VANCOUVER — Canadians will next go to the polls in a federal election sometime in 2015. During the campaign, candidates are likely to emphasize family values, and some will claim they put "families first." But there is little evidence that any of the parties truly understand a family like Joanne McCullough’s.
Joanne, age 38, is a mom of two. She and her husband are small business owners — proprietors of the Golden Taps pub in beautiful Golden B.C. They work hard to cope with high housing prices. It now takes 15 years for the typical 25 to 34 year old to save a 20 per cent down payment for an average home in B.C., whereas it took just five years in 1976. To compensate, Joanne shoulders a part-time job on top of their small business, working as the early childhood co-ordinator in Golden.
Joanne and her husband are squeezed further because child-care services for their kids would cost the equivalent of another mortgage. This added expense comes after they sacrificed many, many thousands of dollars from their household income to spend enough time at home when their kids were really young.
Joanne is not alone. Many others under 45 ask: why are families unaffordable (FU) today compared a generation ago? This FU is far more offensive to generations in their prime child-rearing years than any four-letter slur.
Joanne used to feel ashamed. Ashamed in front of her parents, who enjoyed a far more solid economic foundation when they were her age.
But her shame disappears when she learns it’s not her fault that young people’s wages are down when compared to 1976, nor that housing prices are 80 per cent higher across the country. That’s just bad timing.
Joanne decided to shine a light on the bad timing for everyone in her community to see. Her strategy is simple: reclaim the "sex, drugs and rock & roll" of the 1960s and 70s. Back then, when people were drinking and dancing, they were also debating the war in Vietnam, civil rights, and gender equality. For Joanne, the time, income and service squeeze with which so many in her generation struggle is now a problem of similar magnitude. She thinks Canadians of all ages must rediscover fun ways to talk about the squeeze in order to add their voice to this generational story. So she hosted a WTF? Party (Where’s the Family?) and packed her bar full with citizens from Golden, including the mayor and many on council.
Some try to discredit younger Canadians like Joanne for being ‘entitled’ when they propose policy change to reduce the squeeze. Such critics ignore the facts. Each year governments spend around $37,500 per Canadian aged 65-plus (mostly on medical care, CPP, and OAS). By contrast, governments spend just $9,200 per Canadian for those under 45 (mostly on Grade 1 to 12, post-secondary, EI and medical care).
While higher spending per capita on retirees makes sense because aging brings frailty, the gap between spending on older and younger generations merits scrutiny, especially since wealth among Canadians approaching retirement today has tripled on average compared to the same age group in 1976.
Adding just $1,100 to annual spending per Canadian under 45 could save families from paying the equivalent of an additional mortgage when they stay at home with a newborn or use child-care services. The resulting savings would be enough for the typical young family to pay off student debt, or put aside a down payment five years sooner, or reduce their mortgage faster, or invest in an RRSP that with compound interest will add $193,000 to retirement income.
Narrowing the generational spending gap is the policy solution for which Joanne aims. By hosting WTF? Parties or Gen Squeeze picnics, galas and get-togethers, she believes Canadians can have fun while influencing political parties of all stripes to acknowledge that socio-economic challenges are growing faster for younger generations, even as Canada’s population ages.
Paul Kershaw is a policy professor at the University of British Columbia.