Check Out the Generation Squeeze Campaign  That’s the new site to follow!

Picture yourself as part of something bigger, something inspiring — a group of Canadians from all ages and walks of life coming together to give generations X, Y & Millennial a chance.  A chance to deal with lower wages and higher costs for housing, tuition, and child care.  A chance to cover the extra cost of saving for retirement.  A chance to deal with these problems without compromising the young families they have now, or the families they may one day want.

How do we inspire people to advance this common cause?

We take inspiration from shirtless dancers (nothing R-rated!), and the insightful narration by Derek Sivers in this must-watch 3-minute video:  Leadership Lessons from a Dancing Guy!

A central lessons is:  Be simple to follow

Initially, the network of Gen Squeeze partners thought it was sufficient to make the best available research easy to understand.  We worked hard to bring information to the public in Op Eds, news stories, reports and public lectures.  And we’ll continue to do this, because you need the best new information, as it becomes available.

The problem is that making research simple to understand doesn’t make us simple to follow.  We learned this from you, when many asked ‘what should we do with all this information about gen squeeze?’

Now we have an answer for you at!

We’ve identified 10 Things Everyone Can Do – each in Under 10 MinutesYou’ll find these on our new website being launched today.  The site makes it easy to Get Involved to Reduce the Squeeze in little ways, everyday.  With, we invite you to join our campaign.

The campaign has one simple goal for the next three months.  Shine a light on the generational spending gap: Canadian governments spend around $45,000 annually for every retiree, compared to just $12,000 for each Canadian under age 45

Why shine a light on this imbalance? Because we believe that spending on younger generations — whether for family, housing, education, environmental conservation, etc. — will be in short supply until political parties of all stripes finally acknowledge the large spending gap between generations.

The next major political campaign in Canada will be held in BC on May 14, 2013.  Elections provide unique opportunities to draw attention to problems.  In preparation, we will pilot engagement strategies that invite you to act.

1.  Amplify your voice. Make yourself heard in common call for a Better Generational Deal.

2.  Want kids some day, or have young kids now?  Then join us to call for three policy solutions to make a New Deal for Families.

3.  Want or have grandchildren?  Become a Boomer for a Better Deal.

Following the BC election, we’ll take stock of our successes and failures and get ready to work with partners province by province.  We want to build a national movement in time to influence the half dozen elections scheduled for 2015/16, including the next federal election.

Our campaign is non-partisan.  You can vote Conservative, Green, Liberal, NDP or otherwise and still care about the Squeeze.  What we ask is that you encourage the parties and politicians of your choice to narrow the generational spending gap.  Even a small change can make a big difference for Gen Squeeze – one we can make while safeguarding the medical care and retirement income security needed by our aging population. 

There is no campaign without you.  We need you to add your voice, tell your story, share it with friends, family, colleagues, and neighbours.  As Derek Sivers’ video shows, the shirtless dancing guy didn’t make the movement.  His dance became a movement only when others joined in.    We know the same is true for the Gen Squeeze campaign

So now that you know what you need to do, here’s what we promise:

  1. Humour and Fun.  Politics is important.  So is having fun.  The Gen Squeeze campaign is about both.
  2. Appreciation and Encouragement.  We appreciate and encourage all levels of participation, because we know small acts can make a big difference.  Especially when they’re repeated.
  3. Respect.  We promote respectful relationships with partners, proponents and critics.
  4. Connection.  We support opportunities to connect as much as possible, in person and on-line.  Sign up for our campaign newsletter to stay apprised of the latest developments.
  5. Suggestions, not Prescriptions. Because you are time-strapped, we suggest ways to participate efficiently in our campaign.  But these are suggestions only, and we value input about alternate ways to mobilize.
  6. Clear, Concise Information – You can count on us for leading research about the generational spending imbalance, the squeeze on younger generations, and available solutions.  Since your time is limited, and information overload is real, we will always strive to provide clear, concise evidence to help you take action.


Paul, Lynell and Cassin.

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Political parties ignore Gen Squeeze six months from BC election

Gen Squeeze Fighting Back with WTF? Parties

November 14 marked six months until British Columbians go to the polls.  Candidates are likely to emphasize family values, and some will claim they put ‘families first’.  But after canvassing the websites and recent press releases of the Liberal, NDP, Conservative and Green parties, there is little sign that ANY of them truly intend to reduce the squeeze on families like Joanne McCullough’s.

Joanne, age 38, is a mom of two.  She and her husband are small business owners – proprietors of the Golden Taps pub in beautiful Golden BC.  They work hard to cope with high housing prices.  It now takes 15 years for the typical 25-34 year old to save a 20 per cent down payment for an average home in BC, whereas it took just 5 years in 1976.   To compensate, Joanne shoulders a part-time job on top of their small business, working as the early childhood coordinator in Golden.

Joanne and her husband are squeezed further because child care services for their kids would cost the equivalent of another mortgage.  This added expense comes after they sacrificed many, many thousands of dollars from their household income to spend enough time at home when their kids were really young.

Joanne is not alone.  Many others under 45 ask why are Families Unaffordable today compared a generation ago?  This F.U. is far more offensive to generations in their prime child rearing years than any four-letter slur.

She used to feel ashamed, Joanne shares.  Ashamed in front of her parents, who enjoyed a far more solid economic foundation when they were her age.

But her shame disappeared when she learned it’s not her fault that young people’s wages are down compared to 1976, nor that housing prices are 80 per cent higher across the country.  That’s just bad timing.

Joanne decided to shine a light on the bad timing for everyone in her community to see.  Her strategy is simple: reclaim the ‘sex, drugs and rock & roll’ of the 1960s and 70s.  Back then, when people were drinking and dancing, they were also debating the war in Vietnam, civil rights, and gender equality.  For Joanne, the time, income and service squeeze with which so many in her generation struggle is now a problem of similar magnitude.  She thinks Canadians of all ages must rediscover fun ways to talk about the squeeze in order to add their voice to this generational story.  So she hosted a WTF? Party (Where’s the Family?) and packed her bar full with citizens from Golden, including the mayor and many on Council.

Some try to discredit younger Canadians like Joanne for being ‘entitled’ when they propose policy change to reduce the squeeze.  Such critics ignore the facts.  Each year governments spend around $37,500 per Canadian age 65-plus (mostly on medical care, CPP, and OAS).  By contrast, governments spend just $9,200 per Canadian under 45 (mostly on grade 1 to 12, post-secondary, EI and medical care).

Higher spending per capita on retirees makes sense because aging brings frailty.

But the gap between spending on older and younger generations merits scrutiny, especially since wealth among Canadians approaching retirement today has tripled on average compared to the same age group in 1976.

Adding just $1,100 to annual spending per Canadian under 45 could save families from paying the equivalent of additional mortgages when they stay at home with a newborn or use child care services.  The resulting savings would be enough for the typical young family to pay off student debt, or put aside a down payment five years sooner, or reduce their mortgage faster, or invest in an RRSP that with compound interest will add $193,000 to retirement income.

Narrowing the generational spending gap is the policy solution for which Joanne aims.  By hosting WTF? Parties or Gen Squeeze picnics, galas and get-togethers, she believes Canadians can have fun while influencing political parties of all stripes to acknowledge that socioeconomic challenges are growing faster for younger generations, even as Canada’s population ages.

Last week’s US presidential election shows that young generations play a decisive role when they turn up at the polls.  Kudos to Joanne and others in Cranbrook, Duncan, and Dawson Creek who have hosted WTF? Parties to mobilize young and old alike well in advance of the election.  The next WTF? Party is scheduled for November 26 on the Sunshine Coast, hosted by VOICE.  Check out the invitation at:

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The generational imbalance in Canadian priorities

Published in the Globe and Mail October 29, 2012:

There is a generational imbalance in Canada’s policy priorities.  Canadians under age 45 face a precipitous drop in their standard of living.  But government spending prioritizes Canadians over 55 – the very generations that benefited the most from a national economy that more than doubled in size since 1976.

It’s time to adapt policy to find better balance.

Gen X’ers came of age when wages were falling and housing prices skyrocketing.  As a result, the average 35 to 44 year old reported debt levels that reached 95 per cent of household income in 2005.  This is nearly 3 times higher than the average debt reported by Baby Boomers when they were the same age in 1984.  These harmful trends for Gen X show little sign of diminishing.  The gap between wages and living costs persists for Gens Y and the Millennials, as reported by the Globe and Mail’s feature “The kids aren’t all right.”

By contrast, Baby Boomers age 55 to 67 approach retirement today with wealth that is up nearly 200 per cent on average compared to Canadians of the same age in the mid-1970s.  This itself isn’t a problem.  If high housing prices are going to crush dreams for many young Canadians, it’s good the associated economic growth has benefitted our parents and grandparents – not just the One Per Cent.

As a generation of retiring parents risk watching their kids and grandkids fall behind, what do we make of current policy priorities in Canada?

Far higher debt levels make starting families less affordable for generations in their prime child bearing years.  Under 45’s have adapted, in part by delaying having kids until they are older, and devoting more hours to employment once they have kids.  But their adaptations don’t change the fact that the typical couple loses the equivalent of another mortgage from their income when parents split time at home with a newborn – even when they take advantage of parental leave benefits.  And they will often fork out the equivalent of multiple years of post-secondary tuition to pay for 12 months of child care so they can spend enough time in employment to cope with wages that are down and housing debt that is up.

Starting a family doesn’t need to be so financially challenging.  Canada could save new dads and moms $14,000 when they split 18 months at home with a baby by improving parental leave; and save young families $6,000 a year per preschooler if we reduced child care fees to no more than $10 a day.

To do this, Canadian priorities need to change.  The federal government spends more subsidizing livestock and agriculture than it does subsidizing moms and dads to spend time with a new baby.  Provincial governments spend nearly as much subsidizing agriculture as they do child care (other than in Quebec).

Why do we spend so little on generations under age 45?  Part of the answer is that we are spending more elsewhere – including on older generations.

In 1976, Canadian governments spent just over 4 per cent of our economy each year on retirement income supports.  Today, annual spending reaches at least 7.1 per cent of our economy – $115 billion (including RRSP subsidies and pension income splitting).  That is $45 billion more than we would have spent on retirement income support had we stuck with the practice in 1976.   This impressive policy adaptation reduced poverty for a generation of retirees from an unacceptable level of 30 per cent in the mid-70s to the lowest rate of poverty for any age group in the country today.

Public spending on medical care is even higher than pensions – and just under half goes to the 15 per cent of Canadians age 65 and older.  We spend 8.3 per cent of the national economy on medical care today, or $141 billion annually.  This is $47 billion more than we would have allocated had we maintained medical spending at the proportion of the economy it took in 1975.

Plus, we keep putting our next available dollar into medical care.  Any time you think government spending is constrained by the economic malaise since 2008, remember annual health care spending is increasing at a rate of around $13,500 a minute.  All the while, the OECD shows Canada already spends more per person on medical care than most countries, to achieve only average health outcomes.

Spending on older Canadians doesn’t have to come at the expense of spending on younger generations.

But we can’t avoid making this trade-off so long as we prioritize tax cuts along with increases to retirement security and medical care.  This is what Canadians started doing a decade ago.  We now collect 5 per cent less of our economy in taxes than we did in the year 2000.  That’s an $80 billion annual tax cut.

Data show this massive tax cut hasn’t helped the average young family to bridge the gap between stagnant wages and high housing costs.

Better parental leave and child care could bridge this gap, at a fraction of the cost.  These policy solutions would make it easier for generations under 45 to pay off student debts or mortgages.  So long as we choose not to invest in these solutions, our country leaves starting a Family Unaffordable by the standards established a generation ago.  That’s a far worse F.U. to generations under 45 than any four-letter expletive.

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“We are the 99%” overlooks generational decline

Note from PK.

Hello all.  As the academic year began this September, I’ve arranged a new relationship with a Canadian newspaper — the Globe and Mail.  I’ll be contributing something monthly or so.  Since the paper chooses the headlines and can edit material after I submit the columns, I paste below the original articles.  Cheers,



“We are the 99%” overlooks generational decline.

Canada’s economy more than doubled in size since 1976.  Because many aren’t feeling better off, the Occupy slogan captured attention a year ago.  “We are the 99%” reminds us that the richest one per cent of Canadians make 14 percent of total income, and absorbed more than a third of income growth in the last 15 years.  It helps to explain where all the additional wealth went.

But the slogan is incomplete.  The change in prosperity is also generational.

On average, Canadians who got in the housing market by the mid 70s (those who are newly retired, or retiring soon) have been big winners.  Compared to 55-64 year olds in the mid-70s, they enjoy wealth that has risen by around 200 per cent, in large part because housing values have increased dramatically over their adult lives.

But what’s been good for a generation heading into retirement has been bad for their kids and grandkids.  The typical 25-34 year old working full-time today must save for 10 years to put away a 20 per cent down payment for housing in an average school district.  That’s twice as long as was required for the typical young worker a generation ago, even though today’s down payment often purchases a smaller yard, a Condo, or requires a longer commute.

Young people’s wages are losing ground, despite the fact they have more post-secondary education than previous generations.   After adjusting for inflation, two young people still bring home little more than what one breadwinner often did in the mid-1970s.  The result?  Generations under age 45 are squeezed.  Squeezed for time at home.  Squeezed for money, because they pay higher student debts and housing prices with lower wages.  And when they choose to have kids, they are squeezed for child care services, which remain in short supply, and often cost the equivalent of another mortgage.

The slogan “We are the 99%” sheds no light on this generational squeeze, unless it is accompanied by a commitment from Boomers and seniors to help their kids and grandkids champion a better policy deal.

Championing social policy for generations facing tough times is a big part of Canada’s legacy.   Remember that in the mid-70s, 30 per cent of seniors were poor in our country – seniors like my grandmother, who today is 96.  Because Canada has a proud history of building and adapting pension and medical care policy to our changing socioeconomic circumstances, we have since wrestled down the poverty rate among seniors to around 5 per cent –lower than rates for any other age group in the country.

It is in large part because of this policy legacy that my grandmother is not poor today!  And it is also why my parents, in-laws, aunts and uncles have a far reduced risk of economic insecurity compared to those approaching retirement a generation ago.

We need to sustain these previous achievements, but it is also time to adapt policy again for a generation facing deep declines in their standard of living.  Problem is, markets for wages and housing are difficult to influence.  Policy can create minimum wages, and some social housing.  Although important, they do little to help the typical 38 year old today who has debt that is more than 100 per cent of household income because of housing and tuition costs.  A generation ago, the norm was around 40 per cent.

So we must look to other policy mechanisms that will reduce time and income pressures as younger Canadians start jobs, careers and homes.  There are solutions (see  Better benefits for new moms and new dads would ensure that it doesn’t cost younger generations the equivalent of a second mortgage when parents split time at home before a child is 18 months.  $10/day child care would mean parents don’t pay another mortgage for services on which they rely to have enough employment time to keep up with the rising cost of living.  And since the 2012 federal budget now asks younger Canadians to work longer lives before claiming Old Age Security, changes to employment practices would free workers to have an extra few hours a week at home each year before they retire.

These concrete solutions to the generational decline merit more attention as Canadians aspire for a fairer distribution of our national prosperity.

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Canada defaulting on generational debt

What does one generation owe the next?  Invariably, parents strive to create better prospects for their kids than they enjoyed, or at least leave as much as they inherited.

But it’s harder to do this now than it used to be.  Since starting my column in September, I’ve documented the declining standard of living for generations under age 45.  They are squeezed for time at home, because it takes two earners today to earn what one breadwinner often made a generation ago.  They are squeezed financially because student debts and housing prices have skyrocketed since 1976, while household incomes have stalled.  They are squeezed environmentally, because citizens under 45 will disproportionately bear the burden of what global climate change will bring.  And they are squeezed for services like child care, which are in short supply and annually cost the equivalent of another mortgage, or multiple years of university tuition.  Generations under 45 are squeezed in all these ways despite the fact that Canada’s economy produces on average an extra $35k per household today compared to 1976.

Since the standard of living for younger Canadians is squeezed compared to the 70s, a lot of Boomers try to compensate individually on behalf of their adult kids.  Some let kids live at home longer than expected, and help out with tuition or a down payment.  This creates a new constraint on retirement – just when the 55 to 67 year-old crowd thought they’d worked hard enough to enjoy incomes that are up 18 per cent compared to near-retirees a generation ago, or cash in on the wealth many gained from the housing market that increased 76 per cent over their adult lives.

Leaving as much as they inherited is out of reach for Canadian Boomers in ways they didn’t expect.  Current socioeconomic trends in wages, housing markets, global population and fossil fuel consumption constrain the prospects for their kids and grandchildren.

So perhaps it doesn’t make sense to think one generation is responsible for leaving the next the same standard of living it enjoyed.  But because we all benefitted from the sacrifices of our parents, the least we have is an obligation to mitigate when the standard of living slips for those who walk in our footsteps.

This is a fundamental problem in Canada today.  Even though Canada’s economy is twice as large as it was in 1976, our nation is failing to adapt to the financial, environmental, service and time pressures facing those under age 45.  Instead, our priorities are elsewhere, as revealed by key policy decisions since I started this column back in the fall.

In addition to setting aside money for fighter jets and a crime bill that will require new spending on provincial jails, we made several policy decisions that tip the balance in favour of Canadians near, or in, retirement.

In December, the federal government added billions more to the medical care on which we draw disproportionately in our later years.  Provincial leaders expect more.

In March, we extended the age for collecting Old Age Security from 65 to 67, but only for Canadians currently under 50.

We learned in May that we are not on track to meet the less stringent environmental targets our nation set as we withdrew from the Kyoto protocol.

And all spring long, many scoffed at young Quebecers who question why tuition across the country is twice what Canadians paid a generation ago.

This pattern shows a country content to default on its generational debt.  UNICEF ranks Canada among the worst industrialized countries for helping the generation raising young kids to afford enough parental time at home and child care services. We expect younger Canadians to work longer before they retire, but make no mention of reallocating the resulting savings to the generations whose added work will produce them.  We expect young Canadians to pick up the tab for future climate change, so we can enjoy the added growth that comes now from weakening environmental protections.  Few worry that we have made tuition more expensive at a time when post-secondary is more important to earning a middle-income today than it was a generation ago.

If Canadians don’t wish to default on our generational debt, it is time to refinance the generational balance sheet.  There are policy solutions to ease the time pressures, stagnant wages, housing costs, student debt and carbon emissions that make it more difficult to start a family today than a generation ago – solutions that I have described as a ‘New Deal for Families’ as a guest columnist with the Vancouver Sun.

Although my column ends today, change is just beginning.  Thanks to the many readers who lend their voices in support of a Canada that works for all generations.

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Canadian politics in a word

Describe the federal political parties in a single word.  That’s what Nanos Research asked Canadians to do in a recent survey.

Profanity featured in many of the descriptors.  Beside these, Nanos reported that many Canadians described Conservatives as “untrustworthy.”  The NDP is “socialist.”  Liberals are “incompetent.”

It turns out that we don’t have much good to say about our political system.  Ridiculing elected officials is now a national pass time, as is casting doubt on politicians’ motivations for seeking office, and treating them as punch lines rather than persons to respect.

Lamenting this reality in a previous column, I encouraged Canadians to BEAVER for PoliticiansBecause Every Adequate Voter Expresses Respect for Politicians, even when s/he dislikes the decisions of certain politicians at certain times.  I even encouraged people to post comments on my blog, sharing their reasons for respecting politicians.

I received four posts.

Who can be surprised, when the Robocall scandal and Bev Oda’s frivolous spending on luxury accommodation permeate national news?

But what if we turned the table? Asked the federal parties to describe Canadian voters in a single word?  What would we learn about ourselves as citizens?

I’m a proud Canadian.  Proud enough to know there are many positive monikers to depict us.  Kind. Welcoming.  Hard-working.  Just.  Ambitious.  Polite.  Adaptive.  Helpful.  Strong.  Patriotic.

But an independent national poll by McAllister Opinion Research in fall 2011 gives reason to think many Canadian voters are also fair game for critique.

Nearly half – 45 per cent – of Canadians say that government laws, services and programs “have very little, if any positive impact on the quality of life.”  This means nearly half of citizens ignore the positive impact of public schools, universities, medical care, pensions, unemployment insurance or many other programs and services that Canadians use on a daily basis.  And where would these 45 per cent be without the laws that enforce contracts, protect our property rights, promote safety, create order from potential chaos on roads?  For that matter, who would have built those roads, ports or transit by which the good we depend on are delivered?

Given such disregard for the benefits of public investment, one could understand if political parties might describe nearly half our population as UNGRATEFUL.

Half of us may claim government doesn’t matter.  But the poll also shows we don’t mean it.

If government has so little value for so many, you’d think Canadians would be keen to cut spending.  Right?

Wrong.  When asked to identify places to reduce spending, around 90 percent of Canadians reject spending less in almost all areas of social policy. In fact, the poll shows most Canadians want governments to spend as much, if not more, on issues like families with kids, seniors, medical care, the environment and poverty reduction.

When we glibly suggest government is irrelevant, but want more government spending on social programs, who could blame political parities for describing many Canadians as DISINGENUOUS?

The fact is, Canadians are inconsistent in our political rhetoric and social policy priorities.  It has become trendy for Canadians to say that government doesn’t matter.  But for all our stated discontent with government, there isn’t a single social policy issue for which anywhere near a majority of Canadians would recommend cuts.

Regrettably, this is just the beginning of our political inconsistencies in Canada.  Although a majority of Canadians report they want more social spending, we don’t want to pay for it.  Indeed, the McAllister poll finds that 47 per cent of Canadians would “vote against any politician who wants to increase taxes on anyone for any reason.”

I had no doubt that anti-tax sentiments had become enormously fashionable across Canada over the last decade.  But before the McAllister poll, I didn’t fully appreciate that about half of Canadians are actually saying they want something for nothing.  That’s what it means to propose more spending but rejecting tax increases.  In such circumstances, we might excuse political parties if they labeled many of us as “FREE-RIDERS.”

So long as many Canadians want something for nothing, we are doomed to have political parties we regard as incompetent or untrustworthy.  Parties simply can’t deliver more government spending in some areas without spending less on others, or raising revenue – no matter how incompetent that may seem to us.  Since so many Canadians oppose both options, parties have to equivocate about their plans when campaigning.  This can’t but help engender mistrust when we confront their decisions after elections, whether they cut, raise taxes, or just don’t spend more.

I know some think if there were only fewer trips on which officials pay outrageous figures for orange juice, or less generous MP pensions, then there’d be enough money with current levels of taxation to meet the desire for more spending on health, pensions, families, transit, police, the environment, etc.  But as problematic as Bev Oda’s waste is, inefficiencies in our governments really are minor compared to the nearly $120 billion a year we spend on retirement subsidies and income, the $135 billion we spend on medical care, $52 billion on the protection of persons and property, and more than $21 billion on defense.

I wish eliminating waste was the answer.  It would be a lot simpler than addressing a root cause of the problem.  Us.  Nearly 1 in 2 casually disregard how much everybody depends on public investment in infrastructure, goods and services.  Many in the other half nod politely at ‘death and taxes’ jokes, or join in the fun of dismissing most politicians as persons without real jobs.  In the process, they fail to expose the error in logic implied by any who suppose we can increase spending in some areas without raising taxes or cutting other expenditures.

The McAllister poll holds up a mirror for Canadians.  And the reflection isn’t pretty.  Too many of us either don’t mean what we say when we suggest government doesn’t make good with tax dollars, or want something for nothing.  Either way, the poll suggests that we all have reason to acknowledge our own shortcomings as political citizens before we are quick to judge the politicians we elect.

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Quebec student strike invites generational conversation

Support for student strikers wanes in Quebec.  New legislation restricts protests. Frustration grows about smoke bombs, vandalism and violence.  Divisions among students receive media scrutiny as protestors prevent others from going to class.  Even former Premier Lucien Bouchard publicly endorsed his Parti Quebecois’ rival, the Liberal government, by supporting its stand on tuition hikes.

Outside Quebec, many are bemused by protests about student fees that are already the lowest in Canada.  Still, it is outside Quebec where we should pay careful attention to the strike, because it is in the rest of Canada where circumstances give more reason to protest.

The concern about tuition in Quebec invites a generational conversation. Presently, the average undergrad tuition ($2,519) in that province is on par with Canada’s national average back in 1976.  If the proposed $1,778 tuition hike takes effect, Quebec fees will become 70 per cent higher than what Canadians paid a generation ago.

As Quebec post-secondary students resist this increase, other young Canadians have been coping with it for some time.  Controlling for inflation, national average tuition fees were stable from 1976 to 1990.  Thereafter, Statistics Canada shows that university revenue from student fees grew from 10 to 21 per cent, while revenue from governments fell from 72 to 55 per cent.

Given this generational change, students across the country have every reason to question why young adults today must pay tuition fees that are twice on average what their parents paid.  This question is especially worth asking since post-secondary education is much more important today than it was a generation ago in terms of landing a middle-income job.  Canada not only has more graduates with student debt today than in the mid-1970s, the average debt load is now markedly higher upon graduation.

As students question why tuition has doubled, I can’t help thinking ‘if only….’  If only the student protestors acknowledged more explicitly that rising tuition is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the challenges that Canadians under 45 face today compared to a generation ago.

Tuition, especially in Quebec, is not the major barrier for young adults.  A bigger barrier is that young people’s wages aren’t keeping pace with the cost of living as they try to pay for schooling.  The average minimum wage in Canada in 1976 was slightly above current minimums, around $10.50 in today’s dollars.  While minimum wages stalled, housing prices went up 76 per cent across the country, and over 90 per cent in Quebec.  This means students pay far higher rents today while attending classes.

The situation doesn’t improve once students leave school with post-secondary certificates.  Young couples age 25-34 have seen their household incomes flat-line relative to what the same demographic earned a generation ago.  They flat-lined even though today’s young couples are far more likely to be dual-earners, not single earners with a stay-at-home spouse.

This creates a bleak future for Canada’s younger generations, something that is too often ignored.  For instance, urging “tough treatment of Quebec student strikers,” the National Post published a column by Michael Den Tandt who argued “This is not Egypt or Libya. There is no romance here, no grand cause.”

Den Tandt is right.  We’re not Egypt or Libya.  But he is wrong to suggest there is no grand cause.  The fact is, the standard of living has declined substantially for Canadians who follow the Boomer generation.  They are squeezed for time at home because two earners are needed to make incomes that don’t keep up with higher housing costs and student debts.  They are squeezed by an environmental debt they must pay because Canadians have made no progress reducing per capita carbon dioxide emissions since 1976.  And they are squeezed by government debts that are far larger today than what their parents inherited.

Most in the squeeze generations have adapted by delaying marriage and kids. But let there be no mistake.  So long as we leave starting a Family Unaffordable by the standards established a generation ago, this may be the ultimate F.U. to the generations in their prime child rearing years today.

Quebec students signal this F.U. is a generational cause worthy of protestation and public dialogue.  They invite us to acknowledge new challenges that confront Canadians under 45, which didn’t exist a generation ago.  Policy solutions exist for these new challenges, just as they did decades ago before pensions and medical care were in place to prevent retirement and ill-health from leaving many seniors in poverty.

Quebec students may not be developing this conversation to its full potential, because that province initiated policy change to ease (although not eliminate) pressures young adults face when starting families.  But outside of Quebec, the trouble young Canadians have with higher tuition is dwarfed by failures to adapt family policy.  In one year, young couples forgo nearly a degree’s worth of tuition to split time at home when they decide to have a baby, even when using Canada’s parental leave system.  And they annually fork over the equivalent of a couple years of tuition to pay for child care services, if they are lucky enough to find quality spaces for their preschool kids. 

So, as the mood may be turning on Quebec students, the rest of the country would be wise to carry on the generational conversation they initiate.  We don’t want to see vandalism or smoke bombs on our transit.  But if we continue to ignore the declining standard of living for Canadians under age 45, we shouldn’t be surprised by protests. Truth be told, the bad generational deal for young Canadians is worse outside Quebec than it is in la belle province.

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The Truth about Taxes

As the deadline for filing income taxes looms, many Canadians, like me, are scrambling to pull together financial information.  As we calculate our income, we are especially likely to complain about the taxes we owe for the year, and question why they seem so high.

Although “death and taxes” jokes are inevitable, it’s worth setting the record straight about taxation in Canada.  Where we are relative to other countries, and how much we pay now compared to decades ago.

I suspect most Canadians believe that we live in a high tax country.  It’s just not true.  Adding up the income, sales, corporate, property and other taxes we pay to all levels of government, total taxes are 31 per cent of Canada’s economy.  This is below the average (33.8 per cent) for rich, industrialized countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  If Canadians paid taxes at the OECD average, we’d owe an additional $45 billion a year.

For high tax countries, we need to look to France, Finland, Austria, Norway, Belgium, Italy, Sweden and Denmark.  Taxes add up to between 42 and 48 percent of their economies.  In other words, their citizens pay half again as much as we do in Canada.

Yes, there are also a handful of OECD countries that collect fewer taxes than we do, including the US, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, Japan and Australia.  Keep in mind, all but Australia in this group have a larger public debt in Canada relative to the size of their economies.  So they’re not obviously strong role models.

Since Canada is a relatively low tax country by international standards, perhaps we feel heavily taxed because we pay more now than we did in the past?  This is true when total revenue collected by federal, provincial and municipal governments today is compared to what Canadians paid a generation ago.  We pay $22 billion more now than we would if 1976 tax laws applied today.  This increase is driven primarily by our decision to collect more pension plan premiums.

But here’s the thing.  Over that same period, we decided to increase spending on medical care and pensions by more than $80 billion a year.  Spending on these programs increased four times faster than the taxes that pay for them.

Canadians haven’t always been so unwilling to balance the country’s cheque book.  Just 10 years ago, taxes were $80 billion higher because Canadians were still determined to pay for the things we want.

However, since 2000, we’ve prioritized tax cuts to ‘pay ourselves’ first and foremost.  Individual income tax is down nearly $38 billion a year, and we slashed sales taxes by nearly $19 billion to a level far below a generation ago.  Corporate taxes also dropped substantially, down nearly $18 billion.  This is one reason why KPMG’s annual competiveness reports show that Canada has become an especially good place for companies to do business.  But in the spirit of full disclosure, corporate taxes in Canada are only around $3 billion lower today than they would have been had we kept corporate rates as they were in 1976.

Because the Occupy movement has effectively revealed the growing gap between the rich and the rest, some Canadians worry that a big problem with taxation is that the wealthiest Canadians are not paying their fair share.  Compared to 1976, there is reason for concern.

Canadian Tax Federation data show that current marginal federal and provincial income tax rates combined peak at around 43 percent.  This top rate kicks in on income above $128,800.  Back in 1976, someone with the same income after adjusting for inflation would be paying a tax rate of 49 per cent.  Plus, in 1976, we had even higher tax rates for incomes above $198,000, with the peak rate of 61 per cent coming at $305,000.

This means we have definitely moved far closer to a flat tax for the one percent compared to a generation ago, and substantially reduced their income tax responsibilities.  Plus, more privileged Canadians often can organize their income so that it is taxed at corporate rates, which provide substantial savings compared to paying taxes as individuals.

Before we conclude that problems with taxation rest only with the one percent, middle-income Canadians need to take a hard look in the mirror.  The proportion of total income tax paid by the vast majority is down, both compared to both 1976 and 2000.  By contrast, Statistics Canada data show it has gone up for the most affluent 20 per cent of Canadian families, as much as 9 per cent compared to a generation ago.  This is partly because the top 20 per cent of earners have seen their incomes rise in recent decades faster than others.  But it is also because middle-income Canadians were paying combined federal and provincial income tax rates around 5 per cent higher than they are now.  This is conveniently disguised by the slogan, “We are the 99 per cent.”

The pattern of dramatic tax cuts that began in 2000 does not play out neutrally across generations, because spending patterns have not been neutral.   Since expenditures on medical care and pensions grew while taxes declined, there are far fewer resources with which to adapt to the declining standard of living for today’s generations under age 45.  They are squeezed for time because it takes two adults to earn what one often could a generation ago, and they must pay for housing prices that have skyrocketed, along with larger student debts.  There are policy solutions to their challenges – a New Deal for Families – just as we have implemented successful policy solutions for the sick, and for seniors.  But policy solutions need to be paid for; otherwise we squeeze generations that follow with larger debts.  We can make room to pay for them by spending less on other things like jets and jails, or yes, possibly changing expectations around medical care.  Or we have to pony up ourselves, as we did before the year 2000.

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Surrey Board of Trade Befriends Gen Squeeze

Beware.  You may be reading the words of a right-wing conspirator.  At least that’s what a column in the Tyee implied a couple months back when I last wrote about the Surrey Board of Trade.  Allegedly, I demonstrate “an affinity for one per centers” when I refer favourably to business leaders who make substantial contributions to the social well being of their communities and country. I deploy my sympathies deviously to distract attention from the Occupy movement, even though I, like Occupy, propose remedies to close the growing gap between the rich and the rest.

But I just can’t help talking about some impressive business leaders this week.  Because the Surrey Board of Trade, led by CEO Anita Huberman, one of Business in Vancouver’s top 40 under 40, just published a “Business and Families Position Paper.”  The paper recommends that provincial and federal governments implement a New Deal for Families.

According to the Board, “In the absence of policy that responds to the declining standard of living for generations raising young children, costs are now displaced on to business. Work-life conflict among employees with preschool age children costs the BC business community in excess of $600 million per year, and the Canadian business community in excess of $4 billion.”  Why?  Because the “business community pays a price when employees with young kids bring their time and service squeeze to their jobs… The result is higher absenteeism rates for this group of employees, greater turnover, and increased use of extended health benefits – all of which employers pay for”, says Huberman.

In the spirit of full disclosure, my right wing conspiracy does not stop with the Surrey Board of Trade.  Several ‘one percenters’ have lent their voices and reputations to echo this call by contributing to a new series of YouTube videos:  Warren Beach, as CFO of Sierra Systems, Debi Hewson, CEO of Odlum Brown, Yuri Fulmer, CEO of FDC Capital, and Tamara Vrooman, CEO of Vancity.  The videos feature business leaders supporting policy reform that will make Canada work for all generations.

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Who would have thought it?  Grassroots activity bubbling up through the business community.  We tend to associate this sort of thing with community groups.  Like the YMCA, which is convening grassroots conversations across the country to ask ‘Does Canada Work for All Generations?’  Or the WTF? (Where’s the Family?) parties that are popping up in communities like Cranbrook as locals try to mobilize the under-45 crowd.

But in Surrey, the Board of Trade has lent its organizational voice to the grassroots movement.  Its position paper formally calls for provincial and federal governments to implement $10/day child care services; incentives for flex-time and family-friendly workplaces; healthy child check-ins and parenting supports; and a review of parental leave to explore changes that would make it affordable for dads and moms to split 18 months at home with a newborn.

The timing of the Surrey Board of Trade’s announcement is notable.  Polls show that the BC Liberals are neck and neck with the nascent provincial Conservative party.  Both are well behind the NDP.  Angus Reid pollster, Mario Canseco, recently suggested in the Globe and Mail that the Liberal freefall in the polls reveals that Premier Clark’s ‘Families First’ agenda hasn’t resonated with British Columbians.

Is the electorate really responding poorly to the ‘Families First’ idea?  Or is there just too little content in the Premier’s agenda to motivate a response?  A February holiday that has been postponed, the elimination of parking fees in provincial parks, and a review of hydro rates, is hardly the stuff of an agenda worried about the generation raising young kids, or their declining standard of living.

In this context, the Surrey Board of Trade announcement signals that the terrain is shifting for business-oriented political strategists. (There go my right-wing tendencies again!)  Fact is, the Board of Trade is not the typical group to weigh in on family policy – it’s not a social service agency or a philanthropic foundation.  The mandate of the Surrey Board of Trade is “furthering the interests of businesses in our region” and “a commitment to enhancing the local economy.”

The Board is a prominent business voice speaking to all political parties, including the ‘free enterprise coalition’ around which the provincial Liberals have branded themselves for the last decade.  By calling for a New Deal for Families, the Surrey Board of Trade invites political strategists to re-think what is perceived to be business friendly and pro-market, observing that significant investments in family policy for the generations raising young kids is consistent with such logic.

Advisors to Premier Clark will likely scoff at this.  They helped her bring in a provincial budget described by some as one of the most conservative in the country.  They went this direction out of fear that courting centrist voters would split the Liberals’ ‘free enterprise coalition’.  Problem is, polls show that this strategy isn’t working.

The Surrey Board of Trade’s announcement may point to a way out for the provincial Liberals.  The Board is signaling that reviving the initial attraction that many British Columbians showed for Premier Clark’s ‘Families First’ agenda makes good sense.  Following the timely advice of the Board of Trade could help the Premier move from empty slogans to a concrete family policy platform with potential to animate generations under 45.

It is those generations, especially families with young kids, who have been the least likely to vote.  A party that is worried about losing votes from its traditional base may then be wise to consider how to inspire those who have not historically showed up at the ballot box.  Exciting this demographic certainly worked for the mayor of Calgary, and many claimed it was significant in the results of the last US Presidential election.  It could work in BC too, with a ‘Families First’ agenda backed up by the policies endorsed by the Surrey Board of Trade.

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Federal budget: generational analysis distorted by Gov and Opposition

Many in Canada are growing nervous about the risk of intergenerational tension.  Regrettably, last week’s federal budget stokes these fires.

Although there was lots of talk about generations surrounding the budget, none of it engaged adequately with the social, economic and environmental trends that make intergenerational inequity a real problem in Canada.  Instead, Conservatives coopted generational language to shrink government, while the Opposition distorted it to defend much of the status quo.  Lost in the middle are generations of Canadians under age 45, whose standards of living don’t approximate what Canadians in, or near, retirement inherited back in the late 1960s to mid-70s.

Canadians age 54 and older were not asked in last week’s budget to change their retirement expectations. I can be convinced this makes sense, given how close this group is to retiring.  I am especially sympathetic toward those in the 54-64 cohort who struggle with low incomes.

However, it is precisely 54-64-year-olds in Canada who have, on average, witnessed their incomes rise by 18 per cent compared those approaching retirement a generation ago.  Plus many in this group gained far more wealth from the dramatic rise in the value of their homes.  Although it may be sensible not to ask this group to adapt their retirement expectations, we can still acknowledge that it is another example of how they have lucked out in the lottery of good timing.

By contrast, younger Canadians have unlucky timing, asked to accept retirement at age 67 instead of 65.  This change comes despite the fact they are already squeezed for time at home because it takes two earners today to keep pace with what one salary often paid for a generation ago.  They are also squeezed for income, because stalled earnings must cover far higher housing prices, child care services that cost the equivalent of a second mortgage, and student debts that are larger today than in the 70s.

To be clear, I don’t think the 2012 federal budget commits an intergenerational assault simply because changes to Old Age Security (OAS) mean that the generations following Boomers must now work longer.  But an assault does occur when no political party proposes to use the savings generated by legislating younger Canadians to perform more years of work in order to build a better policy deal for Generation Squeeze.

Prime Minister Harper’s team invokes generational language with the narrow intention of curtailing spending to reduce government deficits. Conservatives are right that generational fairness requires us to eliminate the deficit sooner than later.  Deficit financing makes sense during an economic downturn, but sustained indefinitely, it asks future generations to pay for today’s consumption.  This is precisely what Boomers did over their adult lives.  Back in 1976, municipal, provincial and federal debts amounted to just 26 per cent of the Canadian economy.  Today, as Boomers retire, it is closer to 50 per cent.

However, generational equity is not promoted when we use debt reduction as a reason to reduce government spending generally.  Younger Canadians need new policies to address their time squeeze at home, and their service squeeze because few can find or afford child care on top of paying for more expensive housing and tuition.  Emphasizing deficit reduction at the expense of building New Mom and New Dad benefits along with $10/day child care services just hurts the very younger generations that a concern to eliminate debt is supposed to help.

Unfortunately, the new Opposition Leader, Thomas Mulcair, didn’t do much better when talking about the generational implications of the federal budget, even though he said it leaves “a triple whammy debt to future generations.  They are inheriting the largest ecological, economic and social debt in our history.”

To be fair, Mulcair is right ecologically.  The 2012 budget risks weakening habitat protection and further diminishing Canada’s concerns about global climate change in order to prioritize the short-term growth generated by resource extraction.  This budget expects Canadians under age 45 disproportionately to deal with future environmental costs.

While on track environmentally, Mr. Mulcair’s focus on the status quo for social policy reinforces a bad generational deal.  He emphasizes that OAS is sustainable as it was before the budget.  He is correct, if we are willing to allocate an additional 0.7 per cent of GDP by 2030.  In today’s dollars, it would mean spending another $12.4 billion annually.   Mulcair also charges the Conservative party for failing on medical care, even though federal transfers to the provinces and territories will rise another $9.1 billion annually by 2016/17.

The increase to OAS that Mulcair implies is necessary, along with the budget increase to medical care that he suggests is too small, add up to nearly $22 billion a year.  $22 billion is exactly the amount needed to pay for a New Deal for Families.

Before the Official Opposition claims it is on the right path by defending status quo policy trajectories, we need to ask if there are better ways to spend that $22 billion.  This question is important because the only escape from either/or spending trade-offs is to increase taxes.  At present, Canadians express little appetite for raising taxes, notwithstanding Doctors for Fair Taxation.

When considering our priorities for $22 billion in spending, here’s a reality check.  International organizations like UNICEF critique Canada for being among the worst industrialized countries in supporting the generations under age 45 to start young families.  By contrast, we are not critiqued for our limited investment in old age security or medical care.  Since 1976, Canadians reduced the poverty rate among seniors from 29 per cent to 5 per cent – half what it is for kids today.  We also increased our public investment in medical care by about $45 billion annually, even though revenue did not grow nearly as fast.

Given these trends, it behooves all citizens to question why the next available dollars for social spending should go to policies that are already relatively strong in Canada?  In the spirit of medical triage, there is good reason to prioritize a remedy for our far greater policy failure:  we have yet to adapt to the declining standard of living for generations under age 45.

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Families First. What it has been. What it should be.

This month marks a year since Christy Clark became Premier.  She won the Liberal leadership with a “Families First” campaign.  It held much promise for the generation raising young kids.  Their household incomes have stalled despite the dramatic increase in dual-earner couples since 1976.  Stalled incomes must cope with housing prices that are up 149 per cent over the same period; pay back larger student debts; and often pay another mortgage for child care services.

Struggling with a dramatic decline in their standard of living, “Families First” seemed like the right response for a generation that is priced out, time poor, and ignored by policy.

One year later, “Families First” is more slogan than commitment.  The Premier delivered one extra holiday in February, which she postponed.  Families don’t have to pay for parking when visiting provincial parks.  And the Premier slowed Hydro rate increases out of respect for family budgets.

Such changes barely scratch the surface of the generation’s sinking standard of living.  They remain SQUEEZED — for time at home, income after housing, and services like child care.

Jobs have been the dominant focus for this “Families First” Premier, because she correctly observes that jobs are critical for family well-being.   But let’s be clear.  Jobs alone have not proven sufficient to sustain the standard of living for those who follow in the footsteps of the Baby Boom generation. Even two jobs haven’t.  That’s why household incomes for Canadians under 45 have stalled despite the rise in dual-earner homes!

Minimum wages are something for which the new Premier deserves credit.  She raised the minimum to $10/hour, despite controversy.  However, the living wage campaign shows the bare bones wage required to support a family of four in many of the province’s larger cities is nearly twice as high.

Influencing wages and housing prices is a difficult business for policy makers.  But ensuring that it does not cost parents the equivalent of a second mortgage to split 18 months at home with a newborn, or a third to pay for child care services are definitely things we can achieve through social policy.  Many other countries do, including those with a better dept/GDP ratio than Canada.

Before one presumes this a partisan critique, last year gave little evidence that the official opposition will prioritize a New Deal for Families in the next election.  Nor are federal parties moving in this direction.

Which brings us back to a dominant problem for generations under age 45.  Their relative disinterest in politics means many don’t call for political solutions to the fact it has become harder to raise a family.  Nor do many Boomers seek a better deal for their kids and grandkids.

I think the problem rests partly with policy wonks like me, keen to describe what “Families First” should mean in terms of policy reform.  I routinely talk about New Mom and New Dad Benefits, $10/day child care services, and a shift from 40 to 35 hour weekly employment norms as part of a transition to shorter work years in exchange for longer work lives.

For most, such talk doesn’t inspire.  People want to know how policy reform will influence their daily lives.

So let me describe “Families First” differently.  It ought to mean…

Time.  Enough time to listen, laugh, not just react.  Time with the kids, as opposed to rushing between work, appointments or play dates.  Time to swap less healthy take-out and pre-packaged food for wholesome meals cooked at home, eaten together.  Heck, there might even be enough time to get our hands dirty in pots on the balcony, or in a small garden to reconnect with local food and mother nature.   And there certainly would be enough time to find fun with our significant others, and not just prepare for the rat-race tomorrow.

Values.  “Families First” should maintain the family at the heart of Canadian values, while acknowledging the diversity in households from coast to coast.  Values that prioritize spending more time together with family and friends, while spending less on stuff.

Confidence.  Knowing that success on the job and success at home aren’t mutually exclusive aspirations.  That work-life balance is a genuine reality for men and women, not just some fiction we talk about.

Community. Child care services will become a community hub, responding to the nostalgia many feel about relying on neighbours next door.  Programs will support all families:  one earner couples, dual-earners and lone parents.  They will provide stimulating environments for kids that supplement, but never replace, what parents do.  Services that give parents the confidence to know their kids are well cared for while they grapple with the reality of stagnant wages and high housing prices – challenges that didn’t exist a generation ago.

Security, for all generations, including Boomers.  Sure, incomes are up on average for Boomers compared to those retiring a generation ago, as is their wealth in housing.  But many Boomers want to help their kids and grandchildren cope with the rising cost of living.  Not surprisingly, they worry about the impact on their retirement finances.  A New Deal for Families would ease this pressure, organizing policy so that enough parental time at home and child care services don’t cost second and third mortgages.  Boomers’ kids will therefore be in stronger positions to manage higher housing prices and student debt on their own.

Responsibility.  “Families First” still means people do all they can to pay for and care for their own.  But when the generation raising young kids works more employment hours and more unpaid caregiving hours than other Canadians, as they do now, their impressive work ethic should generate a standard of living that better approximates what their parents enjoyed.

Pride that hard work pays off for you and your kids.  Not the status quo, which means less time, less disposable income, more government debt, and global climate change.  Nor the shame and resignation many in Gen Squeeze quietly concede because they are left to cope with a declining standard of living that is ignored by federal and provincial policy makers.

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Education Dispute Ignores Gen Squeeze

Class size is a sticking point between the BC Government and the BC Teachers Federation.  It affects teachers’ working conditions, the quality of education received by children in Kindergarten through grade 12 (K-12), as well as the province’s bottom line.

The dispute about class size is inevitably influenced by classroom characteristics.  Take extra support needs, for example.  A class of 24 kids in which seven have extra support needs will be far more challenging for a well-trained teacher than will be a class of 24 in which just two or three children require additional support.

Yet this is precisely the trade-off we are making in all school districts because our debates about education fail to engage with the declining standard of living for the generation raising young kids.

Schools are really the first universal programs to which young families have access, save for medical care. Teachers are among the first responders for Generation Squeeze.  They do what they can to compensate for the fact the generation is squeezed for time at home because stagnant wages necessitate more parental time in the labour market; squeezed for income after rising housing costs; and squeezed for services like child care before and after their children start school.

Because the generation raising kids is squeezed, 30 per cent of their children reach kindergarten struggling to hold a pencil, or follow instructions, or get along with peers, or know many of their letters – all age appropriate tasks.  Most of these children live in middle- and upper-income homes and neighbourhoods.

So long as 30 per cent of children arrive at school struggling in these ways, there are seven kids with extra support needs in a class of 24.  Ample research evidence reveals there is no reason for this number to reach even three children.

The proportion of BC kids struggling when they enter school has been pretty consistent for over a decade.  This means K-12 classrooms are now filled with a surplus of vulnerable children.  Many classes may have four additional children requiring extra support that we could have prevented through family policy investments well before the children started school.

No wonder teachers are frustrated, and adamant that class size must remain a matter for contract negotiation.  Society is expecting them to deal with our collective failure to address a seismic decline in the standard of living for the generation raising kids.  In effect, we ask teachers to supplement their work as educators with additional roles as social workers, corrections officers, and health promotion officials.  That is not a context conducive to excellence in pedagogy, despite teachers’ best intentions.

But where in the dispute between teachers and the government is a discussion of why classrooms typically have so many children needing extra support?  What is the root cause?

A primary cause is our policy failure to adapt to the declining standard of living for Canadians under age 45 before their kids reach school.  For years now, UNICEF and the OECD have reported that provincial and federal governments in Canada lag behind most industrialized countries when it comes to supporting parents to afford time at home with a newborn, find and afford quality child care services, and balance employment with family time.

The implication?  We watch as the generation raising young kids struggles when their children are under age six, and then hope elementary and high school can solve many of the problems that arise.  It’s a classic Canadian example of addressing problems after the fact, rather than preventing them in the first place.

Just think what teachers could do with four fewer children requiring extra support per classroom.  Existing dollars could stretch further, as could teacher time.  Some day the government and BCTF may even settle on a teacher:student ratio that welcomes an additional student per class than they would under current conditions when seven children have extra support needs, instead of three.  This trade-off could save provincial coffers millions per year.

Regardless of the teacher:student ratios on which BCTF and the Ministry of Education converge (we hope), we can dramatically improve education outcomes for students if we put in place a New Deal for Families to reduce the strains on Gen Squeeze and their kids.  UBC colleagues and I have had the opportunity to examine anonymously the school achievement for an entire population of BC children as they move from kindergarten to grade four.  We then examine achievement for the population moving from grade four to grade seven, and grade seven to grade 12, or into the criminal justice system.

Examining what goes on for an entire population takes a lot of the guesswork out of research.  It shows that so long as 30 per cent of kids start kindergarten vulnerable, only 42 per cent graduate with grades that make them eligible to attend the best post-secondary programs.  But were we to reduce to 10 per cent the proportion of Gen Squeeze’s kids who arrive at kindergarten struggling, the share of students eventually graduating with grades good enough to go to university would improve by one third (to 56 per cent).  This dramatic improvement can be achieved just by getting it right before kids get to kindergarten, without changes to the K-12 system.

Steve Barnett, a leading US economist, has carefully reviewed the hundreds of academic studies about early child education and care services that examine child development outcomes.  His exhaustive review shows that the New Deal’s $10/day child care service recommendation could reduce the vulnerability rate among children under age six from 30 per cent to far closer to 10 per cent.  The proposed investments in New Mom and New Dad benefits and Flex-Time could close the remaining gap, while also addressing the time squeeze that parents face at home where it is important that they remain their children’s first educators.

So, as the education debate continues, it’s time to broaden the discussion.  Improving the quality of K-12 schooling, and its outcomes for kids, teachers and taxpayers, will require a New Deal for Families that adapts to the declining standard of living for Canadians under 45, well before their children arrive at kindergarten.

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WTF Parties: A Tonic for the Robocall Scandal

Robocalls misdirecting Canadians to polling stations.  That’s the last thing our democracy needs.  Canadians have enough difficulty finding the ballot box, with voter turnout rates at around 60 per cent federally, and less than 50 per cent in Ontario’s last provincial campaign.  This alleged trickery is understandably fueling even more cynicism among Canadians who are already too apathetic about the political work involved in citizenship.

A new Statistics Canada study confirms that voter apathy is especially high among Canadians under age 45, and among those with preschool children.  Readers of my column will know I believe apathy among these groups is ironic and self-defeating.  It is precisely this demographic that suffers a bad generational deal.  Incomes have stalled for young families, even though far more young women contribute employment income than a generation ago.  With stalled household incomes, young Canadians pay far higher housing prices.  And UNICEF ranks Canada among the worst industrialized countries for investing in the generation raising young kids.  What accounts for our poor ranking?  It costs parents the equivalent of a second mortgage to share a year at home following the birth of a new baby, and a third mortgage to pay for child care services thereafter.

While it is difficult to tackle high housing prices or transform the wage system, it is well within our grasp to change family policy so that the cost of parental leave and child care services don’t exacerbate the time, income and service squeeze on young people.  But policy change won’t happen by itself.  Canadians under 45 must demand change to create a new deal for families.  Regrettably, by all measures, we are either lousy at using our political voices, or feel too busy, tired or apathetic to search for political solutions.

In the face of this democratic deficit, I long for citizen heroes – people committed to enriching public dialogue, and renewing interest in the political processes that underpin the health of Canada’s population, economy and environment.  Thankfully, last week I found two heroes in East Kootenay, BC.  Keri Rinehart and Patricia Whalen run the Success by Six and Children’s First organizations in the region.  I believe these two may go down in history for hosting the first ever WTF (Where’s the Family?) party in Canada.

The WTF Party aimed to rekindle the energy that inspired the ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ generation of the 60s, an era of that connected partying and politics in debates about war, civil rights and gender equality.  According to Keri, “it’s time to mobilize all Canadians, especially Generation Squeeze, to rediscover fun ways to use our voices.”  So they invited the community to join a party at Cranbrook’s Heritage Inn.  The Columbia Basin Trust donated money to hire DJ James Weir to set the mood to music, Keri and Patricia provided subsidies for people’s child care to free them up for the evening, and 52 people came to mingle, share a drink, dance if they dared, and yes… talk politics.   Not a bad turn-out for a snowy Monday evening in small-town BC, when many had to drive some distance, including Joanne, Monica, Kristi and her baby Lucy from Golden who traveled 3 hours each way to attend!

No one talked partisan politics.  It was just people finding fun in talking about what we all can do to address the declining standard of living for young Canadians by creating a better policy deal for the generation raising kids.

WTF Party-goers (including some Boomers and retirees) got creative, imagining alternate names for Generations X and Y.  Suggestions included Gen Duped, Gen Shafted, and Generation Over and Out (Overworked, Overtired and Out of money).  But the name that struck me was Generation Shame.  Many signaled that they are embarrassed.  They work hard at home and on the job, but just can’t get their young families to the secure footing their own parents enjoyed just one generation ago when wages were higher relative to the cost of housing, and most families had more parental time at home.

Before talk of Gen Shame sparked a spontaneous rendition of “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to,” WTF party-goers proposed alternate theme songs for their generation.  Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” and Sister Sledge’s “We are Family” were among the favourites, moving some into a conga line before the night was over.  These songs are also fit for a WTF rally, some suggested, where marchers could carry placards reading “Sure we like sex, but we’re tired of being Gen Screwed.” Or “If you want grand-kids, then support a New Deal for Families.”

Anticipating the next WTF Party, groups proposed Gen Squeeze cocktail concoctions.  My personal favourite was “Tough Medicine”.  Two parts lemon, to leave a sour taste in your mouth; one part vodka, because it hits you when you’re not expecting it; red bull, because who has energy when struggling to balance work and family; and prune juice, in deference to the aging population.  All infused with crushed rosemary, to capture how many under age 45 find their dreams for a young family crushed by a declining standard of living.  Tough Medicine would be accompanied by a chaser of formula, I was told, because many families can’t breastfeed for as long as they would like!

The amazing thing about what Keri and Patricia did is that others left the party wanting to host their own events.  Angie Wagner is offering WTF? T-Shirts for the first 50 people to attend the next party in Cranbrook.  And Joanne McCullough, proprietor of the Golden Taps in Golden, BC has offered her pub as a venue for a WTF party in her community.  Large or small, these gatherings can help citizens find the fun in using our political voices to support a Canada that works for all generations.

WTF parties are just the tonic to heal our ailing democracy, and to address the declining standard of living for Gen Squeezed.  When faced with growing political apathy, especially among citizens under age 45, it is heartening to see that some Canadians have found a way to respond.  To maintain momentum, I welcome all WTF Party ideas on my blog (  And I’ll do what I can to attend personally from coast to coast to celebrate every-day efforts to rejuvenate Canadian democracy in the face of political assaults like the Robocall scandal.

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Canadians unconvinced about medical care spending increases

Poll shows many Canadians open to trading medical care increases for new family policy

Canadians increased public medical care spending by $22.5 billion between 2007 and 2010, raising it from $112.5 billion annually to $135 billion.  We did this over a recession, signaling that Canadians will find large sums of money for public priorities even in tough times.

The growth in medical care funding will continue.  Federal Finance Minister Flaherty announced the Canada Health Transfer will increase six per cent annually until 2017.  By that time, Ottawa’s contribution to medical care will grow by another $9 billion per year.  Premiers fear this federal increase will be insufficient, as citizens in their provinces aspire to use new medical treatments, technologies and drugs.

The fear among premiers is understandable.  A dominant media discourse is that we’re not satisfied with current spending.  We’re apparently unsatisfied even though public investment in medical care has increased from 5.4 per cent of our economy in 1975-1980 to over 8 per cent as of 2010.  That means we are spending over $40 billion more today than had we maintained spending at 1980 levels.  It also means we’re increasing government medical care spending faster than the economy is growing.

If we’re still not satisfied with spending today, then we need to ask how can we do better with existing resources, or collect more revenue in order to keep pace with rising expectations.  But let’s be honest, we don’t talk about raising taxes very often – either to pay for medical care, or to invest in other policy areas where Canada is not nearly as strong.

Given this context, I feel for politicians.  Canadians want more medical care that we’re not obviously willing to pay for, and then complain when the cupboards are bare to pay for other policy priorities.  While we may make it a national pass-time to joke about politicians, such logic gives far more reason to poke fun at ourselves.  It just doesn’t make sense.

Fortunately, a national poll by McAllister Opinion Research suggests such illogic may be a myth, not reality.  According to the poll, more Canadians think it is a “good idea” than a “bad idea” to re-consider increases for medical care.  Their point is not to reduce government spending, but to make room for other investments.  For those unwilling to compromise on medical care, the poll also shows that more Canadians think it is a “good idea” than a “bad idea” to increase taxes to pay for new priorities.

One root of these poll results is widespread concern among Canadians about our commitments to family time and responsibility.  88 per cent of Canadians agree or somewhat agree that “We need to put the family back into family values.” 85 per cent add that “Canadians should spend more time together and less money on stuff.”  The McAllister poll is accurate plus or minus 2.7 per cent 19 times in 20.

These responses reflect how the majority in Canada worry that the standard of living has declined for the generation raising young kids.  Two-thirds reject the idea that today’s families have it easier than in the past because of “all the amenities of modern life.” Instead, they recognize that “Families are more squeezed for time and money today, because of increasing costs” and the far more common “need for both parents to work in order to maintain a decent standard of living.”

The result?  New priorities compete with our aspirations for medical care or tax cuts.  These include funding increases for Generation squeeze and their young children.  The poll shows that 60 per cent of Canadians agree or somewhat agree that “Compared to what is spent in other areas, Canadian governments do not do enough for families raising young kids today.” Accordingly, 62 per cent of Canadians think it’s a good idea to invest in “New Mom and New Dad benefits, which would make it affordable for all moms and dads, including the self-employed, to split up to 18 months at home with newborns.”  66 per cent of Canadians think it’s a good idea to “subsidize $10-a-day quality child care,” and 80 per cent indicate it’s a good idea to change employment standards to provide “parents with more flexibility and time at home.”

It is not unusual for polls to show Canadians support new priorities, if not asked about their willingness to pay.  But that is what is so fascinating about the McAllister Opinion Research survey.  It did probe Canadians to consider tough trade-offs, including between sacred cows like medical care or much-hated tax increases.

What did the poll show?  Many Canadians are ready to make tough choices to invest in a New Deal for Families.  When asked specifically about reallocating the $22 billion recently added to medical care spending between 2007 and 2010, only 37 per cent of Canadians respond that this is a “bad idea”.  More (42 per cent) think it is a “good idea,” and 21 per cent are unsure.

These results don’t show overwhelming support for the trade-off.  But the fact that more think it is a good idea than a bad idea should give all political parties reason to pause as they contemplate the medical care increases announced for the future.

Clearly, reallocation from medical care isn’t the only option for funding family policy.  Spending less on jets or jails is another option, as is postponing the retirement age to 67 for those under 50, which I discussed in last week’s column.

So too is raising taxes modestly.  Notwithstanding the anti-tax attitude so often reported, the poll shows that 49 per cent of Canadians think this is a “good idea” to raise income taxes by “$1.67 per day” to contribute to a New Deal for Families, including a slim majority under age 55. By contrast, 31 per cent of Canadians answer it is a bad idea; and 20 per cent were unsure.  The poll shows similar patterns for increases to corporate and sales taxes.

There is no consensus yet in Canada about how to pay for a New Deal for Families.  But the McAllister poll shows a definite interest in discussing it in terms of the funds absorbed by medical care, jets, jails and old age security. Because many Canadians are nervous about such trade-offs, the poll also reveals Canadians are ready for a politicians to talk more frankly about taxes if new revenue will help maintain the family at the heart of Canadian values.

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What does it mean to go green?

UBC dialogues convened a panel last night in Coquitlam BC, asking “What does it mean to go green?”  Below I share a summary of my remarks as one of the four panelists.

Going green means taking responsibility:  personal, national, and generational responsibility.

Personal responsibility

By emphasizing recycling and transit, the environmental movement has shown how citizens’ private decisions directly influence public outcomes.

  • Amid cool Canadian winters, we can all choose to turn the furnace up higher; or turn it down, and put on a sweater.
  • Thirsty for caffeine, we can throw away a cup or two every day, along with all the material and energy used to produce it; or we can sip from the same cup, over, and over, and over again, provided we pack it in our bags.
  • Hungry, we can select imported foods, out of season that travel thousands of kilometers using harmful fossil fuels; or we can eat locally in season, dramatically reducing our carbon footprints.

Put bluntly, going green requires a tenacious state of mind by which we routinely anticipate the public harm we impose on others through our private, every day decisions; and accept personal responsibility to minimize that harm.

National responsibility

But going green is not simply an individual endeavour.  It is a political endeavour too, one which requires us to take responsibility as Canadians provincially and nationally.

Regrettably, Canadians are now widely recognized in the international arena as fossil fuel dinosaurs, with per capita carbon emissions that rank among the three worst OECD polluters.  In response, going green requires that all Canadians get animated and agitated politically, lending our voices in support of policy change that would privilege transit infrastructure and a shift away from fossil fuels.  And we must stand firm prioritizing such changes even when faced with difficult trade-offs regarding tax cuts, medical care, pensions, jets, jails, etc.

I suspect Canadians are weak at going green in part because we are content for other countries to take environmental action if it appears to give us an economic advantage. It may not make us good global citizens, but if others are sacrificing while we’re not, what’s not to like?

Generational responsibility

But this “realpolitik” sentiment misses the mark, because going green is deeply implicated in generational justice here at home.  Failure to act domestically harms Canadians – especially our kids and grandkids who follow in our footsteps.

Let me conclude with a generational synopsis.  We all know that Baby Boomers represent the largest part of the Canadian population today.  The peak in the Boom saw this group come of age as adults predominantly in the mid-1970s.  Over their working lives, no progress has been made reducing Canada’s per capita carbon footprint, even though our knowledge of the risks of global climate change have increased dramatically during that period.  In the mid-1970s, Canadians were among the top three emitters at 17 tonnes per person, and we remain so today, even though many other countries which already had smaller per capita footprints have since reduced carbon emissions still further.

Canadian Boomers leave this environmental debt even though the national economy more than doubled over the same period, producing an extra $35,000 per household on average. Perhaps this means the Boomer generation traded environmental progress in order to get the country’s fiscal house in order?  Nope!  Over that same period, government debt has nearly doubled relative to the size of our economy.

Compounding these dynamics, public spending in Canada ranks very badly by international standards when it comes to investing in programs like parental leave and child care services in support of families with children under age six.

In sum, a dominant trend since the 1970s has been to mortgage the future environmentally, economically, and in terms of social policy.  This is a bad generational deal.

One made worse by the fact that the standard of living for younger Canadians is in serious decline compared to the mid-70s.  Young couples’ household incomes have stalled, after adjusting for inflation, even though far more young women contribute household income today than they did a generation ago.  With stalled incomes, young Canadians must pay for higher housing prices that increased 76% across Canada, and 149% in BC.  It leaves a generation squeezed for time at home, squeezed for income after the high cost of housing, and squeezed for services like child care, which often cost the equivalent of a second mortgage.

Moving from a bad generational deal to a New Deal will require us all to reprioritize.

Younger Canadians, who are more likely to tune out electorally, must care less about who is being voted off some damn island on TV and care more about who is being voted into our legislatures provincially and federally.

Boomers must care to protect pensions and medical care, but not at the expense of a better environmental and family policy deal for their kids and grand kids.

For at bottom, going green requires that we all ask:  What kind of Canada do we want?  One that ignores a growing generational breach?  Or one that recommits to once again working for all generations?

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When should we retire? The case for longer work lives and shorter work years

What should be the retirement age? The Prime Minister deserves credit for provoking debate about a policy issue that is unlikely to help him electorally.

The fact is we are living longer.  Compared to 1970, women today live on average seven years more; men, an extra decade.  Given this change, it is hard to argue against adapting Old Age Security and Canada Public Pension policy by raising the retirement age beyond 65.   These systems weren’t designed for the reality that “70 is the new 60.”

But here’s the thing.  Any change in retirement age is not about today’s seniors.  It’s about the working lives of younger Canadians.  Government spokespeople have insisted, and rightly so, that any change wouldn’t affect those who are already age 65 or older.  Rhetoric to the contrary is misleading.

A change in the retirement age is an issue for Canadians who are currently planning their retirement based in part on the expectation that full OAS and CPP benefits will be available at age 65.  Policy reform must be phased-in so that those in this group have ample time to adapt their plans.  The need for adequate transition time means that we likely won’t see Canadians who are currently 55 or older feeling the effects of pending reforms.   The peak of the Baby Boom generation could slide into retirement before changes take effect – yet another example of that demographic group winning in the lottery of good timing.

What should younger Canadians think of later retirement?

As part of my national “Think like a Beaver” speaking tour, I encourage citizens under 45 to accept a later retirement age as a reasonable policy adaptation to demographic changes since the 70s.  But if we are to adapt policy in response to changes in life expectancy, we should also adapt policy to other, equally stark, demographic trends.  One example is the rise in dual-earner households.

Employment standards defining full-time work still reflect the assumption that households will have one person specialize in breadwinning while the other specializes in caregiving and domestic work.  Most households no longer operate this way.  Feminism is one part of the reason, but so too is the fact that wages haven’t kept pace with the cost of living.  Household incomes for young couples have stalled since 1976 even though far more young women contribute employment income.   For Canadians under 45, two earners are generally required to carve out a standard of living that is falling behind what one earner could often achieve a generation ago.

Although the rise of dual earners is a reality, must it be that both earners work 40-plus hours per week, for 49 or 50 weeks a year – the norms that were established following World War II?  This trend contributes to a major time squeeze at home, especially for employees with young children.

Although Canadians say we espouse family values, our workplace standards mean the typical Canadian employee works 300 hours per year more than the typical Dutch, Norwegian and German employee for about the same average income.  While higher housing prices make this commitment to the labour market understandable economically, all these extra hours of work erode the opportunity to be home with children or care for aging parents.  59 percent of Canadian men age 25-44 and 34 percent of women age 25-44 work 40 or more hours per week.

While Canadians under 45 may have to (begrudgingly) accept a later retirement, we should tolerate these extra years of work in return for employment norms that adapt to the reality of dual earner homes.  This would mean some tinkering with the definition of full-time work, adjusting it to 35 hours/week on average over a year, rather than 40-plus.  An extra 5 hours per week, and sometimes 10 for a two-earner household, can make a HUGE difference when it comes to mitigating the time squeeze.  And even with this change, we’d still be working almost 150 hours more per year than in the Netherlands, Norway and Germany.

There are ways to do this that are good for employers and employees alike.  We could adapt overtime and EI premiums paid by employers to make it less costly for businesses to use employees up to 35 hours per week, and more costly for hours thereafter.

For employers, there are productivity gains to be made from this switch.  Although typical Dutch, Norwegian and German citizens may work fewer hours than Canadians, their productivity per hour is higher.  When France shifted a decade ago to the 35 hour work week, it did so with the intention of reducing unemployment.  Data now show that shorter hours didn’t contribute much to this objective, because employers didn’t replace a very large share of the reduced hours with new workers.  It wasn’t necessary, because productivity per hour increased.

For the half of men and the third of women who currently work more than 40 hours per week, work hours would be reduced by an average of 3-5 hours per week.  In some cases, employees may trade a bit of after-tax income (or better yet, future wage increases) in order to gain four more weeks of time per year. In negotiation with employers, this time could be taken in chunks, or as earned hours away from work each week throughout the year.

Changes to the National Child Benefit Supplement could ensure any reduction in employment hours does not reduce income for low-earning families, which may be especially important for some lone parent households.   When combined with $10/day child care and New Mom and New Dad benefits, families with preschool age kids would generally have more disposable income.  Plus they would be enjoying the extra time at home when they really need it.

Shorter work years for longer work lives.  This trade-off merits serious discussion among younger Canadians as we adapt policy to longer lifespans and the tightening time squeeze at home.

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BEAVER for Politicians: A Canadian sidekick for Stephen Colbert’s ‘Captain America’

Just ten percent of Canadians trust politicians, according to a recent Ipsos poll.  Canadians are more likely to trust new car sales people than elected officials, data from Leger Marketing tell us.

These facts may be good for a laugh.   But, really, we shouldn’t be amused.  The fact that Canadians are more likely to treat politicians as punch lines rather than persons to respect is a fundamental reason why we are tuning out politics.  Barely 60 per cent of Canadians voted in the last federal election.  And in Ontario’s fall provincial election, fewer than 50 per cent of eligible voters showed up at the ballot box.  Our largest province has not seen such low turnout since confederation in 1867.

Apathy is not a neutral force in our democracy.  Apathy helps to sustain the status quo.  And the status quo is not a friend of Canadians under 45.

The standard of living for the majority of those under age 45 is in decline.  Canadians under 45 inherit greater risks from climate change than did Canadians a generation ago.  They inherit larger government debts, bad family policy, a time squeeze, stagnant wages, student loans, and higher housing prices.  Yet none of these signals of declining living standards receive much attention in status quo political debates

It is now urgent for Canadians under 45 to marshal our political voices and give politicians reason to earn our trust by making positive policy change. That’s one reason why I love and fear how Stephen Colbert is covering the US Republican Primaries.

I love it because his show, The Colbert Report, engages younger audiences, using humour and satire to raise very serious questions about the excessive influence of wealth in election ads via ‘arms-length’ Super PACS (political action committees, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money for a candidate); to probe the status of corporations as persons; and to poke fun at the success of negative ads.  

I fear the satire, because I’m not sure it leaves many viewers with an alternate vision.  Now that may not be the job of the satirist.  But in a context where no one trusts politicians, it risks reinforcing the notion that politicians are punch lines, not persons to respect.

The quality of our democracy desperately needs for Canadians to show greater charity in interpreting the activities of our politicians.  So long as we don’t trust politicians in this country, we imply they can’t be trusted to help make positive change.  When we don’t think they can make change, we don’t bother to encourage it, or demand it.  This is especially true for Canadians under 45.

With very little fanfare, the vast majority of elected officials work very long hours – more hours than most of us.  This includes giving up a great deal of private time to attend community events and engage constituents.  Most politicians are drawn to public service because they genuinely want to make our communities and our country better.  Sure, we may disagree with some of their ideas about what constitutes improvement, but this doesn’t require that we disparage the person, or her or his commitment to the job.

There is no doubt we will always need auditors general, judges, the media and others to scrutinize what politicians do, and how they spend tax dollars on our behalf – just as we must scrutinize activities in the financial sector, among doctors, police officers, teachers, etc.  In any profession, the odd bad apple betrays our trust and the authority of their positions.

But more generally, let’s all acknowledge there’s a big difference between the armchair coach and the one actually standing on the bench.  It is easy to critique from the cheap seats where most of us sit, including me.  It’s far more challenging to interpret the actions of others, including politicians, with charity.  To approach them with a genuine interest in learning more about what constrains their legislating in ways you or I make may think makes common sense.

So as Stephen Colbert, Captain America, valiantly satirizes the insane degree to which money influences democratic dialogue in North America, I think he needs a trusty sidekick – someone devoted to renewing respect for politicians.  This is essential to restoring our beaver logic.

Readers may know by now that I celebrate our national animal – the beaver – as a true community builder. Beavers build dams to create a reservoir that benefits the whole beaver community.  When the reservoir is deep enough, beavers are efficient because they swim faster than they walk on land; they are safer out of the reach of predators; and they have ample room to build woodsy lodges as homes for their families.

Whenever the dam springs a leak, busy beavers fix the dam, renovating it to withstand the new challenges in their environment. Beavers adapt because they all depend on the dam to safeguard their shared standard of living.

Such beaver logic motivated me to start a new club on-line to complement Captain Colbert.  I call it BEAVER for Politicians – short for Because Every Adequate Voter Expresses Respect for Politicians, even when s/he dislikes the decisions of certain politicians at certain times.

Now, I don’t honestly expect this club will go viral.  In truth, I’ll be happy if I get even 10 comments in response to this post.

To get the ball rolling, I propose two reasons to trust politicians.

First, on our behalf, politicians have made a massive, positive difference for seniors in this country.  By implementing pension policy in combination with a strong economy, we have reduced poverty among seniors from 29 per cent in 1976 to less than 5 per cent today.  That is a remarkable achievement, one to be proud of, and to respect.  The achievement is so impressive, it should even motivate trust as Canadians renew debate about old age security, at least until specific policy proposals are tabled for evaluation.

Second, politicians could replicate this achievement for younger generations of Canadians, in order to make it far easier to raise a family.  But politicians are far less likely to do so, if no one shows it’s in their electoral interest.

Electoral interest?  It’s in far too short supply these days among voters.  So I hope Captain Colbert motivates many more in Generation Squeeze to have fun, even party, as part of tuning into the political process.  And I hope the BEAVER for Politicians can prove a trusty sidekick to instill renewed respect for those who devote themselves to public life.  Only then are we likely to get out to the ballot box alongside Boomers to vote for the political champions of a Canada that works for all generations – including citizens under age 45.

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Women shortchanged in retirement income by bad policy deal for generation raising young kids

Media coverage in recent weeks confirms that when Canadians devote time to talking about social policy, we invariably focus on medical care and pensions – policies on which we depend disproportionately in our later decades.  These are vital policies because they safeguard our standard of living, especially as we age.  But when will Canadians devote the same number of TV hours, radio waves, newsprint and blog posts to policy issues that benefit younger generations?

At least recent pension discussions give some attention to intergenerational dynamics.  More media acknowledges that private pension coverage is in decline for generations that follow the Boomers.  Planning for this problem now makes good sense.  But such planning should not only treat symptoms without addressing root causes.

We all know that income in retirement reflects our earnings and employment decades before we turn 65.  If we want to support Canadians to save enough for retirement, then we need to address the barriers to earning and saving that people face far, far earlier.  Regrettably, Canada’s failing grade for family policy is a major barrier, especially for women.

UNICEF reports that Canadian family policy falls among the worst industrialized countries because it invests little in families with children under age six.  The OECD agrees when measuring public investments in child care services.  Similarly, a UK Fairness in Families Index ranks Canada 15th out of 20 countries because our policy is weak in supporting men and women to share equally parenting and breadwinning.

Poor family policy rankings have tangible consequences in the day-to-day lives of Canadians, which result in lower retirement incomes for women.

Current parental leave policy provides the typical two-parent family with nearly $5,000 dollars in incentives for the lower-earning spouse to withdraw from employment to care for a newborn, rather than share a year of leave between parents.  Given that Canadian women age 25-44 continue to earn about 70 cents on the dollar compared to men’s earnings, the lower-earner is most often the mother.  The result is that Canadian leave policy encourages women to take on primary responsibility for child care, and discourages dads’ involvement.

Some may think this is ‘natural’ because women breastfeed.  But the disincentive for men to share responsibility for newborns sets in motion a gender division of labour that continues throughout their kids’ lives, well beyond breastfeeding.  The latest Statistics Canada data show that fathers still work longer hours than mothers, even in homes where both work full-time.  Men are far less likely than women to work shorter or part-time hours to accommodate child care.  Diverging employment patterns for mothers and fathers in turn explain why the glass ceiling persists in Canada (just 32% of senior managers are women), and why there remains so much occupational segregation with women in ‘pink collar’ sectors.

Fewer years of employment as adults, fewer employment hours per year, employment in occupations that pay lower wages, and in positions below senior management levels, all contribute directly to higher rates of economic insecurity for women in retirement compared to men.  While it is imperative to remember that poverty rates for seniors are half that of families with children, we must not ignore the fact that senior women are more likely to be poor than senior men.  In particular, women over 65 who live alone have a low-income rate that is 40 per cent higher than men who live alone.

Inadequate parental leave isn’t the only family policy barrier to women’s earnings and retirement security.  The fact that Canadian provinces typically have child care spaces for just one in five preschoolers is an equally significant obstacle, as is the high cost of the limited services that are available.

When a two-parent family with a toddler considers whether one parent (typically the mother) should stay home full-time, it is the cost of child care that is THE MAJOR economic disincentive to a return to work.  Child care costs dwarf the extra taxes the parent will pay on additional earnings.

In BC, Alberta or Ontario, child care services will cost more than $7,200 annually, even after deducting child care fees from income taxes owed.  This is 50 per cent higher than combined federal and provincial income taxes, EI and CPP premiums (around $4,800). Plus, when the family swallows high child care fees to enable both parents to pursue employment, the family will forgo federal and provincial tax breaks for one earner couples that tally up to nearly $2,000 a year.

Forgone tax breaks and high child care fees exacerbate the poor design of parental leave policy.  And as a package, our family policies interact with cultural expectations about gender roles in Canada to pressure women to shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility for child care at the expense of earning and saving for retirement.

A New Deal for Families could change all this.  Redesigning parental leave to add six months of benefits for dads would ensure that young families don’t see their after-tax incomes drop by the equivalent a second mortgage when parents split 18 months at home with a newborn.  $10/day child care services will ensure young families don’t spend the equivalent of a third mortgage when moms and dads devote enough time to employment to compensate for stagnant wages, pay for higher housing prices and save for retirement.  The outcomes will include a more secure retirement for both sexes.

These changes are particularly important for women. New Mom and New Dad benefits and $10/day child care in tandem with Flex-time revisions to employment standards will disrupt the gender division of labour more than Canadians have done in decades.  Indeed, these three policy proposals align closely with recommendations made in the 1970 Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.  Canada’s failure to make much progress on these recommendations helps to explain why the World Economic Forum ranks Canada 18th on its international gender equality index – despite our formal commitments in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It is no coincidence that our family policy and gender equality rankings converge near the bottom of OECD countries.  They emerge from a common cultural reality:  Canadians are content to ask young women to sacrifice their earnings, career ambitions and future retirement security to compensate for our national failure to prioritize family policy investments.

Given that nearly one in two Canadian marriages ends in divorce, what we ask of young women is very risky for their future retirement.  Adequate retirement policy must therefore broaden beyond narrow pension debates to address the root causes of insufficient retirement income.  For women, a major root cause remains Canada’s bad policy deal for the generation raising young kids.

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Neglecting the risks of climate change: an intergenerational crime?

The vast majority of Canadians feel a reverence for the natural surroundings that make up our home and native land.  We celebrate our environment in song, stories…    even beer commercials.  I’ll fess up.  I ordered a Molson Canadian after its “Made from Canada” commercials aired during the Olympics, because they reminded us that we have “more square feet of awesomeness per person than any other nation on earth.”

Since we know we have “the best backyard in the world,” it is fundamental to monitor what we do to sustain it over time.  This is especially important when evaluating whether our country still works for all generations.  Regrettably, there may be no greater evidence of an intergenerational breach than our ineffective efforts to reduce carbon emissions in Canada.

In 1976 Canada was one of the worst three OECD countries for per capita carbon dioxide emissions.  According to data from the International Energy Association, on average, each Canadian produced nearly 17 tonnes of CO2 in that year.  Only citizens of the US and Luxembourg emitted more.

Since then, we have learned a great deal about climate change, and the risks associated with even a two degree increase in global temperatures – rising sea levels, extreme weather events, change in rainfall patterns and all the risks to human life, settlements, infrastructure, hydro power, crop yields, etc.   To illustrate what these risks could mean here, there are now maps showing that Richmond and Delta will be underwater if climate change results in a six meter rise in sea levels, along with one third of New Westminster.  There will also be serious flooding in Port Coquitlam, Surrey and Pitt Meadows.  (In the spirit of full disclosure, this will include my little farm at the confluence of the Pitt and Fraser Rivers!)

This knowledge has not caused us to change our energy consumption.  Canadians have failed to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions in over three decades.  As the 2008 recession began, average emissions remained 17 tonnes per person.  They have only dipped slightly since then because of the reduction in economic growth.   Not only do we remain among the worst fossil fuel dinosaurs internationally, the citizens of countries that already had smaller environmental footprints than we did in the 1970s have shrunk their footprints still further.

So it turns out that Canadians don’t just rank poorly by international standards on family policy, as I have discussed in previous columns.  We also rank very poorly in terms of our environmental record.  Multiple earths would be required if all global citizens were to consume resources at the same rate as Canadians.

I don’t think this is a coincidence.  Our poor showing on both fronts originates from a common cultural malaise in Canada – our public tendency to discount the future in favour of the present.

Although there is no doubt Canadians privately love their children and grandchildren, macro data about our public decisions make it very hard to deny that Canadians who became adults in the 1970s now approach retirement leaving larger fiscal and environmental debts than they inherited.  Yet little of their public consumption went to future-oriented investments in family policy, or policy to encourage sustainable development.

As a result, the generation of Canadians in their prime child rearing years inherits a very tough task.  Given that Canadians have not reduced emissions over decades, the need for change is now far more immediate.  Canadians under 45 must meet this challenge as they simultaneously struggle with time and income squeezes.  Young people’s household incomes are stagnant compared to the 1970s even though dual-earner households have become the norm.  And they enjoy less disposable income because of higher housing prices and child care services that absorb the equivalent of a second mortgage.

All the while, Baby Boomers are about to retire with higher incomes than retirees in the past, more wealth in housing, and a longer period of retirement.  Yes, they must stretch their pension and savings over this period, which will no doubt be a challenge for some.  But for many retirees longer retirements also mean more travel – and the expanding environmental footprint that accompanies so much vacationing.

Given the intergenerational breach implied by climate change, I decided to interview a Canadian who has been thinking about this issue far longer than most – Dr. David Suzuki.  The fact that Boomers retire leaving a larger environmental debt than they inherited cannot be denied, he indicates. “All you have to do is follow the curves of amount of pesticides used annually, number of species going extinct, number of watersheds polluted or ecosystems logged or developed and you can see that the ecological debt is obviously worse now than it was 30 years ago.”

Lamenting our country’s slow pace of adaptation to climate change, Suzuki has invoked the concept of “intergenerational crime.” Why?  Because failure to respond to the compelling science that shows global climate change poses a serious threat to human survival for the coming generations, in his view, legally constitutes either “criminal negligence” or “willful blindness.”

The legal veracity of this concept is not my interest.  But we would do well to heed Dr. Suzuki’s insight that one generation can harm another simply by maintaining the status quo instead of adapting policy to a deteriorating environment.  This is now the legacy with which Baby Boomers in Canada must grapple as a generation.

My hope is that generations following the Boomers will not repeat their intergenerational oversight.  But this hope may be misplaced, because younger generations don’t show many signs of diverging significantly from the patterns established by older role models.  Nor do we show much appetite to use our political voices effectively to push for change.  I’ve lamented in the past that Generation X seems more concerned with who is being voted off some island on TV than who is voted into our legislatures.  But since global climate change threatens to swamp islands, perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to judge those who focus on island shenanigans!

As we search for solutions amid turbid intergenerational waters, tried and true Canadian family values provide a beacon by which to navigate.  Family values remind us that much of our wealth is not found in material goods, but in relationships, and the time we spend with them. I have therefore recommended in previous columns a New Deal for Families that would support Canadians to spend more time together, and potentially less on stuff.

Such a policy shift also has important ecological implications, inviting us to revisit our way of living on the planet. A growing environmental literature suggests that reducing Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions will entail a significant redistribution in how we use our time.   The unemployed and working poor clearly need additional labour market opportunities, but the majority of Canadians work hundreds more hours per year than the typical German, Dutch and Norwegian employee.  When this is done primarily for consumption purposes – say to buy the next Ipad, outfit or holiday – Canada’s tradition of family values serves as a reminder that a simpler life may be the richer one.  Many of us, men as much as women (and myself included) therefore have good reason to pursue a better balance between paid work and a variety of important unpaid activities.  These include child care, elder care, and engagement in local activities, etc. that are essential to building a healthy, thriving and ecologically sustainable democracy and economy.

Now that we have rescinded our commitments under Kyoto, Canadians must contemplate more than ever whether our country still works for all generations.  Recommitting to this national aspiration will require that we finally innovate with green family policy – policy that adapts to the time, income and service squeeze that constrains Canadians under 45; and policy that adapts to the ecological squeeze we face because Canadians have chosen not to reduce our per capita carbon footprint for more than three decades.

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80 per cent of Canadians 55+ tell generations that follow to “wait their turn.”

Since I started writing about a Canada that works for all generations, I have insisted that Boomers and seniors care about those who follow in their footsteps.  After all, we’re talking about their kids and grandkids.  But new national polling data raise concerns.

A McAllister Opinion Research survey recently examined Canadians’ priorities for public spending.  It turns out that 70 per cent of Canadians 55+ responded that seniors should either be the top, or high, priority.  By contrast, just 28 per cent of Canadians age 55+ think families with preschool age children should be a top or high priority, and just 16 per cent think young adults should receive this status.

You might think that this finding simply reflects that each generation looks out for its own interests.  But polling responses from other generations tell a different story.

Half of Canadians age 25-44 indicate seniors should be the top or high priority.  And these Canadians are also just as likely to rank seniors as a high priority as they are to accord this status to their own generations. Clearly, these poll results give strong reason to resist labeling younger Canadians as the ‘ME Generation’, and start asking if this moniker better describes others.

Canadians 55+ prioritize their needs above other generations even though Statistics Canada data show that incomes are up 18 per cent for those approaching retirement today compared to the incomes of near-retirees in the mid-1970s.  Plus private wealth has increased for Boomers because housing values nearly doubled over their adult lives.

Understandably, the economy is making those near or in their senior years nervous about whether their savings or pensions will stretch far enough.  This is especially true for those who have not enjoyed an increase in income and wealth.  But beyond the fact that Canadians age 55-64 on average enjoy stronger personal financial circumstances than did the generation approaching retirement around 1976, so public policy has also dramatically improved for seniors.  Pension and old age security policy has helped to reduce poverty among Canadian seniors from 29 per cent in 1976 to less than 5 per cent according to the latest data.   And the medical care spending on which we draw disproportionately in our senior years is $47 billion higher annually today than if we had maintained it at the same proportion of GDP back in 1975-80.

The same cannot be said for those under 45 in Canada.  On average, their standard of living is in decline compared to the same age cohort in the mid-70s, and there has been very little policy adaptation to help mitigate this decline.

What is especially alarming about the new poll results is that Canadians 55+ KNOW it has become harder to raise a young family, yet still do not consider younger generations as a priority for policy investment.  85 per cent of Canadians 55+ acknowledge that families are significantly more squeezed for time than in the 1970s when often just one parent worked.  65 per cent believe correctly that, after controlling for inflation, household incomes for young families today are barely higher than they were in the mid 1970s, despite the spread of dual income households.   With stalled household incomes and less time at home, 76 per cent of Canadians age 55+ concede that young families must shoulder housing costs that take up 2-3 times more family income than in the 1970s.  And 57 per cent recognize that child care services cost many families the equivalent of a second mortgage.

Although I’m not usually surprised by data, I have to confess that I didn’t expect these poll results.  I had assumed intergenerational inequities exist in Canada in part because citizens over 55 weren’t aware that the generation raising young kids is squeezed for time, income and services.  I naively thought my job as an academic was to share research with the public that shows the squeeze, and then hope that this new information would help Canadians re-evaluate priorities.

But the McAllister poll reveals a different reality.  Most older Canadians know about the squeeze faced by younger families.  It’s just not clear they care enough to respond to the squeeze through public policy, even when they call for more public resources to be devoted to their own life course stage.  Quite the opposite:  fully 80 per cent of Canadians 55+ align with the view that “Seniors and the Boomer generation earned their fair share of the wealth produced by the Canadian economy and deserve to enjoy the benefits; younger Canadians can wait their turn.”

Wait their turn? I can understand this sentiment from seniors who lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and then went on to pay down most of the war-time debt while also building important social programs like pensions and medical care.  Given their sacrifices, fiscal discipline and impressive foresight to build public policy, the parents of Baby Boomers may be appropriately positioned to claim they earned their prosperity, and can encourage those who follow to work equally hard.

But dare I say it takes some nerve for Canadians in their mid-50s to 60s to encourage others to ‘wait their turn’ for policy investment.  Although there is no doubt this age group also worked hard to raise their own families and build their businesses and communities, they did not earn the fact they started out as adults when wages were still on the rise and housing prices were modest by comparison.  That’s just lucky timing.

Nor does the Boomer generation generally share their parents’ record of national sacrifice, fiscal discipline nor public policy building. In fact, data give good reason to worry that the Boomer generation has mortgaged a substantial portion of ‘the turn’ from those who follow.  That is what it looks like when you retire leaving government debts that are larger than you inherited; a globe that is warmer despite the fact that the risks of climate change became far clearer over your adult lives; and public policy that has not adapted to the changing realities faced by families with young kids.

I’m hopeful the McAllister Opinion Research poll is an anomaly.  Perhaps it was conducted when 80 per cent of Canadians age 55+ were having a bad day? I know I personally have had the pleasure of speaking with a number of Boomers who support a better policy deal for their kids and grandkids.  I’m not yet willing to believe that this view is really in the minority among older Canadians.

However, since the poll casts doubt, the time has come for Canadians age 55+ to speak out in favour of a Canada that works for all generations – and not just for themselves as the poll suggests they are especially inclined to do.

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Generations disagree on public funding priorities: new poll data


Generations disagree on public funding priorities: new poll data

Younger adults want Canada’s wealth invested more evenly across the generations, while Canadians older than 55 say they should ‘wait their turn,’ according to new polling data.

University of British Columbia professor Paul Kershaw and community partners at the Vancouver Foundation, the YWCA of Metro Vancouver, the YMCA of Greater Vancouver and the Saskatchewan Knowledge to Action Network for Early Child Development (KidSKAN) recently initiated a national dialogue asking: Does Canada Work for All Generations?  In response to growing public interest, McAllister Opinion Research conducted a national poll to examine public attitudes about our country’s shifting generational realities.

Canadians agree young families squeezed for time, income and services

The poll shows that a strong majority of Canadians in all regions of the country share the view that it is now harder to raise a family in Canada than in the past – 83 per cent agree that families are significantly more squeezed for time than in the 1970s when often just one parent worked, and 72 per cent concede that housing costs comprise two to three times more of the family income than in the 1970s, after adjusting for inflation.

Earlier this year, Kershaw and his colleague Lynell Anderson, researchers at the UBC Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP), released a study on ‘Generation Squeeze,’ showing that Canadians raising young families today are squeezed for time, income and services. Average household incomes have stalled for young couples even though young women increased their labour force participation from 54 per cent in 1976 to 82 per cent today. While household incomes have stalled, Generation Squeeze is simultaneously struggling with the costs of living because housing prices in Canada have increased 76 per cent since 1976.

“The new poll shows that Canadians from all walks of life and across generations recognize what is going on,” says McAllister Opinion Research CEO Angus McAllister.  “The economic facts that Prof. Kershaw reports in his studies translate into real lives and lived experience.”

Generational Disconnect

Although there is widespread agreement that it has become harder to raise a family, the generations diverge over how Canadians should respond.  With the Canadian economy having doubled in size since 1976, the poll shows that 65 per cent of 18-44 year olds believe “a greater share of wealth produced in Canada should be invested in the next generation of families and children.”

Canadians age 55 and older hold a different view. When asked how much of a priority it should be for Canadian governments to invest in programs and services that benefit different groups, 70 per cent of Canadians 55+ answered that seniors should be either a high or the top priority. By contrast, just 28 per cent of older Canadians think families with preschool age children should be a top or high priority, and just 16 per cent think young adults should receive high priority status.

“So far in the discussion about Canada working for all generations, I have insisted that Boomers and seniors care about those who follow in their footsteps. After all, we’re talking about their kids and grandkids, along with their legacy,” says Kershaw. “But these new poll data cast some doubt.”

“The poll results show more support among Boomers and seniors for programs that serve their own stage of life than for investments in kids and younger Canadians,” says Mark Gifford, director of grants and community initiatives at the Vancouver Foundation, one of several community organizations that provided funding for Kershaw’s research and public dialogue about family policy.

Canadians 55+ maintain these views even though Statistics Canada data show that incomes are up 18 per cent for those approaching retirement today compared to the incomes of near-retirees in the mid-1970s, and private wealth has increased for Boomers because housing values nearly doubled over their adult lives.

Statistics Canada data also show that poverty among seniors has declined from 29 per cent in 1976 to less than five per cent in 2009, while the poverty rate for families with children under the age of six is 15 per cent.

The McAllister poll reveals that 80 per cent of Canadians 55+ align with the view that “Seniors and the Boomer generation earned their fair share of the wealth produced by the Canadian economy and deserve to enjoy the benefits; younger Canadians can wait their turn.”

“Is there an intergenerational tension in Canada? You bet there is,” says Kershaw. “Canadians 55+ acknowledge that the standard of living has deteriorated for the generation raising young kids.  But knowing this obviously hasn’t changed their priorities.”

For more information about Kershaw and his research, visit:

Click here for access to McAllister Opinion Research poll data.

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Un-Canadian to Cap Medical Care?

Is it Un-Canadian to suggest medical care spending should not increase, at least not faster than our economy grows?  I fear many think it is.

During the last federal election, not a single Party challenged the idea that federal transfers for medical care should increase six per cent annually until 2014.  And as provincial, territorial and federal health Ministers met recently in Halifax to consider what will happen thereafter, I couldn’t track down a single mainstream media article that questioned the idea that medical care spending should grow.

Here’s a newsflash Canadians, especially to those on the centre-left of the political spectrum.  There is ample reason to worry that our current approach to medical care spending may be making us more sick and stupid.

When many Boomers came of age between 1975-1980, the Canadian Institute for Health Information shows that we spent 5.4 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP) on publicly funded medical care.  By 2008, before the recession took hold, Canadians had increased spending to 7.6 per cent of GDP.  It’s now closer 8.4 per cent, in part because economic growth has been stagnant since.  This means we spend $47 billion more today on medical care than we would have had we maintained public spending at the same level as 1975-1980.

Over the same period, Statistics Canada data show that total revenue collected by the federal, provincial/territorial and municipal governments didn’t grow by even half that amount.  The result?  The total revenue pie does not keep pace with its largest slice — medical care.  This means billions less for other social priorities.

Social service spending is chief among the casualties, as is education spending.  As a share of the economy, spending in BC on each of these areas fell 0.7 per cent of GDP.  This may not sound like much, but with similar declines across provinces, we’re talking about a combined $21 billion reduction – enough to pay for a New Deal for Families.

Behold further evidence of Canada’s bad intergenerational deal.  Reducing social service spending means limiting child welfare, child care and poverty reduction.  Reducing education spending clearly limits kids’ opportunities to learn.  By contrast, increasing medical care enriches a transfer disproportionately for older Canadians.

As the population ages and the risk of frailty and illness grow, we can all understand why medical care is a top priority.  But do we really think we can grow medical care spending indefinitely without increasing taxes by a corresponding amount?  So far, this plan has been sustainable only by compromising investment in programs and income supports for younger Canadians.

If Canadians aren’t interested in raising taxes, then let’s seriously consider capping medical care spending.

Even if we are open to raising new revenue, there is good reason to allocate it to things other than the status quo approach to health care in this country.  Medical care is yet another example of Canadians generally dealing with problems after the fact, rather than preventing them in the first place.  For instance, we know the time, income and service squeeze on the generation raising young kids increases work-life stress.  Linda Duxbury and Chris Higgins at the Sprott and Ivey Schools of Business show that work-life stress among Canadians accounts for 30 to 40 per cent of avoidable spending on prescription drugs, hospital accommodation and visits to health professionals like physiotherapists.

Equally important, the time, income and service squeeze explains why 30 per cent of young kids start school vulnerable.  In addition to doing worse in school, their vulnerability means they are more likely to become obese, have high blood pressure, struggle with mental illness, get diabetes, suffer coronary heart disease and premature memory loss.  If we have a disease fetish, then we are on the right track by ignoring Gen Squeeze.  But if we want to reduce medical care spending on their kids in the future, we need to eliminate the squeeze on parents now.

Trade-offs.  There’s no doubt that life is full of tough ones.  Presently, Canadians trade lower taxes for less investment in citizens under 45.  We choose more money for illness treatment instead of spending on health promotion through a New Deal for Families when citizens are younger.  It is important to be clear that we perpetuate these trade-offs by accepting the argument that the Canada Health Transfer ought to increase six per cent annually as Ministers head into 2014 Health Accord negotiations.

If you don’t like these trade-offs, the time for tough questions is now.  For instance: what medical care do well-intentioned, kind-hearted Canadians owe one another when our capacity to treat illness improves with increasingly costly technology and drugs?

Right now, it is electoral suicide for politicians to publicly contemplate this question, whether on the left or right of the spectrum.  We need to change this dynamic.

Tommy Douglas led Canadians toward our greatest social policy achievement.  The birth of medical care meant that Canadians no longer had to face bankruptcy when they lost out in the lottery of ill-health and wound up in hospital.  From coast to coast, his legacy is that Canadians will pay to go that extra mile to help those who become sick.  This is something for which we can all be proud.

But our greatest policy achievement is now a barrier to investing in new social policy, especially as government revenue declines relative to the size of our economy.  So long as we fail to question the value of increases in public medical care, we literally risk our health by failing to invest in its social determinants. Regrettably, it is the generations that follow the Boomers who bear the brunt of this problem.

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Media Release: Harder for Albertans to raise a family but easier to retire: UBC Study

Even the good economic times over the last decade have not shielded Alberta’s families from a harsh Canadian reality: parents today have less money and less time to raise young children than the Baby Boomer generation before them.

See full Media Release

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New Deal for Families Tough on Crime

The omnibus crime Bill C-10 is on its way back to the House of Commons for its final reading after a brief committee appearance last week.  Since the Bill was introduced last September, a number of Canadians have expressed concern about the federal government’s “tough on crime” stance.  They question why Canada would prioritize spending more now on crime, when crime rates are dropping.  A 2009 Statistics Canada study shows the crime rate dropped 15% between 1998 and 2007, and that the severity of crime dropped even faster over that period, down 21%.

Personally, I could be convinced that a “tough on crime” stance makes sense even when crime is in decline.  But the question for me is:  what do we mean by tough?  We now are engaged in debate about numbers of jails and length of sentences; but I don’t think such measures necessarily get tough on crime.  They do, however, reflect a growing tendency in Canada to wait for problems to occur, and then deal with the consequences after the fact.

If we really mean to be tough on crime, why don’t we work hard at preventing it?

Last week in a press release, federal Minister of Justice, Rob Nicholson, rightly said that “Canadians who have been the victim of a crime should not be re-victimized by the criminal justice system.”  I agree.  But we would treat the victims of crime with far more dignity by doing all we can to prevent crimes from occurring in the future, instead of working only to ensure that the criminal justice system works effectively to punish and rehabilitate.

We know a lot about crime prevention in Canada.  It has a lot to do with the socioeconomic squeeze on the generation raising young kids, as the Vancouver Board of Trade tells us.  In its 2010 “Kids N Crime” report, the Board of Trade concluded that “diverting children and youth from a life of crime achieves outstanding positive results in terms of both social and economic dimensions, including costs borne by governments.”  “Timing… is critical,” however, because “efforts to influence development are far more effective in early life than in later years.”

Research from UBC’s Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) confirms this point.  My colleagues and I have a unique opportunity to learn from kindergarten teachers in all school districts across the province what it means for a generation raising young kids to be squeezed for time at home, squeezed for income after the cost of housing, and squeezed for services like child care.  One of the primary implications is that around 30 per cent of their kids arrive at kindergarten struggling to follow age-appropriate instructions, get along with peers, know 10 letters, or hold a pencil.  Since the squeeze impacts an entire generation of parents, it turns out that most of the kids who struggle with these kinds of activities live in middle- and upper-income households and neighbourhoods.

School achievement scores also let us follow the population of BC kids as they move from kindergarten to grade four, from grade four to grade seven, and from grade seven to graduation and/or into the criminal justice system.  By examining the population of BC kids, we take a lot of the guessing out of research, which often relies on far smaller samples of kids to observe.

Here’s what we’ve found and published in recent reports for the Business Council of BC, and the Canadian Journal of Public Health.  So long as we tolerate the squeeze on the generation raising young kids, we condemn their kids to far higher incarceration rates than they would have if there were a New Deal for Families in place.  Specifically, policy investments that reduce the number of kindergarten kids who are vulnerable from 30 per cent to 10 per cent would reduce their crime rate as youth and young adults by ONE-THIRD.  Now that would be tough on crime, and show real respect for victims by preventing so many of them from becoming victims in the first place!

UBC researcher, Dr. Barry Forer, is examining the characteristics of kindergarten kids which predict later incarceration.  His preliminary research points to simple social and emotional issues.  Low self-confidence, inability to work independently or to complete work on time are social and emotional incompetencies that stand out as important predictors of later incarceration for both boys and girls.  So are inattention, impulsiveness and difficulties making age-appropriate decisions.

For many children, we could prevent these difficulties by remedying the time, income and service squeeze that plagues their parents.  More parental time is part of a common sense solution to kids’ early vulnerabilities.  This means addressing the socioeconomic realities that currently constrain time at home.  Right now, parents work on average far more employment hours than did Canadian parents in the 1970s, but households don’t bring home more money to show for it –  and what they do bring home has to stretch further to cover higher housing costs.

As I have discussed in recent weeks, the New Deal for Families could help change this.  New Mom and Dad benefits would increase the after-tax income of couples that split a year at home with their newborn by $15k.  Thereafter we could support more parental time at home without a major hit on income through a combination of Flex-Time and $10/day child care services.

The $10/day child care is a key way for the community to play a role in crime prevention.  Such services provide early care and learning opportunities that supplement, but never replace, what parents do at home.  Many analyses show one of the biggest paybacks for quality child care is through crime reduction.

The potential savings from crime reduction in Canada are enormous.  A 2011 study for the federal Department of Justice calculates that crime costs more than $99 billion a year:  $17.4 billion in government costs for policing, the justice system, health care for victims, and victims services; and $82.1 billion in costs to society because of stolen and damaged property, lost productivity, pain and suffering, and loss of life.

The New Deal for Families won’t reduce these costs much in the first few years, since 6, 7 and 8 year olds aren’t the most common criminals.  But crimes are disproportionately committed by young people, with half the accused age 23 or younger.  So it won’t take long for the savings to add up.  Within eight years of reducing the vulnerability of Gen Squeeze’s kindergarten kids from 30 per cent to 10 per cent, a New Deal for Families will save Canadians $10 billion in crime costs.  By the 14th year, we will be saving $10 billion annually, and the savings keep growing from there!

Are Canadians weak on crime?  Yes, so long as we have weak family policy.

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Income Splitting is Inadequate for Generation Squeeze

As more people consider the challenges facing Generation Squeeze, some ask why I don’t recommend income splitting as part of the New Deal for Families.  My answer is simple.  Income splitting doesn’t provide tax breaks for the majority of families, and it doesn’t deliver enough help even to the minority who benefit.

The Green Party of Canada is the most avid proponent of this tax change, calling for “full income-splitting to reduce the tax burden on married couples and families.”  The Conservative Party of Canada echoes this sentiment on a smaller scale.  After his government balances the federal budget several years from now, Prime Minister Harper commits to establish “the Family Tax Cut” for couples with children under age 18.  If implemented, this policy change will give spouses the choice of sharing up to $50,000 of their household income for federal tax purposes.

Who gains from income splitting, and by how much?

According to the Prime Minister, 1.8 million families will benefit.  Since Statistics Canada shows there are more than 4.7 million families with children under 18, his plan only helps 38 per cent.

Income splitting does not benefit most families with kids because it offers no help to couples in which both parents earn similar amounts.  Nor does it help lone parents.  Instead, the Conservative plan benefits a minority of couples in which one parent earns less than $25,000, and the other earns quite a lot more.  This scenario is especially common for couples when one parent stays home – 18 per cent of Canadian families.

But even for families with a stay at home parent, income splitting is insufficient to remedy the time, income and service squeeze with which they struggle.  Consider a couple in which the breadwinner makes $54,330 – about the average income for full-time, full-year work in Canada.  Today, that family pays $4,041 in federal income tax.  Under the Conservative income splitting plan, the family will save $1,088 in taxes.

One earner couple, $54,330


Conservative Plan

Basic federal income tax



  less Child amount



  less Spousal amount



  less Universal Child Care Benefit



Total federal income tax



Benefit from income splitting


Will an extra $1,088 per year really make it affordable for a parent to remain home with a young child when faced with the decision to work less, or not at all?

The answer is No.  $1,088 doesn’t compensate for the fact that the typical young couple in 1976 earned $65,360 after adjusting for inflation, often on one salary.  Today, the median income for one earner couples with kids is around $42,000 when the earner is male, and $25,000 when the earner is female.  Clearly $1,088 will NOT come close to closing this gap — the only thing that will is a second income.  And second incomes generally require thousands of dollars in annual expenditures for child care services.

Behold the burdens of Gen Squeeze.  Compared to when Boomers were rearing their kids, parents today must give up time at home that is worth thousands in child care and domestic work, or give up thousands in employment income.  And having forgone these thousands of dollars from their standard of living regardless of which decision they make, Gen Squeeze families pay housing prices that are 76 per cent higher than a generation ago.

Income splitting simply is not an adequate solution for the squeeze confronted by today’s generation raising young kids, even for the minority of Canadian families who will benefit.  It is true that income splitting delivers perhaps the largest tax break we can devise for some families.  But the bottom line is that tax cuts cannot bridge the generational gap in the standard of living.

By contrast, the policy changes I propose as a New Deal for Families CAN bridge this gap.

During the first year of a child’s life, the New Mom and New Dad Benefits would inject around $15,000 of after-tax income into the home of an average one-earner couple.  Thereafter, the benefit plan gives the family more choices, offering the primary breadwinner (often the dad) the opportunity to afford six months at home when the child is 12 to 18 months.  When dads take advantage of this time, moms are more likely to re-establish their ties to the labour market.  Should a mom choose to remain in the labour force once her child is older than 18 months, even if just for a day or two a week, $10/day fees for quality child care services will mean that families keep more of this extra income.  Should the parent elect to pursue full-time employment, $10/day child care will literally save the family thousands of dollars.  In families that choose instead for a parent to remain home full-time until the child starts school, the extra $15,000 from the New Mom and Dad Benefits would deliver nearly triple what the federal Conservative income splitting plan will provide over those first five years.  And it will dramatically improve access to part-time preschool experiences for their kids at an affordable cost of $7/day.

For families that count on two earners, the New Mom and Dad benefits would inject approximately $15,000 after-tax when couples split a year at home with a child age 6 to18 months.  Thereafter, Flex-Time changes would invite dual-earner families to trade some earnings from about 4 weeks of employment to gain 22 additional days at home with their kids.  For most families, there will be little or no after-tax reduction in their disposable income because $10/day child care will save thousands in fee expenditures in order to compensate for the reduction in wages.

For low-income parents who cannot afford to trade any income for more time with their kids, the New Deal will triple the National Child Benefit Supplement.  This policy change in combination with a child care fee waiver for households with incomes below $40,000 and the New Mom and Dad Benefits would all but eliminate poverty among families with children under age 6.  In combination with Flex-Time, these changes would also enable families that are working-poor now, including many lone parents, to afford an additional four weeks of time per year at home while their kids are preschool age.

It is time for Canadians to acknowledge that we require bold policy change to address the decline in the standard of living for Gen Squeeze, to value the diverse choices families make as they wrestle with this decline, and to promote gender equality for moms and dads.  By contrast, income splitting dabbles with old-fashioned policy thinking, which will not address the seismic socioeconomic shift now confronting the generation raising young kids.

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New Deal for Families Promotes Truth and Reconciliation

The Gen Why Media project recently held an intergenerational dialogue called “Bring your Boomers.”  One of the featured Boomers was Phil Fontaine, former Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.  Fontaine focused on the harm imposed by the Indian Residential Schools.  His comments echoed many themes raised the week before at a meeting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Halifax.

The Indian Residential Schools may represent the most harmful intergenerational policy in Canadian history.  Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s formal apology in 2008 conceded that “Two primary objectives of the Residential Schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture.  These objectives were based on the assumption Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal.  Indeed, some sought, as it was infamously said, ‘to kill the Indian in the child’.”

I encounter many non-Aboriginal Canadians today who do not consider Truth and Reconciliation for Residential Schools a priority.  They claim that the Schools are part of our past, and doubt they have significance for the present.

Such sentiments underestimate what it meant to “kill the Indian in the child.”  It robbed Aboriginal parents of the time to rear their children as proud members of Indigenous communities; and robbed Aboriginal communities of the opportunity to instill in children cultural pride and knowledge.  In place of this family and community care, the Residential Schools ‘educated’ a generation of Aboriginal children to be far less aware of their Indigenous languages and cultures, and worse still, to be far less proud of them.

One result is that many Residential School students became parents who were less likely to teach their own kids about their Indigenous identities.

Tammy Harkey, Manager of Aboriginal HIPPY, explains that this intergenerational reality lingers for many Indigenous parents.  Aboriginal HIPPY (or Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters) is a program delivered on and off-reserve.  Part of the support it offers families is the opportunity for parents to explore the lasting influence of the Residential Schools as they rear their own kids.

Harkey recounts the observations of Mable, a program participant.  Mable recalls how the Schools “ripped our parents out of their parents’ arms… My parents were tormented, and I know that has impacted me forever.  My dad knows so much about our culture.  But he stopped at a certain age teaching the kids.  Each child was stopped at elementary school… to protect us, so we would not be targeted, abused, or face racism.”

By forcibly isolating children from the influence of their families and cultures, Mable reminds all Canadians that the Residential Schools did not just target students.  They also targeted generations of Aboriginal people who would never attend – the children and grandchildren of school survivors.  The very future of Aboriginal communities.

Aboriginal HIPPY helps Indigenous parents to grapple with this reality.  As Rebecca explains, “I am working so hard for my kids to be proud.  But it is a tough job.  I am recovering from a system that beat us down as a people.  So, I do all that I can… But I can only teach what I know, and so many of us in here in my community are just learning the culture.  It’s so sad and painful.  To want to be proud.  To want to know.  To have to dig.”

Although the generation raising young children in Canada is generally squeezed for time, income and services, many Indigenous parents encounter another unique difficulty: they must teach their children about their culture while simultaneously working to rediscover that culture for themselves.  And Aboriginal parents must do so amid far higher rates of poverty than non-Aboriginal families with children.

With Residential Schools still reaching into the lives of today’s Indigenous parents, media coverage of the Truth and Reconciliation process misses the mark when it focuses only on the stories of students, and the compensation they received or are still owed.  Truth and Reconciliation also requires Canadians to acknowledge the ongoing legacy of Residential Schools for entire Indigenous communities regardless of who attended the Schools.

Our approach to Truth and Reconciliation should therefore focus more on what programs like Aboriginal HIPPY do to compensate for the harm that communities still suffer because of Residential Schools.  Under Harkey’s leadership, the program turns the table on the Schools by celebrating and strengthening what they historically obstructed:  parent and grandparent time with children in family and cultural settings they shape.  Residential Schools purposefully disrupted caregiving to undermine Indigenous cultures.  It makes sense that cultural rejuvenation will now be strengthened by policy to support the child care that Indigenous parents and communities provide.

The same logic informs the New Deal for Families that I have been proposing in this column in order to restore greater intergenerational equity. New Mom and Dad benefits would make parental time with newborns more affordable for all Canadian families, including Aboriginal families.  The proposed minimum benefit of $440/week will be especially important for Aboriginal parents on and off-reserve.  Higher rates of low-income among Aboriginal citizens mean they are less likely to qualify for existing parental leave benefits compared to other families, and less able to afford the reduction in income that comes with parental leave when they do qualify.  In response, New Mom and Dad benefits would eliminate poverty for all parents caring for children under 18 months.

While New Mom and Dad Benefits would invest in the family time that Residential Schools once obstructed, $10/day child care would help remedy how Schools once limited the opportunity for Indigenous communities to nurture their children.  Specifically, this child care recommendation would allocate funding for child care services to enhance Indigenous children’s exposure to languages and cultures of First Nations, the Métis and Inuit.  For households with annual incomes below $40k, child care fees would be waived.

By investing in additional family time that is supported with adequate funding for community services like Aboriginal HIPPY and culturally appropriate child care, a New Deal for Families could become an essential contribution to Truth and Reconciliation in Canada.  Essential because it responds directly to the harm Residential Schools imposed by removing children from their families and communities; and because it takes lessons learned from one of Canada’s most grievous historical policy decisions to build a better policy deal for an entire generation of Canadians – Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal alike.

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Some new additions to the Blog

2 new video links

Surrey Board of Trade videos Warren Beach, CFO Sierra Systems. Warren talks about the price Business pays for Generation Squeeze’s bad policy deal.

And Fanny Kiefer interviews Kershaw re the Beaver Logic required to support Generation Squeezed YouTube Preview Image

Since readers wanted a short printable version of the New Deal for Families that they could share with decision makers, I have also added a link to a Summary of the New Deal for Families 3 Policy Recommendations.

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Not a “Boomer Hater”: Critique helps Kershaw refine conversation

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

Much of the feedback 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, SFU Professor of Gerontology, succinctly captured a common set of criticisms.  In an Oct 25 Op Ed, he wrote that “Pitting young families against older generation isn’t helpful.”  He worries that my columns blame Boomers and seniors for the squeeze on those that follow.

Professor 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 now raise young kids (see 10 provincial Family Policy Reports, Does Canada Work for All Generations?).  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..

Merely talking about data to illuminate intergenerational pressures need not create conflict.  Quite the opposite.  Until we showcase the information, Canadians have little impetus to make change.

The discussion of “blame” to which Professor Wister refers has arisen several times in response to my columns (see also the October 24 Op Ed 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.  At the same time, I compliment the Boomer generation on their higher voter turnout, noticing that political parties respond accordingly when developing platforms.  And I observe that many of today’s older seniors – the parents of Boomers – were among our country’s greatest policy builders, who simultaneously paid down government debts from WWII.

More generally, I have directed much blame away from politicians to focus on all of us as Canadians, as citizens.  We have chosen not to prioritize social policy innovation in support of Generation Squeeze.  As a result, it is challenging for political leaders to campaign for what the electorate does not call.

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 debt to GDP ratio was 26 per cent in 1976 and 46 per cent as of 2008 (before the recession) sounds some alarm bells.  Boomers leave 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.  In addition, Canada’s environmental footprint has not improved over Boomer’s adult lives despite growing worries about climate change.





I do not promote ageism by sharing this information, as Kathleen Jamieson of Delta charges in an Op Ed on October 29.  Rather I hold out hope for Boomers and their legacy.  Because of their influence in our boardrooms, legislatures and as voters, Boomers are essential.  They could choose to become proponents of a better deal for their kids’ generation and grandchildren.  In so doing, they would restore greater equity between generations, and leave a more solid foundation from which Gen Squeeze can address looming fiscal and environmental debts.

As I speak about generations, I rely on averages to capture important trends.  Some have since critiqued that I wrongly portray all Boomers as affluent, and all in Gen Squeeze as worse off.  Let me acknowledge emphatically the diversity that exists underneath any average.  There is no doubt that some Boomers struggle economically, as many notice when talking with Greeters at Walmart.  I salute Angie, Harry O’Neil, Ruth John and many others who insisted on this point, sharing their personal stories by email.

In response, organizations like the United Way point the way forward when they identify isolated seniors AND families with young children as their priority areas for community investment.  The fact that Canada wrestled poverty among seniors down from 29 per cent in 1976 to less than 5 per cent today does not give reason to overlook that some seniors still struggle – especially women.  Nor does it give reason to ignore the risk of isolation as Canadians live longer, often at great distance from other family.

But addressing these risks can and should occur alongside learning the broader lesson revealed by income trends for seniors. We successfully used policy in the past to adapt our environment for the evolving needs of a generation.  Canada can now repeat this achievement for Generation Squeeze. 

Notice, the goal is to repeat the success, not replace it.  Although policy investments inevitably entail trade-offs, there is no reason to pit seniors or near-retirees against families with young kids, as Professor Wister fears.  Canadians are well positioned to choose other trade-offs, whether higher taxes, fewer prisons, re-examining what we include in medical care, or any of a range of alternatives.

However, I make no apologies for initiating a genuine discussion about trade-offs, because they are at the heart of our decisions.  Why do Canadians so far resist building policy that will support new moms and dads to have enough time with their young children?  Or $10/day child care services?  Or employment standards that facilitate balance between work and family?  Answer:  because we prioritize other goals.

Such trade-offs are no longer consistent with many Canadians’ aspirations to retain the family at the heart of our values.  I therefore take my hat off to Professor Wister for expressing his support for the New Deal for Families, and noting correctly that many Scandinavian countries develop policies for the generation raising young kids side-by-side with strong policy for seniors.

It will take many more Canadians to boldly echo the priority Professor Wister so eloquently proclaims before Canada once again works for all generations.

So let’s keep the conversation going.  Share your views in the Vancouver Sun, or at,, or!/newdealfamilies.

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Seismic shift for Generation Squeeze costs $1.4 billion in employee turnover

Families First.  I sympathize with the BC Premier and other Canadian leaders who make this commitment, because it is a big task.  In many ways, it is akin to responding to an earthquake.  Earthquakes damage a community’s foundation.  Since they happen suddenly and violently, we all respond empathetically.

For families with kids today, the damage to their foundation occurred slowly, silently, over decades.  But a slow and steady change does not make the damage any less severe when we compare across generations.  Were the generation that raised young kids in the 1970s to time travel, they would suddenly have far less time at home because parents today collectively perform many more hours of employment than a generation ago.  Regrettably, this time poverty does not yield higher household incomes.  Instead, it is the price today’s parents pay to cope with wages that didn’t keep pace alongside skyrocketing real estate prices since 1976.

And yet… when political leaders propose even modest changes to address the seismic shift in the standard of living, many of us come up with reasons to forgo action.  Take Premier Clark’s ‘family day’ which, at best, restores one brick in the now shaky foundation for families with young kids. Even this minor change is postponed because some worry about cost constraints.

Since we too often delay supporting the generation raising young kids, I take heart that the Surrey Board of Trade hosted a Business and Families First dialogue last week.  Its CEO, Anita Huberman, explains “we need an action plan now for Surrey Families and Businesses. There is no time like the present to begin talking about strategic investments and initiatives in Surrey that will strengthen both our growing number of families with young children and our businesses now and for the future.”

The dialogue featured Warren Beach, CFO of Sierra Systems, speaking by video about the price paid by Canadian business because of the squeeze on the generation raising young kids.  As an employer, Warren spoke of his frustration at losing talented employees, many with multiple degrees and years of on the job training.  Why did they leave?  Because they can’t find or afford quality child care services to help them balance enough time at home.

Warren and two Chartered Accountants joined forces with my team to estimate what it costs companies when employees leave a job.  Their experience shows it’s expensive – between 115 and 154 per cent of the annual salary earned by the departing employee.

Truthfully, I was skeptical when we first explored these numbers.  But once you begin considering the range of costs, they add up fast.  For example, when a time and service squeezed employee resigns, employers must hire a temp or pay remaining staff to take on extra work while they recruit a replacement.  Those filling in inevitably are less productive than the previous incumbent, because they don’t know the job. Through all this, a manager must perform exit interviews to determine what work the departing employee leaves, and reallocate it accordingly.

And that’s just the cost of someone leaving.  There are also costs to fill the vacancy.  Advertising for one, along with time to develop a recruitment strategy, review resumes, conduct interviews, confer with colleagues about which candidates are the best fit, perform reference checks, make the offer and notify unsuccessful candidates.

Then the new hire has to be trained, which includes the employee’s salary along with the costs of delivering training and associated materials.  And most new hires will be on a learning curve, meaning their productivity will generally be lower than the departing employee, often for at least five months.  During this time, the productivity of other staff will also diminish as they help the new team member learn the ropes.  In some higher paid positions, lost productivity mean lost sales.

Bottom line:  it is not unusual for employers to pay more than $25,000 to fill a vacancy left by someone who earns $22k a year; or nearly $59,000 to fill the void left by someone earning $44k; and more than $135,000 to cope when someone earning $88k resigns.  No wonder Warren is worried that generation squeeze employees leave due to work-life conflict!

So how common is this problem?  One way to learn is to examine moms’ decisions about work inside and outside Quebec.  There are regulated child care and kindergarten spaces for 58 per cent of kids under age six in Quebec for a fee of $7/day.  In most other provinces, there are spaces for 21 to 36 per cent of children at a daily fee of $20-$40.  To be sure, the Quebec system is not perfect, and is critiqued for investing too much in services for very young children; and too little to ensure all services are high quality.

Nevertheless, economists who make these critiques at the Univesité du Québec in Montreal, UBC, U of T and MIT also provide strong evidence that BC would retain in the labour market an additional 17,000 women with young children if we had the child care services available in Quebec.  In Ontario, the figure is more than 50,000 women.

The costs of losing over 17,000 employees are staggering.  Given the expenses calculated in collaboration with Warren, the BC business community pays $1.03 billion to replace 17,000 moms who decide not to remain in their job because of the time and service squeeze.  This cost is amortized over roughly 4 years.

The resulting annual avoidable price paid by BC business is about $247 million – or one-sixth of all corporate taxes the province expects to collect this year.  Across the country, excluding Quebec, employers pay about $1.4 billion annually for avoidable turnover among generation squeeze.

One new holiday in rainy February isn’t going to solve this business problem.  But a substantial policy investment in New Mom and Dad benefits, $10/day Child Care services and Flex-Time can.

Hats off to Huberman and Beach.  They add an economic rationale for politicians to move beyond the ‘Families First’ rhetoric to budget for meaningful policy change that will restore families at the heart of Canadian values – and, as it turns out, to eliminate unnecessary business costs.



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Bad Deal for Generation Squeeze costs Business $2.3 billion annually in Absenteeism

Last time I wrote about Occupy Wall Street, observing that the slogan “We are the 99%” frames the growing inequality in Canada as a few fat cat corporate leaders gorging on the cream produced by many mice churning milk.  While this insight rightly illuminates some systemic problems with the distribution of income in our country and around the globe, I think it wrongly caricatures many individual business leaders today.

As readers of this column will know, I’ve been calling for Canadians to rally behind policy changes in support of the generation raising young kids because it is squeezed for time at home, squeezed for income after housing, and squeezed for services like child care (see  A number of Canada’s business elite have lent their reputations to similar recommendations in the past, because they recognize the societal value of policy change, and because they can make a business case for such investments.

Take people like Warren Beach, CFO of Sierra Systems, Debi Hewson, CEO of Odlum Brown, Yuri Fulmer, CEO of FDC Capital Partners, and Catherine Warren, President of FanTrust Entertainment Strategies.  Far from caricatured fat cats, these corporate leaders are some of the hardest working CITIZENS I know, volunteering countless hours to a number of philanthropic boards and fundraising campaigns, including the United Way where I met them.  At the United Way of the Lower Mainland, they don’t just use their influence to raise money for programs that support families with kids and isolated seniors.  They also lend their voices, encouraging Canadians to prioritize public policy to prevent social problems, rather than treat problems after the fact.

Part of their motivation, I suspect, is the business community already pays a price for the status quo.  Employees with young kids bring their time and service squeeze to their jobs.  The result is higher absenteeism rates for this group of employees, greater turnover, and increased use of extended health benefits – all of which employers pay for.

For a couple of years, I’ve been using some of my research time at UBC to provide evidence that the squeeze on the generation raising young kids costs the Canadian business community billions.  After giving a number of presentations where business colleagues smiled, nodded gently, but resisted engaging, I approached Warren Beach at Sierra Systems, asking whether he believed my findings?”  A no BS kind of guy, Warren replied “As a CA, I’ve seen many people inflate estimates, so I’m skeptical.”  But as a stalwart citizen, remaining skeptical wasn’t an option for Warren.  Instead, he agreed to devote some of his time, and the time of two CA colleagues, to support my team in refining the estimates.

In the light of Warren’s analysis, he is now a believer, suggesting my research team is likely conservative when estimating that “work-life conflict among employees with preschool age children costs the Canadian business community in excess of $4 billion annually. These costs include absenteeism, employee turnover, and health care premiums.”

Take absenteeism as a starter.  Average full-time wages in Canada mean the typical employee earns $213 a day.  The employer is out this wage when an employee uses a sick day or is otherwise away from work because of work-life conflict.  On top of the wage, there is the daily cost for extended benefits that employers pay, which is conservatively another 10 per cent of salary, or $21.

When someone is absent, colleagues have to fill in, and supervisors take time from what they would have otherwise done in order to manage the unexpected HR gap.   Plus, the company forgoes the profits it expected to earn on whatever labour doesn’t get performed.  Together, colleagues’ lost productivity and the company’s lost return on investment in employee wages add up to another 60-65 per cent of the average daily wage, or $128-$138.

This means the total employer cost when an employee misses a day due to work-life conflict is around $370 on average ($213 + $21 + $128-$138).

So how often do people miss days because of work-life conflict?  265,000 BC employees have preschool children.  Their time, income and service squeeze means they miss 3 to 3.6 more days per year because of their high levels of work-life conflict compared to people who report less of a squeeze.  These data come from Statistics Canada and research from Linda Duxbury and Chris Higgins at the Sprott and Ivey Schools of Business respectively – both of whom are leading researchers about work-life balance.

265,000 employees multiplied by 3-3.6 days per year is between 795,000 and 954,000 days lost to absenteeism in our province annually.  At a cost of $370 per day, that adds up to between $300-$356 million annually – just in BC, and just for employees with kids under age six.

Given BC is only 13 per cent of the Canadian population, we’re talking about $2.3 billion nationally.  That’s the price paid by the Canadian business community for otherwise avoidable absenteeism among the generation raising young kids.  (And that’s before we consider other costs, like avoidable employee turnover and health care premiums, which I will consider in future columns).

To put this annual $2.3 billion price in context, the Government of Canada invested $2.2 billion in stimulus spending in the second year of its Economic Action Plan to support adjustment and secure job opportunities in regions and industries most affected by the economic downturn.  Clearly, the magnitude of the absenteeism price tag is a significant drain on our economy.

Rather than waste $2.3 billion each year on avoidable absenteeism, might the business community not spend this money more productively, both for its own profitability, and for the good of society?

I think so.  There is no doubt the New Mom and Dad Benefits, $10/day child care and Flex-Time that I propose as part of a New Deal for Families will impact employers.  But it’s less about new costs, and more about replacing unproductive expenditures for more productive HR practices and social policy investments.

The Surrey Board of Trade will host a Business Summit October 25 that focuses on the costs of work-life conflict.  As a member organization, it deserves credit for showing leadership on what it will take to put families first as part of our country’s social and economic strategy.  Such leadership is not the activity of corporate fat cats.  It’s sound thinking on the part of smart business people who are solid citizens.

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