Boomers risk fraying social contract between generations
Having given thanks on Monday for their many blessings, the good folks at CARP (formerly the Canadian Association for Retired Persons) launched a media blitz Tuesday morning, outlining a series of proposals with which it will lobby political parties in the 2019 federal election.
It’s not a short list, nor is it cheap.
Advocating on behalf of Canada’s six million seniors, the organization said its aim is “making Canada the best place to age.” How? Simple: 19 ways.
The 19 measures CARP is demanding from our parliamentarians fall into the broad categories of financial security, abuse prevention, caregiving and housing supports, health care and social inclusion.
Some of them are administrative and less controversial: protecting pensioners in defined benefit plans with “superpriority” status in the event of the bankruptcy or insolvency of their former employers. Or enabling financial institutions to report more easily the financial abuse of seniors. Or reducing ageism through education.
Others are big projects and potentially expensive: a national “conversation” on elder abuse, financial supports and respite services for caregivers, a national dementia strategy, a national pharmacare program and more affordable long-term care, to name a few.
For someone like me, whose retirement is no longer a distant mirage but rather a nearing prospect, the answer to CARP’s proposals is instinctively quite simple: Yes, please.
That kind of response comes easily to those of us in the middle of the baby boom generation. We’ve imposed ourselves on society and on politics, at all levels, since before we were born.
Governments built schools, colleges and universities to accommodate our needs, plus our parents’ postwar aspirations for us, are the best examples. Our educational opportunities, soaring literacy rates compared to our parents, and the sheer muscle of our demographic bulk meant most of us could remain employed, with enviable employee benefits, for most of our careers.
Precarious employment, defined contribution pensions, the gig economy? For many of us, those things went mainstream in our wake, as we sailed through to the latter phases of our careers.
Even the economic circumstances that surrounded our working lives — high wages, low competition for jobs (though the competition was high for those a generation younger) and years of inflation — helped boomers accumulate assets and hang onto a respectable amount of it into retirement. Within the next 20 to 30 years, Canada could well see the biggest transfer of wealth, from one generation to the next, in its history.
As I sat at our dining room table at Thanksgiving dinner on Monday, I was thankful, certainly. But for all of my generation’s successes and good fortune, I don’t know that we’ve handled our wealth, our opportunities or our place in history very well.
We’ve become addicted to governments that borrow money, both provincially and nationally. We’ve been dismissive or willingly lazy about our impact on the planet and the effects of climate change. We’ve been too smug about our entitlements, the shocking disparities in wealth distribution between our poorest and richest neighbours, and the skyrocketing cost of homes, from which many of us, as homeowners, benefit. All that, plus we possess a comparatively diminished set of aspirations for our own children and grandchildren.
We spend their inheritance, not only in terms of national and sub-national borrowing, but certainly in terms of the environment and the planet we are leaving for them.
Eight years ago, British politician David Willetts wrote The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future And Why They Should Give It Back. In it, Willetts sums up the way my generation is fraying the social contract between generations, the kind of glue, comprised of gratitude and trust, that links us together.
Australian economist Jeremy Bray has noted that “once retired, and no matter their accumulated wealth, baby boomers will only be able to eat the bread that the younger generation bake for them.” And in the face of a broken social contract, “one thing is certain: Without a solution, younger generations are more and more likely to become disillusioned with the deal being offered them and react accordingly, with unpleasant consequences for us all.”
We baby boomers? No Greatest Generation, at least not by the criteria that journalist Tom Brokaw used in his book about our parents and grandparents. Ours is more likely to be remembered as the Entitled Generation.
Our sheer demographic bulk will mean the capacity of Canadian society for adequate health care and senior living supports will be stretched as never before.
So, sure, bring on those hopes for which CARP eloquently pleaded this week: more financial security, better health care, national pharmacare and other measures that will comfort us in our senior years.
But we’ve been asking the generations behind us to bake our bread for a long time now. And at some point, our generation’s expectation, even as we die, that the rest of Canadian society should take notice and up its game feels like an exercise in generational exceptionalism.