicians to focus on all of us as citizens. We have chosen not to prioritize social policy innovation in support of Generation Squeeze.

While boomer-blaming is not my interest, a Canadian commitment to personal responsibility does behoove us all to ask and answer the question: Do I leave as much as I use over my lifetime? The fact that Canada’s debtto-GDP ratio was 26 per cent in 1976 and 46 per cent as of 2008 (before the recession) sounds some alarm bells. Boomers are leaving larger public debts than they inherited from the previous generation, even though on average they have stronger financial situations than did near-retirees in the 1970s.

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