Globe & Mail: It’s not evil to question boomers’ legacy

Originally published in The Globe & Mail on June 22, 2024

A steep drop in housing prices is not politically feasible for governments because too many voters worry that it would compromise their retirement plans. The Prime Minister rightly made this point in a recent interview, signalling that Canadian politics expects younger people to endure higher housing costs to protect older people’s finances. Younger people deserve compensation for providing this protection, I argued in my last column, because it requires them to sacrifice their standard of living.

Not everyone agreed. One letter to the editor even suggested my “portrayal of baby boomers borders on evil” because my views “can put a tear in our delicate social fabric.”

This inflammatory charge needs careful scrutiny. Far beyond stock tips and investment trends, our personal finances are shaped by harmful systems of oppression, including ageism toward younger and future generations. Such systems sustain their influence in part by moulding people’s judgments about what’s in and outside the boundaries of reasonable debate. We need to guard against making it taboo to discuss the intergenerational tensions that flow from this ageism, because shutting down dialogue diverts attention from the societal adaptions required to restore intergenerational solidarity.

We badly need to renew this solidarity, because social, economic and climactic changes have already torn open Canada’s social fabric by leaving younger folks to live amid unaffordablehousing and extreme weather while inheriting large unpaid bills from government. None of those outcomes were inevitable. All were shaped by policy decisions made, or neglected, by governments over decades.

Whether boomers intended these political outcomes on their watch is beside the point. Repairing the tear before it rips apart Canada’s intergenerational contract must now be our shared quest.

Thankfully, there are many boomers who have brought their needle and thread to public dialogue.

Ene Underwood, CEO of Habitat for Humanity GTA, is one of them. She bravely wrote to her fellow “homeowners who bought before the end of the last century. The people who could get an education and a home at an affordable price … We are going to have to think about what is best for future generations – and what’s best for them might work against our own privilege and interest.”

And then there’s Michael Pennock, who insists “Many members of my generation know that we have amassed unexpected wealth simply because we bought a house when we were younger.”

Or Mary Peirson, who shared in a note to me that “I am a boomer who … has benefitted from the unearned wealth accumulation in my principal residence. I firmly believe that when assessing taxation and accessibility to social programs such as OAS, total assets determine an individual’s wealth and eligibility, not annual income … Enriching the already rich based on age is discrimination.”

While talk of age-based discrimination is hard to hear, I don’t think anyone credible could claim that Ene, Michael or Mary are being evil toward their generation. They are simply championing the intergenerational golden rule: do unto other generations as you would have those generations do unto your own.

Canada desperately needs more boomers to heed this golden rule, joining a grand quest to be good ancestors.

The first step can start with a thank you. If you are an economically secure boomer (or even a Gen X like me), reach out to a younger person in your life to acknowledge it’s often harder to make it financially today than in past decades. Thank that younger person for coping with higher rents, oppressive mortgages or forgone dreams of home ownership partly to safeguard retirement plans for Canada’s aging population.

Then, move from the personal to the political. The 2024 federal budget promises to restore “fairness for every generation.” We can embed that promise into the machinery of government for years to come by calling for a new act to safeguard the well-being of present and future generations – one that would appoint a responsible minister, an external advisory body, and a commissioner in the auditor-general’s office to monitor annual progress.

Surely, that can’t be evil.


Paul KershawDr. Paul Kershaw is Founder, Lead Researcher & Executive Chair of Generation Squeeze. He is a policy professor in the UBC School of Population and Public Health, and Director of the UBC Masters of Public Health program.

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