There are lots of ways to carve up the population for democratic purposes. Some make obvious, intuitive sense, like geography. Others are harder to map onto political debates, despite their significance.
A particularly tricky issue to deal with is age. We love and hate generational debates. Write a piece online about generational politics, and you can expect a) lots of clicks, and b) lots of comments along the following lines: “Generational stereotypes are dumb! They don’t capture me at all! Also, everyone in generation [blank] is out to lunch!”
In yesterday’s National Post, Tasha Kheiriddin offers up the latest in a long line of inter-generational salvos. Her basic point is that, while young Canadians face certain challenges in terms of buying a house and getting a job, changes in social values since the baby boomers were young are more than enough to compensate for any resource-poorness they are experiencing. Living in a world full of choice, these kids today have never had it so good.
Complaining about the young is a noble tradition, encompassing everything from The Music Man to Monty Python. Sulla apparently complained about the length of Julius Caesar’s sleeves. (Incidentally, on this and much else, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is utterly fascinating.) “Golden Age” thinking goes right back at least to Hesiod, nearly 3000 years ago.
Interruption as my nearly-three-year-old wanders by, glances at the screen, sees the timer I’ve set for myself and exclaims, “There are numbers on Daddy’s work! There’s a nine and a four and a three and a one and a big two…!” Several minutes of number naming pass.
And we’re back!
The point is, age is something that simultaneously unites and divides us. It unites us, in that everyone remembers what it’s like to be young. We all go through the same trials as we come of age. As a result, older folks are inevitably drawn to downplay, if not outright belittle, the challenges that contemporary youth face. “We made it, so surely you can as well,” goes the line of thought
The trick is, however, that no one knows what it’s like to be young at a given point in time. Just as growing up in a different place leads to distinct life experiences, so does growing up in a different era. Some things are easier; others, harder.
Ms. Kheiriddin suggests we can simply tally up the differences and present a net conclusion about who had it better.
Another interruption as my two year old is back again again: “There’s a nine! and a six and a four and a two. Two eggs.”
There is a momentous discovery, as he looks at the keyboard and realizes for the first time that the computer keys have actual letters and numbers on them. “Those are letters! These are numbers! Daddy’s pushing on the buttons.”
A partial keyboard takeover ensues. “Where’s number ‘1’? There it is!” 1 ssssssss “You’re (meaning him—first and second person can be tough concepts for the under-three set) pushing the ‘S’! Do it again.” ssss 2 “You pushed the big two!” He wanders off again.)
And, we’re back.
“Push the ‘1’ again!” 1
(Emergency evacuation commences at this point)
Ok, NOW we’re back.
As I was saying, Ms. Kheiriddin’s argument is a common one, almost as old as the written word. It’s tempting to tote up the advantages and disadvantages, producing a net balance. She concludes something along the lines of: “young people have they’ve never had it so good. Things were far better in our time, insofar as we didn’t complain about how hard things were.” Given how the demographics of her audience skew, it was probably a popular piece with many readers. Unfortunately, such a dismissive approach diminishes everyone’s experience, elder and younger alike.
Yes, some things are undeniably better today. Our society is far more tolerant than the one the baby boomers grew up in. Yes, we have more choice, of certain kinds, and access to elements of a lifestyle than one could scarce imagine a generation ago.
Some things were better then too, however. Jobs were easier to get, and houses easier to buy. The equivalent of high school was still just high school. Even if high interest rates complicated house buying, those early investments have paid off handsomely in subsequent years. Today, education requirements, real estate prices, and student debt levels are higher than ever. Careers are less certain, and personal futures less assured. Some of what Ms. Kheiriddin celebrates as newly empowered choices, such as putting off starting a family later and later in life through techniques such as egg freezing and IVF, are driven as much by career demands as by personal preferences.
Attitudes have changed both for better and for worse, too. As Ms. Kheiriddin says, we live an open and tolerant time now, comparatively speaking. It is also a fearful one, however. The 1950s, 60s, 80s, and 90s were all decades of relative hope, times in which progress seemed more likely than not. (The 70s were, admittedly, a bit of a drag.) The new millennium has hope as well, but it is tinged with new stresses and worries.
We’re all, young and old alike, are hustling more than we had to a generation ago, and younger Canadians are doing so without any sort of cushion built up to help with the lean times. Likewise, we all enjoy the benefits of advancing technology, but suffer from its negative effects as well. Once again, Millennials face the challenges of social media without a reservoir of prior experience to draw on. They’re online long before they’re adults, and arguably before they have developed the full set of intellectual and emotional resources necessary to live well in a world where everything is seen, and nothing is forgotten. (Indeed, I’m in my thirties and I’m still not sure I’m ready to cope with that world.)
Looming above all are contemporary worries about climate change and the environment. The fact that Canada’s leaders continue to be either unwilling (or unable?) to divert the resources necessary to address the problem—and work in good faith with other global leaders to do the same—is deeply discomfiting for many young Canadians. We continue to careen towards a degraded future, and no one (in Ottawa, at least) has stepped on the brakes yet.
— Marc Benioff (@Benioff) December 28, 2014
More prosaically—as both Ms. Kheiriddin and the Generation Squeeze project to which she refers point out—inter-generational debates have real stakes in terms of resource allotment. There are winners and losers in society on the basis of age. Heath, education, and pensions are all significant social expenses benefiting Canadians of various ages differently.
Accordingly, such debates over who gets what must continue happen, and age must remain a factor. Lecturing those younger or older than us isn’t going to help bridge this yawning divide in generational experiences and needs, however.
As a twitter acquaintance of mine (a baby boomer to boot, I believe) put it:
— Thomas Hall (@ThomasHall17) February 13, 2015
Listening and sharing stories stand a better chance of spanning the generational divide(s) than competitive shouting. (Also voting! Millennials, you really should vote. Consider joining a political party too! Mark Jarvis has some great reasons why you should.) We need to keep talking with one another, listening to others’ lived experiences, rather than assuming we know it all already.
A small voice wafts in from the living room. “There are number blocks here! There’s a big 1 and a closed 4! And a 6 and…”.
Blogging time’s over. I’ve got some listening to do.