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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.