Here, boomers and millennials unite to show that making a difference is not a generational thing.
Finger pointing and resentment have come to characterize intergenerational discourse over the past decade, and baby boomers are taking the brunt of the criticism. A plethora of online articles have painted a picture of a millennial generation that harbours nothing but anger toward the boomers. Even more traditional media platforms have piled on with articles berating the boomers for the mess that they’ve ostensibly left for the younger generation to clean up.
Some of the anger, it’s claimed, arises out of economic issues. The Conference Board of Canada recently reported that younger workers aged 25 to 29 make 64 per cent less than workers aged 50 to 54. For the first time, it said, the younger generation risks being ultimately poorer than their parents. David Stewart-Patterson, who co-authored the report, was quoted as saying, “Age, rather than gender, is becoming the new divide in our society.”
While we’re pointing fingers, it’s true that boomers allowed the continued existence of appalling worldwide poverty and an income disparity worthy of the time of the pharaohs. But it’s more than wealth behind this increasingly strident divide between generations.
A common (and not entirely unfounded) accusation leveled at boomers is that they have caused the most disastrous level of environmental degradation since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Boomers refused to recycle. They thumbed their noses at warnings from the scientific community and developed a society in which everything was disposable. Boomers ran industries that spewed ozone-destroying crud into the air and dumped a chemical soup into the environment. They maintained a love affair with fossil fuels, a lifestyle at the core of catastrophic planetary climate change.
And while they were at it, boomers managed to extinguish countless species and create a Texas-sized island of floating plastic in the Pacific Ocean.
And wars? Boomers seemed to learn nothing from their forebears and engaged in a series of needless wars, costing the lives of the young, all in aid of a litany of seemingly wrongheaded political aims.
Boomers are accused of passing on a world that is, quite simply, a political, social and environmental disaster.
Claims of boomer malfeasance
These claims of boomer malfeasance have led to some extreme positions in recent years. Gene Marks, in an opinion piece for Philadelphia in 2014, wrote: “The good news is that the baby boomer generation is quickly getting older. We can’t ship them all off to an island, unfortunately. But I’m optimistic that the next generation of leaders will not make the same mistakes.”
But according to Richard Carpiano, a sociology professor at UBC, it’s time for everyone to stop and take a deep breath. He says that while it is difficult to escape a certain level of generation pitting, “A lot of these accusations are based upon broad generalities that are fundamentally unfair and untrue. It’s a sort of generational prejudice that continues to be perpetuated by both the mainstream and social media. Let’s face it: it makes for good copy to pit one generation against another, but there are a number of problems with that exercise.”
To start with, says Carpiano, painting generations in a monolithic manner assumes generalities that simply don’t exist. “Not all baby boomers were (or are) irresponsibly greedy individuals with little regard for their children or for the planet. In fact, most weren’t and aren’t.
“And the response of some boomers is just as unfair. All millennials are not lazy, entitled and whining,” says Carpiano. “What is really needed is to recognize that boomers have also been the ones who are working to repair the mistakes of the past and lead the way to a better future … often in partnership with the younger generations. That’s the real story.”
Here’s a sampling of some Canadian boomers to help tell that story.
A lifetime of environmental concern
Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party of Canada, was born in 1954 in Connecticut and has spent a lifetime working toward a transformation of Canada’s political landscape. She has brought environmental and social justice issues to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness in an effort to make a difference. She came by her beliefs honestly.
“My mother was very active in working toward a comprehensive atmospheric test ban treaty, which, to her, was as much a health issue as well as a peace issue,” says May.
By the age of 12, May was accompanying her mother on trips to New Hampshire to work for the McCarthy campaign. By high school, May took on the cause of combating indiscriminate spraying of insecticides.
By Grade 11, she was organizing a coalition of 35 Hartford, Conn., high schools to raise funds for the second Earth Day. For that celebration, she managed to get Pete Seeger to play and Ralph Nader to address the crowd.
The funds they raised helped to fund a local environmental group. Her passion and history have inspired the millennial generation.
Holly Stanczak, 24, works as an outreach co-ordinator in May’s office. “Oh gosh, she [May] is one of a kind … so hard working and committed,” says Stanczak. “She just won’t stop fighting for future generations.
“There’s no sense in engaging in a blame game … no one generation caused our problems. What we need is to work together for the answers. If I can become half the activist that Elizabeth is, I’ll consider myself a success. She inspires me.”
May, 61, shares the view that collaborative action between generations is the key to success. “Intergenerational blame should never be the starting point,” says May. “Intergenerational activism is far more productive.”
“Is it our fault as boomers that the environment is at a critical point?” asks May. “Not really. We’re here as a result of a multitude of factors, but don’t forget that our generation has also been involved for decades in trying to do something about it.”
“You need youthful optimism but you need the experience that boomers bring … we tend to have a short-term view of the world, and you really need that experience of the world as well,” says Stanczak. “Elizabeth gives me that, and I’m grateful for that wisdom.”
“We can’t blame. The young people that I work with are brilliant and engaged,” says May. “But in every generation, unfortunately, it seems that the people who are willing to get off the couch and do something about issues are always the minority. That was true of the boomers, and it’s true of the generations that followed. But there’s a tipping point that when you get just enough people off the couch, you can make a difference.”
Part of the healing
Patricia Erb, 59, is a boomer who knows all about igniting the interest of the people who are watching issues unfold from the sidelines. She’s the CEO of Save the Children Canada, and her passion revolves around mobilizing people to help address the horrors that have befallen young people around the world,
“In 1976, I was working with the poor … squatters who were without housing in Argentina … when I was caught up in what they called the ‘dirty war,'” says Erb. “I was kidnapped from my home and became one of the disappeared … sent to a concentration camp where I was tortured. There weren’t too many survivors of that camp and for a time I felt guilty for having lived.”
When she was finally released, Erb continued to speak out, telling the story of the dirty war on behalf of those who had died and could no longer speak out for themselves.
In 1986, Erb began her work with Save the Children. “It’s my passion to ensure that children and young people around the world have the opportunity to realize their greatest potential,” said Erb, 58. “And the young people themselves have always been a part of the process.”
Olivia Fernandes is one of those young people. At 31, she is a program officer for Save the Children where she draws upon Erb’s experience and guidance with a dream of carrying on her mentor’s work. “Just look what she’s been through,” said Fernandes. “It’s a model for us [millennials] … teaching us about human rights and caring … and courage. Those are things that transcend generations.”
“In every generation, there have always been people who look to the future and try to make it better,” said Erb. “And there have always been some who are more selfish. That’s true of my generation, and it’s true of the millennial generation as well. But I get to see what happens when there is collaboration across age lines … and it can make a magical difference.
“It makes no sense to blame a generation or another person or group of people … there have always been heroes … no matter what the situation.”
A hero in motion
Rick Hansen is certainly one of those heroes. At the age of 15, he suffered a spinal injury that confined him to a wheelchair. “I thought that my hopes and dreams had been shattered, along with my spine,” says Hansen, now 58. He says that, like many people who are facing their own particular adversity, he was tempted to “play the blame game.”
But eventually, that changed.
“I realized that my life wasn’t about what had happened in the past but what I was going to do about it … that’s what would make the difference.”
That attitude, along with the inspiration of a man named Stan Strong (who also coached and inspired Terry Fox) led Hansen to excelling in Paralympic sports and eventually to undertaking his historic 1985 Man in Motion Tour in which he traversed 34 countries, raising more than $26 million and acting as a catalyst for an enormous change in the perception of people with disabilities.
Upon the completion of his tour, he founded the Rick Hansen Foundation. Now, as the CEO of the foundation, Hansen continues the drive to create collaborative approaches to changing attitudes and removing barriers to the disabled.
It’s a story that continues to inspire Marco Pasqua, 30. He’s a Rick Hansen Foundation ambassador and an inspirational speaker who has looked to Hansen as a role model and mentor. For Pasqua, there is no intergenerational blame. “That’s not productive … or true. It’s important for us [millennials] to respect the knowledge and experience of the generations that came before us … they really do understand some things.”
Pasqua has had cerebral palsy his entire life but, as a boy, he saw what Hansen was doing and was determined to emulate his hero. “Rick has shown me that you need to do things that are greater than yourself,” said Pasqua. “He told me once that you are only as good as the last person who remembers you. I live by that and I try every day to be the sort of person who can carry on his legacy and overcome the obstacles that face all of us.”
For Hansen, the obstacles that currently occupy his focus are those that stand in the way of making the world a little better for the disabled. “By 2030, we project that there will be a billion disabled worldwide and nine million disabled in Canada alone. Multiple generations have to put their shoulder to the wheel and address the challenges … with the disabled and with all kinds of other problems. The human journey is wrought with ups and downs … we just need to meet the challenges head on.”
But Hansen also says that the same principles apply to any of the world’s problems.
“Social change is a marathon in which every generation improves on the one that came before it,” he says. “There are different choices in life … one can opt to complain and blame or one can choose to identify problems and become part of the solution.”
Privacy by design
But what happens when a problem has become so pervasive that no solution seems possible?
If you’re Ann Cavoukian, you rewrite the narrative to reject the negative assumptions. Then you get on with the job.
At 63, Cavoukian is a baby boomer who, while she is involved in a very different field of endeavour, still applies Hansen’s approach to solving problems rather than complaining about them.
For 15 years, she worked as Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner and, in July 2014, she left that post to become the executive director of Ryerson University’s privacy and big data institute.
That’s her passion; she believes that privacy is critical to all generations in an ever-more interconnected digital world.
“The real danger,” says Cavoukian, “is that we see headlines all the time that tell us that privacy is dead. If you hear that message often enough, especially as a young person, you may come to believe it. But it’s just not true.”
Cavoukian has passed that philosophy on to Khushi Sharma, 23. She’s an IT graduate at Ryerson who currently works at the institute as a project co-ordinator. “I’ve been mentored by Ann, and it’s helped me to change my perspective,” says Sharma. “She and others from her generation have the experience to give us a perspective that we often don’t have yet.
“You might think that it’s us [millennials] who are all tech-capable,” says Sharma, “but it’s Ann’s generation that gives us the perspective to understand that things like social media are a two-edged sword. She’s shown me why the issue is critically important.”
Cavoukian says that she sees the loss of privacy as a tipping point issue. “As a member of the baby boom generation, I know that historically the loss of freedom is always preceded by the loss of privacy. Freedom and liberty have always been tied to personal privacy, and we’ve seen what happens when it’s taken from us on a state-wide basis.
“Baby boomers created this problem, albeit not intentionally,” says Cavoukian. “We were there when it was all just starting and we were enamoured with the technology. Then it grew at this unprecedented rate, and we didn’t recognize that we should have been imbedding protections right from the beginning.”
These days, Cavoukian talks to a lot of young people about the issue, raising their awareness. “It’s a myth that young people don’t care about privacy … they do. But they care about it in a different way. They care about what their parents see … or their friends … or even employers. What they don’t realize is that there is a bigger issue involved … the loss of privacy and freedom at a state level.”
Cavoukian says that the boomer generation has to work with millennials to raise awareness and change attitudes about this issue.
“I reject the message that it’s too late … all of this can change tomorrow if we change our attitude. It’s doable, but the will has to be there. We need to get the message to the younger generation.”
Reach for the stars
Perhaps, in a discussion of intergenerational blame and collaboration, it’s only fitting that the final profile of this feature is not of a baby boomer but of one of the generation X – that’s a child of an early boomer (she was born in 1971) who are now parents of the youngest of the millennials.
Sara Seager is an astrophysicist, a professor at MIT and a leading researcher in the search for exoplanets (earth-like planets) outside our own solar system. She developed the Seager Equation, a method for estimating the number of habitable planets in our galaxy.
“There are billions of stars, and it’s quite possible that every star has some sort of planetary system,” says Seager. “And some day, we may travel to those planets … I believe that we will … but it won’t be any time soon.
In the meantime, we have this planet, and it’s important that while we search for other worlds, we take care of the one that we have.
“It’s easy for them [the millennial generation] to blame the baby boomers … in fact, they blame my generation as well … for the problems that we have on our planet,” says Seager. “But no one did this intentionally. The truth is that we just didn’t know what we were doing. We needed energy so we went out and got it. We burned fuels without knowing what the infusion of gases to the atmosphere would actually do. We made a lot of mistakes … every generation has.”
But Seager, 44, says that the millennial generation has to recognize that it’s also the baby boomers and generation X who have been working to figure things out and make the world a better place.
“At MIT, we get the cream of the crop of the millennial generation. They are motivated and curious and brilliant in many ways,” says Seager. “Yet there actually is, among some of them at least, a hard-to-define sense of entitlement. Maybe that’s the most important thing that we can work to overcome. We need that generation to recognize that this planet is a lot of work … and that they have to join us and get to it.”
A version of this article appeared in our May 2016 issue with the headline, “Beyond the Blame Game,” p.60-65.