You've heard about the Greatest Generation. Well, welcome to the Most Screwed Generation.
It's actually a multi-age pile on as three different generations claim whining rights over how its members have been the most severely affected by what's being called the worst economic crisis in six decades.
The squabbling over who's been hit hardest goes like this: "Pity us poor seniors and long-time pensioners. Our investments have been decimated, and we simply do not have enough years left to recoup our losses. At least we scrimped and saved. Now we're being asked, as taxpayers, to subsidize people like the soon-to-retire auto workers whose pensions have started to tank."
Meanwhile, their grandchildren, members of Generation X and Y, are rising up and shouting out their pain: "We didn't ask for this. We've got nothing. No job prospects, no houses and no more very excellent dining out the way we used to."
And, of course, we baby boomers are maundering on about, well, just about everything: not opening our RRSP statements because they'll make us cry, retirement plans put on hold (Freedom 95!), our houses worth squat (well, a little down from that fake million they were worth before this happened) and our pensions in the toilet.
Plus, we're so worried about our grown kids. And our parents. Bring on the violins, because we're clearly the generation most affected by this ghastly downturn.
Not so fast. Can we actually make that determination? I mean, without calling in an economist, many of whose predictions have been so scattershot during this mess that they are now on my do-not-call list? (There's a legendary story about the time famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a speech for former U.S. president Lyndon Johnson. He waited in vain for Mr. Johnson to commend him and finally asked him outright what he thought of the speech. Mr. Johnson apparently replied that a speech on economics was a lot like "pissing down your leg. It seems hot to you but it never does to anyone else."
Well, I can sympathize because any judgment about who's most affected by this crisis may feel warmly satisfying to some, but it's all pretty subjective. If you're laid off, it doesn't matter what your age, it's a disaster.
I hear snippets of economy-related conversation everywhere - a gaggle of twentysomethings went by me on the street and one kid said to the others: "Oh, if you've got a government job, you're fine." Online comments confirm not just people's own anxiety but a high level of resentment about anyone else's. Take the response to a recent column by my colleague Leah McLaren, in which she had the temerity to list her thirtysomething fiscal grievances right down to admitting she was peeved because now she wouldn't even be getting an inheritance. "How do you spell sense of entitlement?" one poster fumed. Another pronounced: "People need to get a grip and adapt, that includes the endlessly whining and self-absorbed and overly spoiled boomer children. Your timing in the cycle may be wrong, but there are no guarantees that life is fair, despite maybe having been told the contrary."
On CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup last Sunday, host Rex Murphy chatted with mainly seniors about pension woes. Despite a recent rally by auto workers at Queen's Park demanding that the Ontario government back up their jeopardized pensions the way they had been promised, almost no caller thought that was a good idea.
I was struck by how proud these seniors were of their lifelong ability to not only make ends meet, but to save for their retirement. "We worked hard," said a widowed doctor's wife of putting three kids through university. Only now her investments were down 40 per cent and she had decided "to take out extra from the bank" because she wasn't prepared to go into assisted living or even into a condo. "I hope everything remains relatively pleasant," responded Mr. Murphy, a touch dryly.
But a friend of mine in her 80s, a former family therapist, thinks most seniors are shrugging this mess off: "This is life. My generation knows that what we see is what we will get. There will not be much recouping of our money in our lifetime." My friend thinks her children, the soon-to-retire middle-aged boomers "are the most vulnerable group," while her grandchildren may have "the biggest lifestyle readjustment."
Well, I'm not any more worried about our children's futures than I already was before this mess hit. Once they find what they want to do and figure out a way to get paid for it, their lifestyle - or lack thereof - is up to them. They have years to figure it out.
As for boomers, many of us are sitting prettier than we care to admit. Yes, most of us don't have fat pensions, but we have our houses, we have our registered retirement savings plans - and many of us will see our investments turn around eventually.
In fact, this recession may have done boomers a favour by sparing them any languorous "how do I fill my time during retirement?" blues. We now have an incentive to rededicate ourselves to meaningful work. It's called the wolf at the door.
So who is the most screwed generation? I'd have to answer it's the one paralyzed by self-pity. Not yours, of course.
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