Print Edition: December 7, 2011
By almost any economic measure, this country and the people in it are richer now than at any other point in our history. Yes, it is true that all of us (but especially young people) have been ravaged by the Lesser Depression. But the average Canadian is richer, lives longer and will have access to more benefits like post-secondary education than their grandparents or great-grandparents ever did. These riches and benefits in civil society are not the natural consequence of the free market, or the inevitable march of history toward ever great levels of “progress.” Rather, these benefits are the result of a tremendous effort by an entire generation of people. These are the benefits of the welfare state, and until recently I had believed that they were mine to be inherited.
The baby boom generation has been in control of the levers of power in our society for the last 30 years or more. In that time, there has been a concerted effort to reduce, repeal and otherwise revoke many important facets of the post-war social contract from which the baby boomers themselves received so much. Taxes have fallen in all areas, along with funding for things like universities and schools and childcare. What remains is high spending in certain areas like healthcare that disproportionately benefit the elderly or the soon to be elderly, financed not by adequate taxation on property, incomes and capital gains, but by unsustainable borrowing, user fees and consumption taxes.
All of the mechanisms of the state have been arrayed for the benefit of an increasingly-narrow category of people. That is simply not fair; nor is it sustainable. As most media will tell you, the demographic picture for most of the West, including Canada, is not particularly pretty: an ageing population, with far fewer working persons versus retirees than ever before. That alone is not cause for serious alarm, but the continual reduction of opportunity for young people to finance the continued material comforts of the baby boomers is something that cannot continue.
Many, perhaps most, young people today are the children of baby boomers – myself included. As a class, our parents enjoyed the greatest period of material prosperity and political stability that the West has seen in over a century. Rather than ensure the continued prosperity for their children, baby boomers have drawn up the bridge behind them and left us all floundering around with no clear path forward. Boomers continue to control most of the senior positions in business and government, and with the abolition of mandatory retirement there is no serious incentive to hurry along the transition of leadership to a younger cohort.
When considered all together, I find myself increasingly angry and bitter about the whole state of affairs. Not because I feel “entitled to my entitlements,” but because of the hypocrisy of those who have come before me. They had free or subsidized education, they had free or subsidized healthcare, they had access to good jobs and the promise of upward social mobility. Now, there is the very real possibility that all of these things will be extinguished during my lifetime. What an inheritance!
Sometimes people will ask why young people aren’t more engaged in public life, especially politics. I have no answer, but it should not be surprising to anyone that people are disaffected with our institutions when government and civil society is arranged to benefit boomers and damn everyone else. The only silver lining to this is that eventually young people will be in control, finally able to correct the systemic inequality and unfairness which we must suffer. But I fear by then the fire sale for the baby boomers will have run its course, and we will be left with nothing but ash.