Pity not the poor senior

Today’s senior is not your mother’s senior.

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and economic reality has important political consequences, allowing seniors to wrap themselves in the flag of outdated stereotypes while obscuring their substantial political clout.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.

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  • commented 2016-04-18 14:23:15 -0700
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  • commented 2015-09-12 12:28:21 -0700
    Thank-you for this honest depiction of the seniors. I’m tired of the false picture of elders today and of the drain that we are all increasingly experiencing regarding their consumerist engine while the rest of us continue to try to sustain a full-term life with our own version of grace and dignity. I’ve worked recently to bring a program which will help seniors who are truly struggling with potential poverty, and I am a trained hospice volunteer. I am not generation-phobic. I was raised to care for elders, real elders who needed my energy and attention for their physical and emotional well-being – not just for some elder sense of grandiose entitlement. I am not the typical picture in any age bracket, so I hope that Generation Squeeze will become conscious of the diversity of the rest of us out here who may not have had children but have rather dedicated our lives to the issues of the other generations, including the environment. I have been a teacher, long-time orphanage supporter and volunteer, parent support workshop leader, children’s arts program initiator, and soon to be fully qualified counselor – all requiring years of upgrading my education and skills out of mostly my own pocket, to serve a generation which let us know early that if we wanted to make a living, we were going to have to be flexible and expect less. I know how the 40, 30, and 20 years olds feel because I’ve lived it. What I don’t appreciate is being scorned by them because I’m 52 and still working to sustain what I’ve managed to provide for myself after years of jumping around from low paying job to another, working in alternative schools where we received much lower pay, and for which I do not have RRSPs and any high pension expectation. We are expected to somehow all team together in some kind of intentional living communities which we create for ourselves with no help from governments and with no guarantees of any protections socially or otherwise regarding real elder abuse in the future – because we won’t have big inheritances to pass on to our younger caretakers who expect so much and for whom we just don’t have enough to give. I am disappointed even in this Generation Squeeze article where those of us between the ages of 44 and 55 are entirely left out of the real picture in your wealth and debt chart. I read this blog wondering if it really spoke to the X gen, a label which I still find offensive since no generation gets Xed out but that is how we have been so continually depicted – overlooked for our reality and our needs in society. Meanwhile I’ve seen the real horrors of it as more and more of my close friends and family died early, in their 30s and 40s because of the stress. I hope that the Generation Squeeze initiative will notice this error and repair it in some way so that I can support its work. When initiatives by one group of generations overlooks one generation which was conveniently overlooked too many times by their own parents’ generation, something is not truthful. The excluded age 44-55 group, which focussed so much of it’s time, energy, and inspiration on their elders and youngers, and the environment, only to be Xed out about our sufferings, sacrifices, and struggles for the sake of the Boomer children in their 40s, 30s and 20s who we know had more in their growing years, generally speaking, than we ever had, has a voice now and will not be left blank. We know real squeeze. We’ve lived it our whole lives, and never just expected to have a house all for ourselves at age 30. The real problem with the squeeze is that too many people in this country believe so fully in materialism as the entitlement of life that they do not know grace the way that those before them had no option about: to literally scrape, make ourselves less, be patient, forgive, beg for any help from our parents financially, and sometimes work like dogs in situations where the Boomers themselves were abusive to us while telling us to be grateful for the low servant wages because it was so important that we support their children of the future. I have never treated the younger people in my care in the lowly way that we have been treated, and I don’t expect to be treated lowly by those whom we worked so hard to support knowing full well the over-consuming and overly entitled tendencies of the generation before us. We know that our own parents didn’t behave this way, nor did our grandparents. The rapacious generations listed ahead of us in your chart are the ones to be held accountable for economic and some of the social distortions or “Sqeezes” in the generations. Maybe we’re not depicted in your stats because you would have to acknowledge that there is a generation which has been doing life honourably despite the hardships, regardless of what the one before it has done to cause harm to their youngers. I have to be straight about it – we’ve been “Sqeezed” so hard all of our lives – sometimes it comes out like lemons. When we are seen in the honest picture of life for who and what we truly are in the progression of the generations, then we make a lovely lemon-water with fresh garden lavender and stevia to share with all. We’ve always been that way. Yes, ask us for help but don’t X or blank us out.

“Yes, Canadian governments need to make younger people a priority. I want a Canada that works for all generations."

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