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Pity not the typical pensioner

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VANCOUVER -- Popular depictions of seniors, of whom I am one, often fail to reflect dramatically changing demographic and economic realities. Seniors are portrayed as surviving on fixed incomes with shrinking purchasing power, living in poorly heated apartments and eating endless macaroni and cheese dinners, sometimes without the cheese. While this portrayal of a vulnerable population captures the unfortunate circumstances of too many seniors, it also masks a very different larger reality.

Yes, seniors have relatively low incomes, but income should not be confused with wealth. Seniors who are mortgage free, who own their own homes, vehicles and in some cases vacation properties, are doing just fine.

Nor are their incomes necessarily fixed. Today's seniors, but likely not tomorrow's seniors, often enjoy private and public pensions indexed to the cost of living. Moreover, potentially higher interest rates will play out quite differently among those with no mortgages and substantial investments than they will among their younger compatriots.

The mismatch between cultural portrayals and economic reality has important political consequences. It allows seniors to wrap themselves in the flag of outdated stereotypes while obscuring their substantial political clout.

And, when it comes to resources, seniors are well-equipped to defend their interests in the political arena. They have the numbers, money, contacts, professional expertise and time needed for political engagement. They also vote at a much higher rate than do younger Canadians who are preoccupied employment and family concerns.

Although the political warriors of our time are commonly portrayed as 20-somethings immersed in the new world of social media, they are no match for the grandmother on the beach in Mexico, armed with the latest tablet (electronic, not medicinal), ample disposable wealth to support her causes, 850 friends on Facebook and the email addresses of federal, provincial and municipal leaders at the ready on her phone.

To use a phrase currently in vogue, today's pensioner is not your mother's pensioner.

Thus, while political leaders appear to worry incessantly about how to attract the elusive youth vote, they are always looking over their shoulder at the larger and more easily mobilized grey electorate.

Lingering cultural portrayals of seniors from previous times make it difficult for younger generations to press the argument that if there is truly a generation at risk, it is their generation that needs all the help it can get.

Youth who are audacious enough to promote their own interests, who are struggling with the challenges of young families, a difficult housing market and a very uncertain economy are dismissed as unappreciative and ungrateful.

As the senior population grows, as the infamous baby boomers begin to queue up for public benefits, we need to re-examine the financial benefits we confer too often on no longer poor pensioners.

My concern here is not with the myriad benefits that accrue to seniors from the private sector -- everything from reduced movies tickets and discounts at the neighbourhood liquor store to early-bird specials at restaurants.

Private companies should do what they want to pursue customers, although it is interesting to note seniors are the only demographic singled out for special treatment.

My concern lies with public benefits available to all seniors regardless of their financial standing.

Income supports for seniors -- transit passes, reduced property taxes in many jurisdictions, lower taxes for investment income than for employment income -- are walled off from vigorous policy debate.

The health-care costs for an aging population are largely borne by those generations who are still working.

To a modest degree, these benefits shift the tax burden from wealthy seniors to struggling young families. Our policy stance toward seniors is based on laudable compassion that too often ignores radically transformed demographic and economic realities.

Fortunately, there is a silver lining to this rather gloomy analysis, one that may forestall looming generational conflict.

If the grandmothers discussed above are well-equipped to defend their own interests in the political realm, just watch if the interests of their children and particularly grandchildren are threatened.

The best line of defence for Generations X, Y and Z may well be the grandmothers on the beach in Mexico, tablets powered up and chequebooks at the ready.

 

Troy Media columnist Dr. Roger Gibbins is the former president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation.


-- troymedia.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 25, 2013 A13

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