When Are You From?

Happy New Year everyone! On days like this, time is on everyone’s mind. I’ve lately been musing on our love/hate relationship with inter-generational commentary.

Everybody loves editorials and comment pieces about the differences between generations. More specifically, people love to read them, then get angry about them and declaim in the comments that either A) the author got the portrait of the generation totally wrong, or B) there are no such things as generations. Sometimes, they try to argue that C) A and B are true simultaneously, which is trickier than it may sound.  They usually throw in some form of D) ad hominem attack, suggesting that the author’s an irredeemable hack for even attempting such an article, for good measure.

So if these columns and their authors are all so misinformed or misguided, why do they continue to be written and read? If they’re so unpopular, why are they so popular? [1]

Mmm... heartburn in a bottle.

Mmm… heartburn in a bottle.

I think part of the answer lies in the question that forms the title of this article: “when are you from?” Such a query seems unusual, even improperly constructed. Not like its better-known counterpart, “where are you from?” Everyone knows that question, everyone asks it, and everyone is comfortable drawing conclusions on the basis of the answer. We do this because we know that where someone comes from tells us something about who they are. Not everything, but something.

An example: I grew up in small town Alberta, but I travelled to Saskatchewan quite often, as most of my relatives still lived in the old country. Consequently, I was well versed in the ocean of differences that separated Saskatchewanians from Albertans. I “knew” that folks from Saskatchewan said crazy things like “bunny hug,” while we Albertans stuck with more conventional terms like hoodie. We had better roads, while they had more loveable football teams. They all drank Pilsner, while we preferred rye whisky (or “fightin’ juice,” as it was affectionately known.)

Some of these insights were true; others were not. It’s probably fair to say that most were unimportant, amounting to little more than the narcissism of small differences.

As distances grow however, so too do the size and significance of the differences that result. Someone living in Kingston, Ontario has a much different outlook on life, and much different expectation on what that life might hold for him or her, than someone born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica.

The same is true of time. Two people born a couple of years apart are generally separated by small differences. As the temporal space grows however, the differences become more marked as well.  A Canadian born in 1878 had a remarkably different life expectation than one born in 1978.

Such observations are uncontroversial, even banal, and yet it is remarkable how much difficulty we still have in discussing the differences that exist between people who experienced life in different time periods. We discuss and understand the effects of aging—we all know what it is or was like to be young, and we know or speculate about what it is or will be like to be old—but that is not the same thing as understanding what it is like to be young (or old) in a particular time. The world looks quite different, in ways good and bad, to someone turning 20 in 2012 than it did to someone who turned 20 in 1962 or 1972.

I argue that this creates a mismatch between our lived experiences and our political life. Our politics are shaped by our geography. We are citizens of Canada, inhabitants of Bavaria, residents of Shanghai. These distinctions crucially inform the laws, the rules, and cultural norms by which we live. Virtually all democratic systems allot representation partially or totally on the basis of geographic boundaries. Accordingly, if inequality falls along regional lines, our system is (relatively) quick to take note, and take some form of remedial action.[2]

Conversely, we are raised and socialized to believe (indeed, we have considerable moral investment in believing) that individuals within a given territory tend to enjoy commensurate opportunities to prosper and lead a meaningful life. In polities such as Canada’s, we acknowledge that some of our fellow citizens face challenges that others do not, and that as a society we should do something to at least partially redress such inequalities. The categories that we consider in taking such ameliorative action are limited however, and rarely include considerations of when people are from (again, this is a differentiation distinct from how old people are).

Perhaps this is beginning to change, however. There’s an ongoing inter-generational debate currently taking place both here in Canada and elsewhere in the world. Younger Canadians increasingly argue that they face significant challenges that previous generations never encountered: fewer job prospects, a far more competitive economic landscape, and higher post-university debt loads than their parents had when they were starting out (not to mention an increasingly uncertain natural environment).

Indeed, such issues have garnered significant attention in the media. To cite just one recent instance, the Globe and Mail is currently publishing a series of articles on the state of housing prices in Canada, with one recent piece focusing on the effects of increases in housing prices on urban Canadians, particularly in Toronto and Vancouver, and to a lesser extent Calgary, Montreal, and other major Canadian cities.[3]

While the current market has implications for all Canadians, a clear message comes through that the boom has had very different effects depending on when and if someone was able to enter the market. Those who entered earlier (generally older Canadians), have done quite well through the upturn. Conversely, younger Canadians—including relatively affluent professionals and two-income families—now face more significant, even insurmountable obstacles to entering the market.

A key finding from the article from Professor Paul Kershaw of the University of British Columbia: since the mid 1970s, the average home price has gone from three to five times the national household income average. This has had the effect of doubling the time necessary to save for a 20% down payment (In BC, the country’s priciest home market, the time has actually tripled). Simply put, for more and more urban Canadians under the age of 35 or 40, owning their own home, once a standard component of middle class existence, has become a dream put off for years, even indefinitely.

Even so, few are willing to make the argument that one age group of Canadians has any moral obligation to aid another age group. On the contrary, the converse is often heard, that variations in conditions are either irrelevant or non-existent, and anyone who says otherwise is basically whining. Following the litany of statistics spelling out the hardships that young Canadians face in entering the property market, the author also refers to an older couple who are described as getting into the market through “scrimping, not further borrowing.”

Several commenters are considerably more blunt. bonelessliberal [sic throughout] gets the fifth highest ranked comment, saying “Give up cable tv, the iphone data plan, the internet, eating out, purchase and cook real food, only one car per family, entertain yourself at home then you will find out how your parents saved their down payment.”

Meanwhile, geologist1 also receives kudos from fellow commenters for saying, “Buying your first house has ALWAYS been hard. Sacrifices and hard work are required. In the 80’s the mortgage rates were 14-18%! We managed somehow. Life is hard, life has always been hard, life in the future will probably be hard. Stop whining and get on with it!”[4]

The implicit message in the article, and the considerably more explicit theme of many of the comments would seem to be that “[insert older age group] were able to go out, get jobs, buy a house, and raise a family, there’s no reason [insert younger group] shouldn’t be able to as well. If they can’t, it’s their fault.”

This brings us back to the much-maligned musings on inter-generational experiences. Given the above discussion, we might say that they are in part attempts to identify, classify, compare, and evaluate meaningful similarities and differences in social experience across time, and they do so in a way that is analogous to distinctions made on the basis of space. We speak of Baby Boomers as a group, not because they’re all identical, but because they have opportunities and experiences in common, in much the same way we refer to characteristics that associated with being Canadian, or Kenyan, or Russian.  Not all Canadians are polite, just as not all Baby Boomers had a relatively easy time getting a job, and buying a house, but the generalization taps into some element of our lived experience.

If we can tolerate, or even take pride in often-incomplete or inaccurate geographical generalizations, why not take the same attitude towards generational generalizations? Such analyses may be done poorly, but when done well, they represent an important contribution to our understanding of the world around us: namely, they help us to remember aren’t the way they used to be, for better, or worse; and indeed that time is not always on our side. More radically, they can be considered an attempt to articulate a new moral category for our politics, a consideration of the way in which our experiences and opportunities are delimited, even in some cases determined, by the time in which we are born, come of age, or grow old. This language in turn gives us the tools necessary to begin to articulate potential responses.

We live in an age of technological marvels, unprecedented global peace and prosperity, entry-level job scarcity, high urban housing prices, rising health care costs, ongoing budget constraints, and—still too often forgotten in Canada and elsewhere—an increasingly foreboding environmental future. Each of these facts represents an opportunity for some, and a challenge for others. The question is  what commitment, if any, we ought to make as a society to assist such “hardship generations,” both at the time in which they begin active participation in social life, as well as in subsequent years.  Unless and until we agree on a language that enables open discussion of such questions, continued acrimony and a lack of mutual understanding is the likely result.

So, when are you from?

[1] I speak about this with a certain amount of experience, as I attempted light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek version of such an article for the Georgia Straight sometime in the last year. I was then thoroughly trounced in the comments for it, even as it remained the most-read article on the site for a couple of days. (Yes, that’s my very first humblebrag, and yes, I’m quite proud of it.)

[2] While some might counter that among our elected officials are numerous younger Canadians, the point isn’t really that relevant in terms of representation.  A 31-year-old parliamentarian is there to represent a geographic constituency, not her age cohort. If she fails the former, she may lose her job in the next election; there is no such relationship with the latter. She may try to satisfy both constituencies, but ultimately she is responsible only to one.

[3] There are important variations in experience between rural and urban Canada now; in general (and inter alia), work is more plentiful, and property far dearer in the latter. For simplicity, I will focus in the urban story here, though an analogous account is possible for rural Canada as well.

[4] This brings up the interesting point, a rebuttal often heard during discussions of current hardships, that other time periods have had it hard too. One of the most-often cited examples is the 1980s, when interest rates reached nearly 20%. This is a valid point, which to my mind both strengthens and further nuances the argument here. People entering the job and housing market during both the 1980s and the 2000s, faced unique obstacles that other generations did not have to cope with, and begs the question what such “hard luck” generations are owed, if anything.

top photo credit: edanley via photopin cc

Whisky photo credit: crypticfirefly via wikipedia FAL


4 thoughts on “When Are You From?

  1. Part of the issue here is the just world fallacy, which people in every demographic falls prey to. There is the continuing idea that those who work hard are rewarded, and those who are suffering, suffer due to some kind of moral failing on their part, whether it is laziness or overindulgence (as is seen in the comment about the iphones and cable tv). People need to start recognising that luck and the socio-economic status of their parents plays a very large part in how successful they are in life. We need to get away from the “bootstraps” mentality and recognise that Canada has changed. It isn’t the same world it used to be. My father could work over the summer, and pay his tuition, and still have enough to pay rent and go out and have fun. You can’t do that any more– and even if you give up every single luxury in your life, it’s not going to make a significant difference in whether or not you can pay or save for a house.

  2. This is just one small facet of your discussion, but one of my personal frustrations (that I know others share) is workplace seniority.

    I have respect for seniority, but it gets frustration for younger employees who get stuck in entry level positions as retirement-age employees either a.) don’t retire (often citing “the economy” as a reason, which is fair enough), or, b.) retire but then return to work either part-time or as an auxiliary employee, maintaining their seniority position, holding a job position, and drawing their pension and a salary out of the human resources budget which means other cutbacks are made with regards to staffing.

    Sorry to vent, but the latter is a big pet peeve of mine.

  3. Hi there,

    Thanks for your comments, Adri and Asleigh. Adri, I tend to agree — cutting out luxuries, saving, taking summer jobs… these solutions don’t begin to address the magnitude of the financial challenges that younger Canadians face.

    Further, I think it’s even fair to say that there’s a kind social pressure now not to scrimp that adds to younger generations’ problems. Giving up on some luxuries is certainly possible, but there are real expectations that go along with modern life that make a number of “luxuries” something like necessary goods.

    I remember reading a post online a while back (I can’t recall the author’s name or find the link, unfortunately) where the author talked about how important it was to keep up appearances while looking for a job. He need a smart phone that could do text, email, and everything else to arrange interviews, set up lunch dates, etc. It was expected that he would have all those handheld capabilities. He needed the clothes, he needed to look the part of a successful member of our society, when his financial situation dictated that he cut out all such expenses. In the end, the author concludes that, even though the burden almost broke him completely financially, if he hadn’t kept up appearances, he might never have gotten another good job, and resumed his place as a contributing member of society.

    Ashleigh, I also agree with your point. Again, going further, I might suggest that that your reason a) actually is a bit problematic as a reason to stay on, when considered in the aggregate. Some people staying on are doing so because they didn’t plan for a retirement. No one can fault any individual for that, but because so many people of a given age group made those choices, we are stuck with fewer job openings for younger Canadians. I don’t have any answers about what is to be done — it’s no more humane to boot an older Canadian out of a job when they need it, than to deny a younger Canadian a job, when they need it, but that’s the kind of choice we as a country are facing right now, and you’re right that seniority rule tilt the advantage decidedly in one direction.

  4. I totally agree that people can’t be faulted for staying on past retirement age. It’s completely fair, even if the only reason they had for doing so was “because I want to,” and so I would definitely agree that it’s unfair to boot anyone out of a job.

    My only real annoyance is (and I say this as a member of CUPE; a statement which carries a lot of baggage) the so-called “double dippers,” who retired and came back to work, getting a salary as well as a pension. I reckon it’s enough of an issue at work that colleagues have come up with a nickname for them.

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