Chapter 25: A Dangerous Myth

The war of generations and how to fight it.

In 1896, William Randolph Hearst, owner of the muckraking newspaper the New York Journal, dispatched a group of artists to Cuba to record via drawings the atrocities purportedly being committed by Spain’s General Weyler against the inhabitants of that island. One of the artists, Frederic Remington, wired New York that the reports of the carnage had been exaggerated. Hearst wired back, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” The statement was grandiose but accurate. Hearst’s shameless hyping of Weyler’s crimes against civilians was largely responsible for America becoming embroiled in what became the Spanish-American war, today widely considered the first “media war” ever fought.

In an equally overblown way, in my opinion, and for some time now, the North American press has been hyping what’s become known as the War of the Generations, specifically between the younger generations called the millennials, the gen-Xers and the older boomers – i.e., us. The selling of this war is based on a set of grievances the younger demographic supposedly nurses, in response to a collection of crimes the older generation has supposedly committed – or will commit – against them. First are the health-care grievances: as Canada and the world ages, we’re told, health-care costs will rise astronomically with no end, leading to an unsustainable crisis for those who come after. Second is the employment grievance. By refusing to retire and make way in the natural progression of worker attrition, we’re stealing jobs from the younger generation and preventing them from having the security we enjoyed as a smug birthright; we are the agents of their unemployment. Last comes the greed grievance: we are the quintessential “me” generation, goes the party line, concerned only for ourselves. A timely piece of evidence is our recent agitation against the federal government’s announced plan to raise the age of eligibility for Old Age Security (OAS) benefits from 65 to 67.

That these characterizations are half-truths and canards becomes evident from consulting the news these days, but you have to look past the front page to find it. While end-of-life health care is undeniably expensive, until that relatively brief period, the vast majority of older people are generally healthy. And although health costs in general will still undoubtedly increase as our generation ages, “some of the best research” cited by the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation indicates that the effect of population aging itself on health expenditures will be “modest in comparison to that of other cost drivers, such as inflation and technological innovation.” In fact, the impact of our gang’s aging could be as low as a “one per cent [increase] per year between 2010 and 2036.”

As for the employment-retirement charge, the fact is that, present economic uncertainty aside, the longer term looming problem for Canada isn’t unemployment but underemployment: the Conference Board of Canada predicts that as early as 2020, Canada may face a shortfall of nearly one million workers. According to a joint report issued in 2011 by the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) and the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), the shortfall crisis in the information technology, accounting and finance fields is already here. Statistics Canada adds all skilled labour and health-care jobs into the mix: “In 2006, there were 1.9 Canadians aged 20 to 34 entering the workforce for every person aged 55 to 64 leaving it,” notes StatsCan. “There were 2.7 replacement workers for every retiree five years ago and, 25 years ago, there were 3.7.” (According to BCBusiness magazine, the percentage of the Canadian population that works peaked in 2011; it’s already dropping.)  Because our Zoomer generation is massive and the following generations smaller, there will ultimately be more than enough jobs for everybody; and society would be stupid not to take advantage of the older worker’s knowledge and experience. By continuing to work, Zoomers are fulfilling a need and adding more to the tax coffers, which we already fund disproportionately. Today, the 55-and-over crowd in Canada makes up about 25 per cent of the population but 33 per cent of the tax filers. By 2031, projections say the 55-plus group will comprise 36 per cent of the population and nearly half of all Canadian tax filers.

As for our greed in opposing changes to OAS benefits: those changes, which don’t kick in till 2023, will never affect us anyway; anyone 54 and older today is grandfathered. Which means we’re really advocating for younger people!

So where’s the war? And why is the press hyping it so much? What’s in it for them? The stock answer is a quick and easy headline. A better question is who is actually responsible for this spectre of the generational war? According to Susan Eng, Vice-President of Advocacy for CARP, the culprits are those who have made a hobby of scapegoating boomers for a demographic situation that’s a function of the sheer size of our cohort and not of our volition: “The glib sensationalists, the pundits and politicians who use it [the so-called war] as a way to distract people and as an excuse to do nothing.” What the politicos and the younger generation should do for a start, says Eng, is abandon the strategy of confrontation and realize that while there are some very real problems facing us, the blame game gets no one anywhere. Zoomers are not going to shrink as a generation because our size is inconvenient.  Our size is a historical reality.  The key is to recognize that the interests of young and old are shared, and that the older generation is an ally in protecting those interests.  The key is simply to acknowledge the obvious; we’re all in this together!

This commonality of interest becomes crystal clear in the much-hyped end-of-life scenario, the tip of the “grey tsunami” that’s supposedly going to bankrupt the generations that follow. Again, while it’s undeniable that the last year and a half of people’s lives tend, typically, to be very costly – given our current infatuation with fancy drugs and equipment, intensive procedures and the specialists’ salaries that accompany them – nothing says that this has to be the case. In fact, often the procedures in question prolong agony as much as life and detract from our dignity and independence in the process. This is why the older generation has been spearheading the hospice movement, advocating for better home-care policy to help seniors stay safely in their own homes (like the proposed Ontario Healthy Homes Renovation Tax Credit) and broaching that ne plus ultra of unmentionables, assisted suicide (which a landmark report in Quebec recently recommended be made legal in “exceptional circumstances”).  All of these measures could improve the quality of a senior’s final years and save money. By the happiest of coincidences, a more dignified last chapter of life may also turn out to be a cheaper last chapter.

Think of Zoomers as advance scouts for the younger cohorts. We’re the perfect vanguard. We have unprecedented numbers and a historical proclivity for taking on the establishment. As with the OAS fight, most of the policy changes we agitate for will likely become fact not in our time but in the time of our descendants. That’s as it should be. The circle of life is not really a circle. All old people have been young, but no young people have been old. We’ve been there but they haven’t. What else can we do but try to send them messages from the future? What else can they do but glean tips about the land they’ll eventually visit? It’s all of a piece, the way we’re unavoidably related to each other; the way we need to care about and for each other. It starts with me taking care of you, my money paying for your education and welfare; it ends with you taking care of me (and me, of course, still worrying about you). The villain-and-victim model just makes us dread the future; the shared destiny model lets us think better is possible.

And what a future it’s likely to be! We’re standing on the threshold of a world we can barely imagine. If half the babies born today have a good chance of living to be 1001, if the dancing 100-year-old woman whose wedding has gone viral on the Internet is a curiosity today but won’t be rare a few decades hence, what will it mean for the current organization of life? At what age will we get educated or married or end our first career and embark on a second, a third, a fourth? One thing we can predict with certainty: erecting self-indulgent walls between us in future decades might sell a few papers (or what will come to replace them), but it won’t improve the human condition.

In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ brilliant cinematic take on the life of William Randolph Hearst, inventor of wars, the final image is of regret, a child’s sled with the brand Rosebud stamped on it burning in a bonfire outside the deceased mogul’s mansion. So let’s not mourn the past or fight over the future. Better to forge common cause and leave bitterness to the cynical souls who have nothing to offer any of us, young or old alike.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.