The Globe & Mail: Young Canadians go to school longer for jobs that pay less, and then face soaring home prices

It is a cliché now to suggest that young people today drink too many lattes and eat too much avocado toast, so can’t afford their major costs of living; that they rely too much on handouts from parents – far past when a responsible adult should. They want it all now without working for it.

You may have heard this nonsense enough that you’ve come to believe it.

As founder of Generation Squeeze, I’ve been on a mission to show it’s not true. Because these myths inflict real harm, causing many younger people to feel that they are doing something wrong, or that they are personally failing when they struggle to establish a solid financial foundation.

Oversimplified personal finance commentary that suggests young people should simply “work smarter, save more, invest wiser” can exacerbate the problem. For a modest number of younger people, this advice may work. But for most, the real problem is that Canada’s intergenerational system is so dysfunctional that hard work and good planning can’t achieve the same standard of living as they did just a few decades ago.

The data are clear: Hard work pays off less for young people today. Younger Canadians go to school far longer, to land jobs that pay less, only to face runaway home prices.

By comparison with baby boomers, young people now often have to work 10 to 20 years more to save a 20 per cent down payment for a first home. They are either saddled with massive mortgages, or their dreams of home ownership are shattered. Their consolation prize is lousy – rising rents.

It’s no accident that hard work pays off less now. It’s the product of policy choices made by governments past and present, and supported by voters. Today’s aging population may not have fully anticipated the consequences of these policy decisions for their kids and future generations. And yet, that doesn’t make the status quo any less harmful to their kids’ financial wellbeing.

We’ve chosen to sustain policies that fuel skyrocketing housing prices, creating wealth windfalls for those – often older – Canadians who bought into the housing market years ago, while simultaneously crushing affordability for younger residents.

To avoid the worst dangers of climate change, young people must change where they work, what they eat, how they commute, how they holiday, and much more. They are left to shoulder this massive climate debt because our policy choices tolerated the preference of older generations to avoid the inconvenience of paying for pollution or adapting to the climate crisis.

Despite paying more for university, and struggling with child care that costs another rent-sized payment, young people also inherit larger government debts. Why? Because it isn’t politically expedient to be honest with baby boomers that the taxes they paid throughout their lives are not sufficient to cover the full costs of the medical care and income support they want in retirement. That’s why we now witness every premier in Canada demanding billions more from Ottawa for medical care without any discussion of how governments will raise revenue to pay for it.

I know this isn’t the story older Canadians want to hear. I know older Canadians genuinely worked hard to build careers, homes, families and our country. They didn’t set out to deliberately sabotage the prospects of their kids and grandkids. My mom didn’t. Your mom didn’t either.

But the fact this evidence is hard to hear isn’t a good enough reason not to listen.

The hard truth is that many younger Canadians are financially squeezed because of policies that helped today’s older generations at the expense of others. These problems evolved because older generations did not steward carefully enough the resources all generations share – resources needed to sustain sacred things like good homes, healthy childhoods and a stable climate.

While many in our aging population may have acted individually in good faith as parents, neighbours and workers, our political systems did not ask them to adapt adequately to policy trends resulting in economic vulnerability shifting from older to younger Canadians.

Solutions can be found in public policy changes. Policy change requires younger generations (and older folks who love them) to contribute their voices and stories to changing cultural myths (like the lazy millennial), altering political incentives (like lower voter turnout among younger citizens), and signalling support for policy solutions (by joining groups like Generation Squeeze). When enough individuals make these changes, we create political cover for politicians to respond bravely to fix intergenerational injustices.

We’ve all adapted so much and so quickly to combat the pandemic, in our private lives and in our systems and services. We’ve learned we can address big problems together.

It’s time to marshal some of that adaptability to cure the intergenerational virus infecting our economic and social systems and plaguing the personal finances of younger Canadians today.

Dr. Paul Kershaw is a UBC policy professor and founder of Generation Squeeze, Canada’s leading voice for generational fairness. You can follow Gen Squeeze on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and subscribe to Paul’s Hard Truths podcast and videos.

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