Generation Squeeze and Overcoming Inter-generational Conflict

The past couple of days I’ve been reviewing the Generation Squeeze website. Gensqueeze.ca brings together advocates for young Canadians in their 20s, 30s and 40s. The group is intentionally modelled after the Canadian Association of Retired Persons [CARP], a lobby group for 50+ Canadians.

It might be asked whether we want lobby groups based on age cohorts at all. GenSqueeze claims to seek a “Canada that works for all generations,” and invites the membership of “concerned parents and grandparents.” Yet this inclusive message is contradicted by a thrust in its policy messaging that seems grounded more in generational antagonism than solidarity. For example, it is hard to ask the driving research question, “How do government investments in older generations of Canadians compare to investments in younger generations?” without pitting these cohorts against one another.[1]

I really want to love GenSqueeze. I am a precarious worker myself, and worry about my kids ending up in the same boat: over-educated and underemployed. I teach undergraduate students who are deeply anxious about their futures, and talk to graduates whose hopes and talents are wasted in minimum wage service and hospitality jobs. I’m also pissed off by the lack of recognition, compassion, and respect accorded Millennials in the mainstream media — as if their concerns for housing, starting families, and making a difference in the world come out of a sense of “entitlement” rather than our common, human need for a sense of purpose and efficacy in our lives.

So I want to love GenSqueeze. I really do. But I’m disappointed. There’s a strong B.C.-centric vibe, but that’s not the fault of the organization. It’s young, and getting currency across Canada’s vast territories is a Herculean task. There’s also a strong emphasis on affordable housing — Vancouver based and creeping in to Toronto. That’s working against a broad policy-oriented presence for the group, which must, I think, be careful not to drift into a single-issue lobby presence.

My deeper disappointment and concern, however, is with the — well I’m just going to say it: the lack of a radical vision. GenSqueeze has a fantastic, colourful social media and advocacy set-up that seems to call for and promise significant social change. But, the group is ultimately status quo in that its goal is to achieve more “stuff,” — more social goods like those enjoyed by older generations, including housing “good jobs” and cheaper tuition. This position is understandable. Millennials are poised to do worse than their parents, despite being more educated. It’s not hard to see the inherent unfairness going on here. But the “we deserve stuff too” argument still ultimately only re-asserts an established, individualist, liberal vision of the good life. It’s not a particularly imaginative vision, nor does it speak particularly well to the deep drivers of social inequality.

Policy advocacy based on “we want what are parents and grandparents have” is flawed on two important counts. First, it fails to recognize the fundamentally different economy within which we are operating. Calls for cheaper housing and “making it easier to find good jobs” presumes that there are reasonable stocks of these in the first place, as if policy tinkering will generate these social goods. We need a way bigger re-think than this. There is not enough affordable housing or good work to go around, and this is a consequence of deep structural conditions that are not resolved by simply lobbying for “more.”

This leads to the second and related flaw in GenSqueeze thinking. I’ll loop back to the generational antagonism here: Do we want or need advocacy groups that pursue generational interests? It seems to me that, in a world that is already deeply divided and angry, we are more than ever in need of political movements that reach across difference and find solidarity in purposes. GenSqueeze hints a little bit at this kind of thinking when they point to under-investment in early childhood and environmental degradation as broad social harms. But these positions are very weakly advocated next to the “we want more stuff” focus that otherwise dominates the site’s messaging.

I’m still glad GenSqueeze is around. Certainly, mainstream political parties have utterly failed to speak to the under-30 crowd, and I don’t blame these young citizens for calling bullshit on politics and either checking out, or seeking alternatives. The fact that GenSqueeze exists at all and is trying to rouse some collective action is encouraging. It will be interesting to see where the group goes, and whether it can transcend “us or them” intergenerational tensions to show leadership with respect to social issues that ought to bind us all, young or old, in looking out for each other.

[1] See GenSqueeze research and policy page, http://www.gensqueeze.ca/research_themes.

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