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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