In recent years, much has been made about the experience of millennials in the contemporary economy. And this isn’t without reason: wages are low, education is expensive, housing is inaccessible and finding secure employment is increasingly difficult. There does need to be a discussion in our society about intergenerational inequality, including within labour unions and left movements.
But the “Generation Screwed” (GS) movement — which suggests that the main driver of youth inequality is based on tax-and-spend governments — is anathema to justice between and within generations.
Generation Screwed’s right-twist spin
In simple terms, the GS campaign is an outgrowth of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which acts in routine opposition to public sector workers and government programs. Further, the GS campaign’s research comes overwhelmingly from right and right-leaning sources like the Fraser Institute, the C.D. Howe Institute, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, the Vancouver Sun, and the National Post. None of these sources represent youth and student movements, none represent the positions of labour or professional organizations, and none cover a part the political spectrum left of the Liberal Party.
And while it’s perfectly valid for conservatives to speak about generational issues, the GS campaign has to be more expressly understood as one that represents a certain path, and not a general panacea, for young workers’ futures.
The demonization of public spending
The GS campaign — much like the CTF more broadly — focuses on how public debt loads are bad for taxpayers. To outline this, the GS campaign is visiting campuses across Ontario and Quebec with a giant ticking debt clock. The implication here is that young Canadians are being saddled with deep debts due to years of spendthrift governments headed up by the Boomers.
My concern isn’t the focus on debt as much as it is the strong implication that the issue is largely one of spending. As one of their videos puts it: “governments have been spending too much money for decades, and our generation is going to be left with the bill.” Ultimately, it is suggested that young people must work to stop “the spending problem, and stop the debt problem that it causes.”
There is no consideration that much of our programs are underfunded, due in part to a Boomer generation which has voted large tax cuts for itself, certainly more than it has created new and innovative social programs.
In this sense, the debt is an issue of importance, but the solution is to ensure proper levels of taxation — which might very well mean raising taxes on all but Canada’s poorest — to ensure program stability and adequate debt levels.
Simply, the GS movement misses a great opportunity to attack older Canadians who voted for irresponsible economic revenue slashers like Stephen Harper’s two-per cent GST cut, and to some degree the Tax Free Savings Account Program.
Turning Keynes in his head
Here, the argument from GS — as per its Executive Director Aaron Gunn — is that social spending can become unsustainable in periods of high indebtedness, and that money going to finance the debt could be spent on programs like education. But again, the focus is less on the reluctance to adequately tax the populace, and instead on governments “making expensive promises” and “living beyond their means.”
Again, the talk is about excessive pensions and social spending, which takes the form of “unfunded liabilities” that will be levied on the next generation of Canadian workers and retirees. And while there is cause to be concerned about the funding of certain pension schemes and social programs, the issues has been more a combination of tax cuts and a failure to invest in those programs. A big factor has been the downloading of responsibilities from federal to provincial governments, and from the provinces to the municipalities.
As I note above, the GS position is one that is tenable as a general conservative take for smaller government, increased precarity, and rising inequality. But it isn’t the path forward for the majority of young workers.
The alternative path
In my view, the path forward for young workers should be based on a three-pronged movement. First, I actually agree with the GS campaign that high debt levels can be a millstone on the public purse. Socialists like Tommy Douglas have thought no different, arguing that a government indebted to private financiers becomes subordinate to them. But again, the solution here isn’t that we spend too much, but that we tax too little. Savings — I’m sure — can be found, but there is still a great deal more the state can do to provide a decent life and equal opportunity for every young Canadian.
Additionally, my fear is that the GS campaign for intergenerational equality is masking a general attack on social equity within generations. We have to remember that as much as the Boomer generation has benefited from the post-war compromise, and as much as the “old economy Steven” meme speaks to the frustrations of young workers, many older Canadians have direct experiences with poverty, precarity, and a lack of opportunity. Their generation, on aggregate, is a privileged one, but we can’t universalize their experiences.
But I still agree that there needs to be greater onus placed on older Canadians for creating an environment of rising debt, lower taxes, and a declining quality of work. Much of this rests at the feet of employers and Liberal and Conservative governments, but even older leadership on the left has failed to adequately include young workers within decision-making systems, and has gradually conceded pension equality by accepting two-tier models.
Some of Canada’s biggest unions have to reckon with the fact that, under their leadership, we have increasingly accepted the validity of unequal pay for equal work, as long as those being treated unequally are young Canadians. But the story isn’t all gloom and doom, as some unions like CUPW took a stand for young workers to defend pension equality.
Nevertheless, we need to ensure that labour and left movements look out for young people and their interests, because if they don’t, the “generation screwed” narrative will be marshalled as a force against the very things the left has achieved over the past century and more. And they will win.
Christo Aivalis, a member of the CD web committee, is an adjunct professor of history at Queen’s University. His dissertation examined Pierre Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP, and has been accepted for publication with UBC Press. His work has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, Our Times Magazine, Ricochet and Rankandfile.ca. He has also served as a contributor to the Canadian Press, Toronto Star, CTV and CBC. His current project is a biography of Canadian labour leader A.R. Mosher.