Youth, austerity, and the changing meaning of opportunity

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In the wake of the Conservatives’ 2012 austerity budget, depressive politics have been elevated to a new level in Canada. The vulnerable and marginalized are once again the subjects of demonization, deemed a societal burden by public and private sector elites who are convinced that balancing a budget in five years is more important than ensuring food on the table for the disenfranchised.

It turns out it doesn’t help to have a finance minister who believes homeless people should be thrown in jail.

The middle class will continue to shrink as a result of the austerity measures, but the budget’s sword is not drawn on them. As John Ibbitson eloquently put it in his latest analysis of Harper’s majority, the Conservatives’ socioeconomic agenda is to foster the development of more middle-class suburban families. It is in this way, by fixating their economic policies on the development of the nuclear family, they hope to shift the meaning of opportunity for Canadians.

In order to achieve their ideal society, they exploit the notion of the ‘Canadian dream’ for everyone. But to achieve this they do not dare touch the rich, who they perceive as demi-gods of our economy. Instead, they seek to create more prosperity by attacking low-income earners – ‘motivating’ them to become more ‘productive’ members of society. This is achieved by attacking the commons via privatization.

As easy as it may be to argue that Harper is simply robotic and evil, hell bent on ruining Canada, he and the Conservatives likely do believe – contrary to all evidence – that pressing austerity onto the backs of low-income people will benefit society at large.

But so short sighted they are.

One of the largest demographics of low-income earners in the industrialized world are young people under age 30. Canada is no exception, although it is fairing better than parts of Western Europe where up to 50% of young people are unemployed. Youth here are still facing an unemployment rate double the national average.

Considering this, it’d be logical to think that the government would see the contradiction in attacking low-income earners. But the government only sees the problem as too much RED TAPE.

Precisely, the issue is of no real concern to the government because they conceive opportunity only in terms of GDP. GDP only measures monetary transactions. It does not measure social and environmental degradation. This is why they believe catering to corporations and expanding the natural resource industry at all costs is so critical to our future.

But their trickle-down economics only end up with a splash on the foreheads of a few.

Austerity is framed by the government and mainstream media in terms of creating more opportunity in the long run. In reality, however, it’s about creating a specific kind of opportunity. We see this in their obsession with expanding natural resource extraction, while trying to downsize public investment in other industries as a means of ‘leaving it to the market.’

Consequently, they are sending a simple message to the legions of unemployed youth: Get a trades or science based education, or don’t complain. There’s no room for ‘hand outs’ if you don’t.

The Conservatives’ attempt to shift the meaning of opportunity for youth is evident through almost every major initiative they’ve taken since gaining power: Massive cuts to Canada’s creative industries; the raising of the OAS from age 65-67; tightening EI benefits; cutting funding to humanities and social science research – all the while obsessing about cutting RED TAPE for corporations. There is to be no safety net, except for Canada’s wealthiest.

Youth will continue be taken to task by the right for the foreseeable future. This is because, plain and simple, politics is calculative. It’s no secret young people don’t vote anywhere near in numbers to middle-aged people and seniors. Democracy is ruthless when you don’t vote. But it’s even more ruthless when propaganda succeeds (how many parents voted Conservative last election based on the idea that eliminating the deficit in five years is critical to their children’s future?).

Youth tend to either not care, or be exclusionary in their arguments when taking the Conservatives to task in turn. But perhaps youth need a simpler message: Austerity is not about this or that program being cut, or tuition being increased somewhere. It’s about what we value as a society. It’s about the very meaning of opportunity.

The Conservatives are betting that their austerity measures will result in more disenfranchisement from the political system, increase worker productivity, and reduce the role of the commons in the economy.

Yet it is here where the greatest hope for youth lies. The neoconservative agenda cannot be sustained. While efficient propaganda campaigns continue to scare the baby boomer generation into believing austerity is necessary for ensuring the prosperity of future generations, it won’t work on today’s youth, as they will not have the material gains to believe it.

As the social and environmental deficit accelerate at a feverish pace, the hope for youth actually increases. If what’s happening in Quebec is any sign of what’s to come, and the youth begin to rally against these gaps in the coming years, it will make them exactly the opposite of the media narrative: A generation of realists.

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