Even as Canada’s GDP increases, younger people’s finances are being hammered by housing costs that have left their earnings behind. If that wasn’t bad enough, they are inheriting larger government debts and frightening levels of environmental damage. The result: Hard work doesn’t pay off for younger Canadians like it did for past generations. This creates their economic precariousness, mental-health issues, eco-anxiety and declining levels of hope for the future.
These problems have attracted significant concern – so much so that the federal cabinet included a panel on “youth issues” at its summer retreat.
While such a focus is strong, the framing is weak. Talk of “youth issues” is distracting, drawing attention from the root causes of the problems, which have less to do with younger generations than their treatment by older ones as a result of past policy decisions. To begin to fix this, Ottawa should launch a general fairness council to investigate why Canada no longer works fairly for all generations.
Councils or commissions are used in Canada to examine complex problems for which there is no silver bullet – problems that require multiple policy changes. The mass casualty in Nova Scotia, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, the future of the automotive industry and fisheries offer precedents.
The hard truth is that, on the watch of older Canadians, policies that violated the responsibility to carefully steward our collective resources were accepted and sustained. This failure eroded things our aging family members hold sacred – such as a healthy childhood, home and planet. This lack of stewardship made life more convenient in the moment for many baby boomers. But the resulting financial and environmental harm to their children and grandchildren is alarming, compromising their ability to join the middle class.
We most commonly think about a failure of stewardship in environmental terms. Over past decades, we’ve abused so much of the atmosphere’s limited capacity to absorb carbon that we leave extreme weather for those who follow.
The same failure drives housing unaffordability. There is only so much wealth that can be extracted from a housing system. Many homeowners like me, and especially those who are older, have extracted so much of that housing wealth that we have transcended the middle class to be among the more privileged. We have done so at the cost of unaffordability for those who walk in our footsteps.
Continuing deficits (outside of a recession) reflect similar patterns. Most contemporary government spending made possible by economic growth is being extracted by our aging loved ones for their retirement and medical care needs, despite the fact this demographic has the lowest rates of poverty and the highest levels of wealth.
We are all entangled by the hard truth that, during their working years, baby boomers paid taxes when there were seven working-age adults for every retiree. Now, in retirement, boomers expect the same or better services when there are only three working-age Canadians to pay for every senior. The consequences for fiscal restraint, and young people’s tax dollars, are enormous. There is little revenue left over to invest in boomers’ children and grandchildren, and we saddle their offspring with larger debts from unpaid bills.
This pattern in the environment, housing and fiscal policy doesn’t live up to the intergenerational Golden Rule: Do unto other generations as you would have other generations do unto yours.
Yes, older Canadians cared dearly for their own kids and grandchildren. But as citizens, they have not shown the same care when it comes to demanding policies for the climate, housing and government budgets that work fairly for old and young alike.
Fortunately, there is a remedy. Canada needs an ambitious upgrade to our intergenerational social contract. One that plans better for all age groups, investing urgently in well-being from the early years onward. One that will protect our aging loved ones while renewing their opportunity to leave a proud legacy.
To jumpstart this upgrade, now is the time to enshrine responsibility for generational fairness more explicitly in the functions of government.
This should start with a council to examine why hard work no longer pays off fairly for all generations in Canada. There are models to follow from Australia, the U.K. and elsewhere. For example, Australia’s government now publishes a regular intergenerational report. Every five years, the government evaluates whether the policies benefiting current generations are compromising those who follow. The reports provide economic and budget projections and examine the financial implications of demographic and other changes.
The Trudeau government has already laid strong foundations from which to upgrade the intergenerational contract. Ten-dollar-a-day child care is a game changer. So is pollution pricing legislation. The deputy prime minister has publicly acknowledged that our housing system is “an intergenerational injustice.” The federal Quality of Life Framework enshrines intergenerational thinking in the sustainability lens it adds to budget and program deliberations.
Upgrading our intergenerational contract will preserve Canada’s standing as one of the best places on Earth to grow old, as ranked by the Global AgeWatch Index. It will overcome our status as an international laggard for investments in children, youth and their parents, as monitored by UNICEF.
Binding together both ambitions is a shared purpose around which many Canadians will galvanize heading into the next election.
Dr. 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.