Couples and young families from Generation X and Generation Y (also known as “Millennials”) are struggling in today’s global economy. Various individuals and groups are studying their plight and publishing reports replete with advice on how to improve matters.
Dr Paul Kershaw is a self-styled “family crusader” associated with University of British Columbia’s Human Early Learning Partnership. They released a report in late 2011 calling on Canada’s provincial and federal governments to spend $22 billion for social programs to fix a declining standard of living for young families. Recommendations include subsidized daycare that does not exceed $10 in daily parental costs, a shorter work week and increasing parental (maternity) leave to 18 months. Unafraid of controversy, he blames Baby Boomers for the current predicament of younger families, whom he terms “Generation Squeeze”.
Baby boomers won the economic lottery and are soon to retire “as the wealthiest generation we’ve ever seen,” Kershaw said in one media interview. Some Boomers might beg to differ, notably those still paying off their children’s college educations (the usefulness of which, in some cases, seems to be inversely proportional to the expense), or those whose 20- and 30-something kids have moved back home—sometimes with unemployed spouses and children in tow. By some reports, fully 25 percent of Boomers have little or no retirement savings.
Late last month Canada’s Institute for Marriage and the Family (IMFC) released a report titled, The trouble with Gen X and Gen Y families: Why starting a family today is harder than it was for the Baby Boomers. The family values organisation contends that the older generation is not to blame for the problems, and that we need to consider other, heretofore unexamined factors.
“There is consensus that Canadian families today face a more difficult financial reality than the Baby Boomers due to longer periods in school, the declining value of higher education, higher home prices, higher taxes and a changing and less secure job market,” says the IMFC. “However, there is an elephant in the Canadian family’s living room and it is family breakdown.” While not the sole reason for financial difficulty, divorce and cohabitation in lieu of marriage are clearly trends that have concrete–and negative—economic repercussions, says the report.
To satisfy the social scientists, including the armchair variety, it acknowledges a chicken-or-egg conundrum: “It is impossible to establish conclusively whether the poor economy changed families, or whether changed families affected the economy.” However, it cites compelling evidence that strong families make strong economies, and conversely that family breakdown results in huge societal costs, financial and otherwise.
In an era of big government and even bigger debts and deficits one may therefore legitimately question whether it would be wise, as the saying goes, to throw good money after bad. The Kershaw plan, which would cap parental daycare costs (while causing the taxpayers’ share to soar exponentially) and reduce working hours (for an already shrinking workforce) is almost farcical: where will the revenue come from to pay for it? Will our legislators voluntarily relinquish their lavish pensions, decimate unwieldy bureaucracies, or cut programs that benefit large voting blocs?
National Post columnist Barbara Kay, noting the inter-generational friction, suggests that in such an economic battle the youngsters are bound to lose. Boomers are not only reluctant to give up their jobs, but they also cling to “untenably expensive government benefits, because politicians genuflect before our massive voting numbers.”
Boomer self-interest is only half the story, however. Ms Kay describes Millennials as “unrealistic, under-adaptive…cosseted, self-satisfied, [and lacking] humility and competitive drive.” Ouch. Kay Hymowitz, in her important book Marriage and Caste in America, is kinder to the post-1960s cohorts in finding that they lack a “life script”. In other words, they may have an idea of where they want their lives to go, but don’t always know how to get there.
Yet even some Millennials would agree with Barbara Kay’s assessment. I did an informal survey of Gen X and Y couples amongst friends and relatives (rendering this anecdotal rather than scientific), but it was interesting to hear their experiences and opinions, as well as those of their peers. Unrealistic expectations abound: for example, some couples in their first year of marriage expect to enjoy the same standard of living their own parents worked thirty years to achieve.
Among the XY-M couples who are succeeding at marriage, raising families, building careers, and home ownership, certain values and principles seem to crop up repeatedly: stable family of origin, strong work ethic, thrift, a willingness to postpone (or sacrifice entirely) certain material goods to achieve other goals (such as one parent staying at home with small children). Even apparently outdated notions such as a commitment to church attendance, premarital sexual restraint and lifelong marriage are part of their life script.
Not bad, for the children of those recalcitrant Boomers. Perhaps it’s of a piece with Ms Kay’s perception: “It’s an unusual war where the victors refuse to let the losers lose, offering generous shelter, sustenance and mentorship to the vanquished,” in what she calls “spontaneous kinship altruism.” Might that mean “family values”? Go figure.
But the return of destitute fledglings to the parental nest is at best a short-term solution, and one that obviously doesn’t work for 20-somethings and even 30-somethings whose parents are not in a financial position to assist them. “Public policy should allow Gen-X and Gen-Y to be more self-sufficient as they raise their families, needing neither to rely on funds from family, nor on government largesse,” insists the IMFC.
This is especially true in an era of staggering government debt, where, in future, the very existence of the social safety net may be in question. The West’s demographic troubles and governments’ fiscal troubles go hand-in-hand. In 1981 there were six Canadians in the work force for every retiree; by 2031 there will be only three. Gen X and Y cannot support the looming tax burden and thus, “We cannot rely on governments to create new institutions to solve the financial issues of both generations.”
In a positive vein the IMFC makes several worthwhile recommendations:
Allow Income splitting which lowers the tax burden on families and would benefit all families with children. Under current Canadian tax law, government daycare subsidies do not benefit families with one parent at home. Thus, one-income families bear a disproportionate amount of the tax burden, essentially subsidizing the dual-income couple’s childcare.
Restore the life script which puts love, marriage and children in the best order for life-long family stability, through a combined effort by communities, families and schools.
Teach the social science research showing there is a difference in outcomes between marriage and cohabitation — a job for schools, secondary and post-secondary.
Add civil society support. Based on the social science research of outcomes of marriage versus cohabitation, families, churches and broader communities should encourage children to see lifelong marriage as realistic and attainable
As laudable as the last three points sound, in today’s social climate one is tempted to say, “Good luck with that.” Governments have become so used to controlling education and interfering in the community sector at the behest of certain ideological groups (gender activists spring to mind) that it will be very difficult for them to pull back.
So it seems that the onus will remain on strong families to provide the best models for engendering domestic and financial success. Before you can live in an equitable, family-friendly society, you have to be the sort of person determined to build one. But that brings us back to the chicken and the egg.
Mariette Ulrich writes from western Canada. She blogs on Family Edge.