Popular depictions of seniors, of whom I am one, often fail to reflect the dramatic changes in demographics and economic realities over the last couple of generations.
Seniors are portrayed as surviving on “fixed incomes” with shrinking purchasing power, living in poorly heated apartments and eating endless macaroni and cheese dinners – sometimes without the cheese. This vulnerable picture does capture the unfortunate circumstances of some seniors, but it masks a very different larger reality.
Yes, seniors have relatively low incomes, but income should not be confused with wealth. Seniors who are mortgage free, owning their own homes, vehicles and in some cases vacation properties, are doing just fine.
Nor are their incomes necessarily fixed. Today’s seniors often enjoy private and public pensions indexed to the cost of living. Moreover, potentially higher interest rates will play out quite differently among those with no mortgages and substantial investments than they will among their younger compatriots.
The mismatch between cultural portrayals and economic reality has important political consequences, allowing seniors to wrap themselves in the flag of outdated stereotypes while obscuring their substantial political clout.
Seniors are well-equipped to defend their interests in the political arena. They have the numbers, money, contacts, professional expertise and time needed for political engagement. They also vote at a much higher rate than do younger Canadians, who are preoccupied with their career and family concerns.
Although the political warriors of our time are commonly portrayed as 20-somethings immersed in the new world of social media, they are no match for the grandmother on the beach in Mexico, armed with the latest tablet (electronic, not medicinal), ample disposable wealth to support her causes, 850 friends on Facebook, and the email addresses of federal, provincial and municipal leaders at the ready on her phone.
So, while political leaders appear to worry incessantly about how to attract the elusive youth vote, they are always looking over their shoulder at the larger and more easily mobilized grey electorate.
Meanwhile, the lingering cultural portrayal of the poor senior from times past makes it difficult for younger generations to press the argument that if there is truly a generation at risk, it is theirs. Youth who are audacious enough to promote their own interests, who are struggling with the challenges of young families, a difficult housing market and a very uncertain economy are dismissed as unappreciative and ungrateful.
My concern is not with the myriad benefits that accrue to seniors from the private sector, everything from reduced movies tickets and discounts at the neighbourhood liquor store to early-bird specials at restaurants. Private companies will do/should do what they want to pursue customers, although it is interesting to note that seniors are often the only demographic singled out for special treatment.
My concern lies with government benefits that are available to all seniors, regardless of their financial standing. Income supports for seniors – transit passes, reduced property taxes, lower taxes for investment income than employment income - are walled off from vigorous policy debate. The health care costs for an aging population are largely borne by those generations who are still working.
As the senior population grows, and the infamous baby boomers begin to queue up for post-retirement public benefits, we need to re-examine the financial benefits we confer too often on the ‘no-longer-poor pensioner.’ To a modest degree, these benefits shift the tax burden from wealthy seniors to struggling young families.
Fortunately, there is a silver lining to this rather gloomy analysis, and one that may forestall looming generational conflict. If the grandmothers are well equipped to defend their own interests in the political realm, just watch if the interests of their children and, particularly, grandchildren are threatened.
While our seniors policies may ignore radical changes in demographic and economic realities, the best line of defense for Generations X, Y and Z may well be the grandmothers on the beach in Mexico - tablets powered up and cheque books at the ready.
Roger Gibbins, now retired in Vancouver, is a past president of the Canadian Political Science Association and former CEO of the Canada West Foundation.