The Payback Generation

We are the payback generation. We are the generation that has to work harder, longer and better, not only to make ends meet, but to pay back the debts of those who came before us. That’s not to say the situation is so black and white—there really is a lot more to it—but still, we are coming of age at a certain moment in time and being shortchanged because of it.

This past week, the Canadian government announced in the new federal budget that Old Age Security (OAS) eligibility would be bumped up by two years. Everyone working in the country pays into the OAS system and, upon turning 65, is (was) eligible to receive a certain amount of money to supplement their retirement income. The changes mandated in the budget raise this eligibility age to 67. So while your grandparents and perhaps your parents would be eligible for their benefits at 65, you and I will have to wait an additional two years, even though we will have to work just as hard—or harder. The millennial generation gets the shaft, and the Baby Boomers emerge relatively unscathed. The initial reaction, that this is unfair, is understandable.

Truth be told, however, the changes to OAS aren’t necessarily unwarranted and they’re certainly not surprising. Such changes have become common throughout the developed world; we are all living longer, healthier lives, and the logic goes that we should have to wait longer to collect our pensions because, as a whole, we will be able to work longer. Further, the demographic crunch of a massive number of workers—the Baby Boomers—becoming eligible at the same time will place a huge strain on the system and deplete much of the funding, if changes aren’t made to the system. That is, if we don’t alter OAS now, when it’s our turn to retire there won’t be anything left in the pot.

The trouble is that we are trapped in a problem that isn’t of our own making. Young people entering the modern workforce face one of, if not the most, competitive employment markets Canada has ever known. There are more people looking for fewer jobs, and other options, such as co-op placements, are scarce. To add it all together, if you’re pursuing post-secondary education or entering the workforce in this day and age, you’ve certainly been dealt a poor economic hand in the great card game of life.

The forces working against our generation have really coalesced into a perfect storm. The boomers are living and working longer, so their positions aren’t opening up to the younger generation. Employers are able to pick and choose from a wide range of smart, talented, desperate young graduates because the market is so tight. When layoffs occur, younger workers are generally the first to be culled thanks to seniority systems. Throw in an overall economic downturn that is pressing down on everyone’s budgets, savings and employment prospects, and you have a recipe for a struggling, crowded, cynical generation of young workers.

The generation before us were the lucky ones, “the gilded generation.” They were born during the booming post-war years, growing up and maturing in prosperous and plentiful economies. There were no “unpaid internships,” and you would have been hard-pressed to find an entry-level position that demanded a Master’s degree or Ph.D. Tuition rates were low, and few graduates entered the job markets of the 1970s and 1980s with the crippling debt that is now all too common. The average student entering the job market today has a debt load anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000, and often even higher.

Ultimately, there is little that can be done. The deck has been stacked against us since long before we were born, and we must now bear the brunt of forces that were and are outside our control. As unfair as it seems, the boomers worked hard and deserve their benefits. They never intended to burden us, their children, with the conundrum we’ve inherited. We will pay for their retirements and benefits, just as they supported us, because that is how society works. They paid into the system, just as we must, and will take their due.

In all honesty, as young adults go in the world, Canadians are lucky. We are lucky to have a social security system at all, regardless of how dysfunctional it is becoming. The prosperity that preceded us has made us into the best-educated, most diverse, creative and resourceful cohort of workers Canada has ever known. We are the best and brightest, and the competition among us also forces us to use our minds to succeed. Even with the world of problems that we still must come to terms with, there is a silver lining. Our intelligence and wits, our drive to achieve and the knowledge that a strong work ethic is necessary for survival, will all help us weather the storm. It won’t be easy, but the payback generation will make it through.

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