It’s not easy being a young person in British Columbia today. The cost of living, and housing in particular, has skyrocketed. Younger generations are also looking ahead to more frequent climate disasters and a degraded natural environment.
This province has the worst economy in Canada in terms of making enough money to cover the costs of housing. That’s part of the reason B.C. residents are choosing to have fewer children than anywhere else in the country.
Hard work still pays off for younger generations in B.C., but not like it used to, says Paul Kershaw, a policy professor at the UBC School of Population and Public Health, and the founder of Generation Squeeze. Generation Squeeze is a “think and change tank” that seeks to mobilize Canadians to push for policies that address generational inequality, based on high-quality research and evidence.
In B.C. and across the country, younger generations are increasingly “squeezed by lower earnings, higher costs, less time — especially time at home — and a deteriorating environment,” Kershaw says.
The facts suggest that the baby boomer generation will leave this place worse than they found it. But how could that happen? It seems likely that most older Canadians would prefer to leave a better world for the future.
“What mom doesn’t want to leave a happy, proud legacy for their kids and grandchildren?” asks Kershaw. “Who doesn’t want to have as their legacy, ‘things are better after I’ve been here,’ as opposed to depleted and worse?”
The problem, says Kershaw, is that older Canadians benefit from maintaining a system that has supported them at the expense of generations to come.
“The policy incentives that have existed during their lives — and continue right now — actually continue to incentivize eroding that legacy,” he says.
Who is to blame?
Kershaw says he gets this question a lot from older Canadians: “Are you telling me I did something wrong?”
The answer is mostly no, he says. It’s true that many older people have profited enormously off housing markets and other economic systems at the expense of future generations. But the problem isn’t about individuals trying to make a good home and a good life for themselves. The fact remains the baby boomer generation collectively upheld a system that hurt their kids and grandkids.
“The rules of the day tolerated what is now our older population extracting more good stuff than they’re leaving behind,” says Kershaw. Perhaps unintentionally and perhaps unknowingly, they upheld and continue to maintain that system.
It has been easier to point at scapegoats than to accept that collective responsibility, says Kershaw.
“We’ve tended to look elsewhere [for] who’s to blame: the foreign buyer, the money launderer, the mean-spirited developer, the NIMBY who won’t allow rentals to be built in my community. It’s always somebody else. Thinking about climate change, it’s the same issue. On our watch, especially an older demographic’s watch, we resisted paying for the pollution that is now crippling the planet in a way that literally puts not just young people’s economic health and wellbeing at risk, but the conditions for biological health at risk.”
It’s time for older Canadians to grapple with that truth and choose to be part of the solution, Kershaw says.
How did we get here?
Many baby boomers stepped into a world of promise as young adults, says Kershaw. They needed less education to earn more money than young people today. And housing costs were dramatically lower.
It was the era of sex, drugs and rock and roll, he adds. “And in the middle of all that partying, it was a time of tremendous political engagement. There were anti-war movements, second wave feminism really took off, you had the civil rights movement, queer politics started.”
In that cultural context, baby boomers came to understand that politics really matters, Kershaw says. But later, and somewhat perplexingly, they seem to have become a bit jaded with politics, and passed that notion on in damaging ways to their kids.
By then, their generation had benefited enormously from the economic conditions they inherited. Collectively, they failed to notice or respond to the fact that this prosperity came at the expense of their children, he says. And the system incentivized the boomers to maintain the status quo, because it directly benefited them.
“Why is there so little rage about relentlessly increasing home prices? Because it makes homeowners wealthier, while we sleep, while we watch TV, while we clean up in the kitchen after a long day,” says Kershaw. “I live in Metro Vancouver. Last year, I made half a million dollars while I slept, just in the one single year of increase.”
At 48, Kershaw is a Gen Xer, and he bought his home 18 years ago. Generation X made lower incomes, on average, than the generations that followed, but they didn’t have housing prices that were nearly as problematic, he says.
“Millennials have better earnings than Gen X, but they’re facing soul-crushing levels of housing unaffordability — not just wallet-crushing levels but soul-crushing levels. And unfortunately, then Gen Zed is coming to take that on even more and more.”
To sum it up, younger people pay more to go to school longer in order to land worse-paying jobs with fewer benefits, compared with older generations. They face deeply unaffordable housing and extraordinary costs if they choose to have children. “And this is the private squeeze that is harming the wallets of younger people,” says Kershaw.
“And then they inherit a public squeeze. They’re stuck in this vise grip and we tighten the vise grip still further, because younger people inherit larger government debts and larger environmental debts.”
And yet, government budgets still overwhelmingly favour programs to support older people. It’s true that many seniors struggle and need support — B.C. has the highest rate of poverty for seniors in the country. But it’s also true, perhaps surprisingly, that working-age adults in B.C. are twice as likely to live in poverty compared with seniors.
‘The Bank of Mom and Dad’
This system has built deep inequality not just between generations, but within them, too. Class relations in Canada have been transformed by access to homeownership — and relationships to those with access, Kershaw says.
“We talk about how we have an affordability problem in this province. But really we have a wealth-printing success story. It just benefits some and creams other people.”
Homeowners have benefited enormously, and those who got in the market earlier benefited more. Some younger people have been able to access that wealth through family relationships. This is what some condescendingly refer to as “The Bank of Mom and Dad,” says Kershaw.
This can ease the squeeze for some, but not for all. Not everyone has family members with access to wealth, who are also willing to share it. Many people have been excluded from access to wealth and opportunity, including Indigenous people, people of colour, women and others.
It’s a dysfunctional intergenerational system that intersects with class, race and other dynamics, says Kershaw. Relying on the individual generosity of those who became wealthy through that system serves to create and perpetuate inequalities.
The phrase “Bank of Mom and Dad” is, in itself, deeply harmful, Kershaw adds. It infantilizes young people, who are actually being remarkably courageous, flexible and adaptable. It exonerates older generations from the real harm they have caused, implying that they are heroes, while their kids just can’t figure out how to grow up.
“But it doesn’t ask, ‘Why is the Bank of Mom and Dad so affluent, in so many cases?’” Kershaw says. The answer is that they tolerated rules that benefited them, at their kids’ expense. For example, their children’s generation paid more for housing, which in turn made the parents richer.
And when the younger generations come for help, it’s on their parents’ terms. There’s a power dynamic. “Hopefully, most parents are really nice. But there are many car bumper stickers out there that say, ‘I’m spending my kids’ inheritance,’” says Kershaw.
How do we get out?
Systemic problems are solved through systemic change, and systemic change happens through political action, says Kershaw.
It’s not good enough to prove that the system is unfair — people have to push for change using their collective power, he adds. And younger generations have let themselves down, to some extent, by opting out of politics.
“A younger demographic, understandably, feels kind of pessimistic and discouraged about politics. I think many people will look around and say that governments aren’t acting quickly enough on the big problems of the day.”
And so younger people don’t turn up at the ballot box or otherwise advocate for themselves at the same rates, he says.
There’s no silver bullet, but change starts with getting informed and being engaged, Kershaw says. Generation Squeeze aims to make that easy by sharing resources to learn about the issues and take action on its website, he says.
“In the face of your pessimism, your frustration or your disillusionment with politics, you might think that the solution is to opt out, but actually Gen Squeeze is begging and pleading with people to double down on opting in.”
Being engaged can look like listening to a podcast, writing a letter or sharing information with family and friends, Kershaw says. It can look like joining a group, such as Generation Squeeze or an organization tackling housing affordability, climate change or wealth inequality.
Many young people are incredibly time-squeezed, but even little acts of online activism matter, he says. People will dismiss that as “clicktivism,” but bigger groups hold more power, so clicking to be part of something is a meaningful act.
It will take collective power to disrupt harmful systems and build a Canada that works for everyone, Kershaw says. Together, it’s possible to build a better system, one that prioritizes what really matters, gives people time to enjoy their lives and offers the opportunity to leave “our province, country and planet better than we found it.”
This reporting was made possible through the financial support of Coast Capital, a member-owned cooperative. The article was produced with full editorial independence; Coast Capital was not involved in the story selection, reporting and editing process.
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