Why we make generational comparisons
Canada's biggest lobby for seniors/retirees has attacked the use of generational comparisons, e.g. how much we spend on aging people compared to younger people, as "idiotic". We disagree.

Concerned with the growing squeeze on younger Canadians, Dr. Christopher Mackie — a medical officer of health in London, Ontario — recently asked his Board to support Generation Squeeze. [1]

Great, right? Not according to Canada’s biggest lobby for seniors and retirees (“CARP”). Their spokesperson made news by calling Dr. Mackie's request "idiotic", and even went so far as to assign us a motive, saying Gen Squeeze is  “trying to start an inter-generational war."

Though I’m not sure what the phrase “inter-generational war” even means, the obvious hostility of the critique caught many by surprise. 

So, knowing that journalists are sometimes driven to find, exaggerate, or even fabricate conflict where there is none, I decided to reach out to CARP directly to find out what was going on. [2]

From that conversation and others, I think I have an answer.

Generational Comparisons 

Here’s the heart of it:
some people see generational comparisons — e.g. showing how much more Canada's governments spend on seniors and retirees compared to younger Canadians — as intrinsically and unavoidably divisive. [3]

The comparison itself is what CARP thinks is “idiotic”.

The comparison itself is what they think pits generations against each other and is presumably where things get all weird and disintegrate into talk of “inter-generational war”. 

Let me be clear: I think this is a completely natural response. I mean, the irritant is right there in our materials: two generations visually placed side by side, with a clear message that one group is getting more than the other.  

It’s easy to understand how after seeing those images or reading our materials, some people look up and think “they want to take things away from seniors and retirees, things they’ve worked their whole lives for.”

It doesn’t always matter how obsessive we are in stating the contrary, sometimes a certain graphic or chart or sentence will be taken the wrong way and just stick (if you find any of our materials problematic please let us know).

What statements like Ms. Eng’s demonstrate is the topic of generational equity (also known in the literature as “Intergenerational Justice” or “ Intergenerational Equity/Fairness”) is a complex and extremely sensitive issue. 

That sensitivity is why some people think we should simply organize around the need to invest in younger Canadians full-stop, and leave demographic comparisons out of it. [4]

But then we're told “the cupboard is bare”

The trouble is, for decades, groups have been calling for increased investments in younger Canadians, with arguably little to show for it. The answer frequently comes back from our governments that "the cupboard is bare". There's simply no money, or so the claim goes.

Sounds reasonable, right? If you don’t got the money, you don’t got the money. 

But then every year our governments seem to find a way to increase spending on programs and services that primarily benefit our parents and grandparents, the most notable draw being increases in health care spending. [5]

So governments can and are finding ways to fund improvements to public programs, just not so much for you (if you’re in your 20s, 30s or 40s).  

We showcase generational imbalances in government spending because they point to imbalances in government priorities, with our governments making tradeoffs no family ever would.

THAT is the uncomfortable truth. THAT is what generational comparisons allow us to see very clearly. And it's something we don’t think we have the time to dance around. 

If it stings, it’s probably because it should 

If learning about things like the generational spending gap stings, we think it’s probably because it should. 

In a recent cross-national comparison of levels of Intergenerational Justice in 29 OECD countries, Canada placed near the bottom, at 25 out of 29. [6] Reading that study, it stung to learn that Canada has among the highest ecological footprints of all OECD countries.

It stung to learn that we have the 6th highest fiscal debt per child, and to be reminded that our child poverty rates are 3X higher than our admirably much-improved rates of poverty among seniors. [7]

When we see that our child poverty rate is 3x that of seniors, should we dismiss that generational comparison as divisive? Or can we take that stinging feeling and feel all the stronger for having faced it, and be inspired by the comparison that shouts at us: “LOOK, here is proof that we can do better”? 

Funding the future 

If you take us at our word that we want Canada to invest more in younger Canadians, WITHOUT taking anything away from our parents and grandparents, your next question probably is “OK, but then how would we pay for that?” 

Excellent question. Turns out we’ve got some pretty basic options: (1) we can re-allocate money (e.g. from programs that aren’t performing well to more efficient/effective programs); (2) we can reverse inefficient tax cuts; or (3) we can raise new revenue. 

Which leads to long and fascinating debates about the many specific options at our disposal. To keep things moving, I’ll sum up by saying “lots of ways!” and direct your attention to this footnote —> [8] 

The point is, before we get distracted by the many options governments have to invest in a Canada that works for ALL generations, we need to have the courage to face this fact: our governments are prioritizing older Canadians MORE than younger Canadians.  

Well then go vote! 

If Canadians in their 20s, 30s and 40s voted at comparable rates to Canadians 50+, would things be different? Yeah, probably. But resist the urge to simply point the finger at younger Canadians and walk away. 

We all know about the vicious cycle, where younger people don’t vote because politicians don’t speak directly to their lived experiences and their dreams — and actively discourage participation with hyper-partisanship, attack-ads, scandals and general short-sightedness — so younger people don’t vote, so...

While we all need to take individual responsibility, increasing turnout and engagement among younger Canadians requires a bunch of things simultaneously:

  • Leaders who DO speak directly to experiences and dreams of younger Canadians, and inspire us with their visionary, competent, collaborative approach;
  • Measures to increase access for younger Canadians (e.g. polling stations on campuses);
  • Pure hustle at the peer, family and community level to get people out and into the habit;
  • Groups like Gen Squeeze working on a daily basis in between elections to help keep issues of generational equity front-and-centre, and our politicians accountable to their promises. 

Facing reality  

Maybe we could find a way to organize ourselves and win victories for younger Canadians without actually pointing out how much we’ve done and are continuing to do for our elders.

But to me, that feels a lot like beating around the bush. 

I’d prefer we state the obvious that young people want the best for their parents and grandparents, who want the best for their kids and grandkids.

And then face the current reality that our governments are making generational tradeoffs that no family ever would. 

Then, we can all work together to chase a vision of A Canada That Works for All Generations.

Here’s the thing. With millions of Canadians struggling to make ends meet, with our global climate continuing to spiral out of control, with biodiversity continuing to plunge, with resources becoming more scarce and conflicts spreading, and as billions of people struggle to get out of poverty, we have no shortage of complex and harrowing problems to deal with. 

How can we hope to solve these problems if we can’t look the evidence in the eye, feel the sting of uncomfortable truths, and move forward together?  

Idiotic or not 

We don’t claim to have all the answers. And we admit our small team sometimes makes poor choices with imagery, headlines or content, which makes it all too easy to mistakenly assign us a divisive motive. We’re truly sorry about that. 

That said, history is full of examples where those trying to point out problems with the status quo are dismissed and marginalized by claiming they’re trying to incite conflict, just out to disturb the peace. And I suspect no matter what we say or do, some people will continue to look at us that way. 

I don’t know, maybe making generational comparisons (e.g. look how much we spend on Canadians 50+, now look how much we spend on our kids/grandkids) IS idiotic. But it sure doesn’t feel that way. It feels like a deeper level of understanding. It feels motivating.  


The author (2nd from left) pictured with his graduating wife (!!), mother and mother in law. We're all in this together!

[1] On July 16th, the Board voted unanimously to invite a speaker from Gen Squeeze, as a first step, presumably. 

[2] I was able to reach Michael Nicin, CARP’s Director of Policy, and we had a good, if spirited chat. Afterwards, I also consulted one of my most trusted advisors, my Mom, who’s a member of CARP AND Gen Squeeze. Those two conversations helped me get to the heart of the matter.

[3] Our use of generational comparisons includes analysis showing: 

Just a note on spending gap graphic I link to in the text: obviously, we can expect to spend more on people as they age. That’s just biological reality. We should make that clearer in the graphic. The point is: there’s a BIG GAP. More importantly, it’s a gap that governments tend to make bigger every year

[4] You’ll notice that the major political parties are taking this advice, sticking to age-neutral concepts like the middle class and avoiding generational comparisons altogether. That’s certainly the safe route, but I think it throws away an opportunity to directly connect to younger Canadians’ lived experience and intuition around existing generational inequities. Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a leader who had the ability to give voice to what so many of us are feeling, the courage to face uncomfortable truths, and the positivity and leadership to unify us around that and move forward together? I think so. I think if done right, that could be a game-changer. 

[5] Our analysis of government budgets can be found here. Notably, unlike the Canada Pension Plan for example, health care is NOT pre-paid. Meaning today’s working population is responsible for paying that tab.

[6] You can download the study, “Intergenerational Justice in Aging Societies: A cross-national comparison of 29 OECD countries,” here. It’s a good one. 

[7] As of 2012, 19.1% of Canadian children lived in poverty, as measured by the Low Income Measure (LIM) after income taxes. During the same year, Canada's seniors' poverty rate was 5.8%. Source: B.C. 2014 Child Poverty Report Card.  

[8] First, we should clarify that when we say we “don’t want to take anything away from our parents or grandparents,” that statement refers to OUTCOMES. E.g. if our parents or grandparents are currently receiving services or benefits they would say they don’t actually need, that they would say aren’t producing better outcomes for them, then we think those things should be on the table.

Overall, funding options we explore include:

  • Containing the growth of public medical care spending in order to reallocate funds to our policy recommendations that promote the social determinants of health
  • Putting a price on pollution
  • Reducing subsidies for industries
  • Adapting the age of retirement
  • Saving government money by preventing school failure, crime and avoidable injury and illness
  • Revisiting tax loopholes, a small percentage of recent tax cuts, or taxes on wealth (e.g. homes worth more than $1.5 million and cars over $50,000)
  • Legalizing and taxing marijuana as some US states now do

We look forward to a lively debate about these options to pay for a better generational deal.  However, we won’t let disagreement about the merits of these options distract attention from a fundamental problem with the status quo. 

Eric Swanson
Eric is the Executive Director of Generation Squeeze.
Why we make generational comparisons, via @GenSqueeze #cdnpoli #keepthepeace
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