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LOOKING BACKWARD, LOOKING FORWARD: PART 2

FORCE TWO: FROM THE GREENING TO THE GREYING OF NORTH AMERICA: THE NEW GERONTOCRACY AND WHY IT COULDN’T BE MORE POORLY TIMED

[Ottawa – January 2, 2013] Canadian society has never been older. The more apocalyptical grey tsunami scenarios are no doubt exaggerated as we can see in successful Scandinavian societies which are faring very well despite the ‘pig-and-python’ demographic. Yet there is something disturbing about the new generational fault lines in Canada.

These problems are expressed clearly in both the economy and even more vividly the political realm. Youth unemployment is extremely high, the notion that post secondary human capital is worth the ever mounting debt associated with it is weakening and the new gen Y and millennial entrants find a labour market cluttered at the far end with the stubbornly entrenched boomers who have seen ‘freedom 55’ morph into freedom 75 and beyond.

Moreover, younger Canada is dramatically different from older Canada. It is much more ethnically diverse; it grew up digitally and has different attitudes to community, privacy and authority. It is also much more secular and better educated than previous generations. We also now see a widening gap emerging on core values as the socially conservative values still powerful in older Canada have little relevance to younger Canada.

All of these differences place young and old Canada in a state of often contradictory values and economic interests (noting large areas of coincidental values and interests as well). The tensions may be no greater than the enflamed tensions of the sixties and early seventies but one does not get the sense that the dramatic reforms to racial discrimination and civil rights, women’s’ equality, and the end of the cold war which resulted from that period of conflict are on the horizon for this generation. Couple this with an unusually grim outlook on the economic future and we can see the ingredients of a major problem for an aging society that desperately needs the innovation and dynamism of its younger cohort to fend off the daunting economic challenges we face.

When we look to the realm of politics in Canada, the picture grows darker still. Simple political arithmetic can make some of the point. Twenty years ago, younger and older voters were roughly similarly sized portions of the electorate (13 and 15 per cent, respectively). Today, older voters are relatively fifty percent larger share of the overall electorate (12 versus 19 per cent).

As the older cohort grew relative to younger voters, the young vote started to tune out. In the 1990s, voting rates among youth plummeted approximately 15 percentage points while seniors’ voting rates remained steady. Today, seniors out-perform youth on Election Day by a margin of nearly two-to-one. Effectively, a younger voter has about one-third to one-quarter the impact today that they did twenty years ago.

Throwing one final ingredient into the mixture we note that while the senior vote tended to be fairly evenly split across Liberal and Conservative options in the past it now shows dramatic convergence around the Conservatives. Putting these three factors together goes a long way to explaining why a federal government which champions values of security, safety, respect for authority, family values etc. has been so successful.

From the vantage point of political calculus, it makes great sense to consolidate a vote around emotionally resonant policies and communications which will appeal to a group that will vote en masse for you. By corollary, it makes sense to discourage the participation of younger voters (who won’t vote for you if they were to show up) through negative advertising and policy positions that are of little or reverse interests to younger voters. The net result, however, is a gerontocracy which reflects the exaggerated and imagined fears of older Canada precisely at the time when we urgently need the more optimistic and innovative outlooks of the relatively scarcer younger portion of our society. So good politics becomes highly suspect as a tool for meeting the severe challenges of the twenty first century.

This growing disjuncture between the public interest and what works in the realm of the political marketplace is a stern challenge and the mounting generational tensions in our society are just one particularly unwelcome expression of this.

Click here for the full report: Looking Backward – Part 2 (January 2, 2013)

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