Chapter 27: Are The Kids All Right? And Whose Fault Is It Anyway?

Ever since students in Quebec began protesting — and ultimately rioting — about the Liberal government’s plan to raise university tuition in that province by what was then supposed to be $325 a year over five years (and is now $254 over seven), I’ve been wanting to write about it. But I’ve also been leery of taking the plunge, lest I appear the classic Old Fogey bemoaning the failings of the younger generations. (“O tempora! O mores!” proclaimed Cicero, the great Roman philosopher and orator two millennia ago – a time when age was respected, in contrast to the infatuation with youth our culture has experienced ever since the end of the Second World War.)

But I figure I have a couple of pieces of street “cred” that entitle me to be critical in this case: 1. I created a number of youth-oriented TV channels in the past, such as Citytv, MuchMusic and Space, to name a few; 2. I don’t intend to implicate only the students for the spectacle in Montreal; a good deal of the responsibility rests with us — and by us, I mean our demographic; 3. I’ve spent most of my life going up against authority and conventional wisdom, so I would actually love to be able to join the kids in their protest and feel good about it.

But enough tap dancing! For me, the enduring mystery of student finance is that there’s always enough for an ounce of grass (or a case of beer) – and, amazingly enough, an ounce of good-quality Canadian hydroponic these days comes to just about $325 (plus or minus a bit). Lots of kids buy a case a week and an ounce a month, so what’s the big deal with an extra $325 a year, especially when you consider that, even with the increase, Quebec’s undergraduate tuition will still be among the lowest in the country. So, this does not seem to me like a great sacrifice to make for what is, after all, your future. If that education, if that future is not worth one month’s marijuana or beer, then perhaps they shouldn’t be there.

Of course, there are plenty of students for whom $325 is a serious amount of money and who don’t indulge in recreational substances. But what concerns me more is the case the student faction tries to make when someone points out that while any increase in the cost of educational services may be regrettable, there’s also no doubt that Quebec’s increases are long overdue and unavoidable. To which the students respond: “It’s easy for you boomers to say we should pay more, because when you were at university in the ’60s and ’70s, you had it much easier, both in terms of how much less it cost to go to school and how much better your prospects for employment were then than ours are today.”

While I’m willing to concede the second of their two arguments about tougher job prospects today (though the unpaid internship was not unknown in my day, indeed all through history; it was called apprenticeship), the claim that we paid less tuition is sketchier. A year of undergraduate classes at the University of Toronto in 1970 ran $550. Adjusted for inflation, that figure would today be $5,500. In this summer’s edition of U of T Magazine, in an article called “Tuition Is Fair,” Tomasz Bugajski,  a fourth-year history major, notes that his tuition for the past year was $5,787.29, which he considers “reasonable and balanced,” especially compared to university fees in other countries. He urges the school’s student union (UTSU) to stop spending so much time “arguing for free tuition” and to concentrate on more realistic campaigns, like lobbying “the administration to create — more opportunities to work or study abroad.”

Even if we accept that today’s college students have a slightly tougher row to hoe than we did, so what? At every stage of human history, different generations graduate into varying economic and social conditions. One generation might come of working age in an ascending economy, but just as they get a toehold in their professions, suddenly there’s a recession. Another might graduate into a weak economy but catch on just as the economy is strengthening. Nobody is born into a booming economy that sustains itself without interruption for 20, let alone 40 or 50 years. For those of us weaned in the booming ’60s, there were hiccups, and recessions in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, some of which, financially, were truly bleak. Not to mention the unique social pressures our generation faced. Yes, we grew up at a time when business was thriving but we were also the first to grow up in the shadow of the atom and hydrogen bombs. Is there an equivalent in Canada today to taking part in a nuclear air-raid drill in elementary school?

There’s yet another reason why the plaint “We’re suffering more than any previous generation” rings hollow. That’s because until this point in their lives – university tuition-paying time and post-graduation job-hunting time – today’s younger generations have, generally speaking, experienced precisely the opposite of suffering. With their boomer parents providing the perks, the kids of Gen X and Y have grown up in larger homes (1,000 square foot average in 1970 compared to 2,250 square foot average in 2006) with fancier cars, more vacations, more extracurricular classes and more big-ticket electronic toys than their parents ever did. They were pampered and protected and, worse, told that they deserved to have nothing but good things happen to them, simply by dint of existing at this time and place. And none of this was of their doing but ours! The great irony of the boomers as parents is that we’ve deprived our kids in the very act of spoiling them. We’ve denied them the school of hard knocks, the learning and the skills that come from hardship. Everybody’s who’s ever achieved anything has had to overcome obstacles.

But boomer parents infantilized their children by not allowing them to play in the dirt. This isn’t just a metaphor. According to a recent article in the New York Times by Jeff D. Leach, a science and archeology writer, there is increasing evidence from controlled studies that “the alarming rise in allergic and autoimmune disorders during the past few decades is at least partly attributable to our lack of exposure to microorganisms that once covered our food and us.” If we were to reintroduce dirt into our lifestyle, the research he cites suggests we would see a reduction in, among other diseases, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis and several allergic syndromes. In other words, hurdles and setbacks in life are the helpful germs of which we’ve deprived the kids.

Growing up, in addition to putting in long days at school, I was variously a busboy in a nightclub, made deliveries for a drugstore, set pins in a bowling alley and tutored the not-so-bright offspring of the higher bourgeoisie. Of course, I had the huge advantage of having to do it. The distraction of choice was something I just couldn’t afford. Actually, it might have harmed me. That’s why I say cherish your challenges: it’s in your response to them that you will define yourself. And so, in that sense, you could say that we boomers aren’t so much holier  than thou as, maybe, luckier than thou. Many of the things that are ordinarily seen as deficits turn out to be pluses; the extra grit that makes the pearl. In contrast, apparently some boomer parents drove their student children to the protests because they’ve always driven their kids everywhere and, after all, they’re the ones who will  be footing the bill. If true, that story says it all.

Does this mean I think there’s no hope for the next waves? Of course not! There is good wine in every generation. And, in a way it might be said that, finally now, in these confrontational actions like School Strike and Occupy, they are getting their version of a baptism of fire. Ironically, some of those marching in Montreal will find that very experience to be the challenge that’s formative in their lives, that turns out to be fundamental to what they become. Undoubtedly, a couple of them will emerge as union leaders and politicians.

My dad, Aaron Znaimer, was born just in time and in just the right (which is to say, wrong) place (Eastern Europe) to catch the tail end of the First World War, the full flood of the Second, the Depression and crazy anti-Semitism and mass slaughter in between. Once in this country, with its many peaceful marvels and neuroses, he used to say in Yiddish: “Fin gitkeit, cricht min a crenk” – roughly, “from too much good, you get cuckoo in the head.” Sixty years later, Tomasz Bugajski, the U of T history student who wrote the article I mentioned above, put it a slightly different way:

“Not only is what we pay for our education a fair deal, it’s also possible (believe it or not) to find a benefit to fees. My parents paid my entire first-year tuition. But as an immature 18-year-old, I neglected my school work and even failed a few courses. To my surprise, my mother announced that she wanted me to pay her back for the classes I failed, which I eventually did but only after a gruelling three years of working numerous minimum-wage jobs. When I returned to school, five years after my initial foray, I had a much stronger sense of the value of my education and I succeeded for the first time. Had I not felt the cost of my studies, I’m not sure I would have learned the same lesson.”

Dad couldn’t have said it any better.

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.