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the boomer shift

Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee is photographed with his son Eric Andrew-Gee, a Globe general assignment reporter, for a story on baby boomers.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

This is part of The Globe and Mail’s week-long series on baby boomers. Is Canada ready?

Marcus Gee is a Globe and Mail columnist. His son, Eric Andrew-Gee, is a general assignment reporter.

Marcus: We boomers are an extraordinarily lucky generation. I was born smack in the middle of the baby boom: May 3, 1955. Unlike my father, my uncle and my grandfather, I never had to go to war. I got a good education at a leading Canadian university for tuition of $450 a year. I got a job in my chosen field right out of school, at a newspaper with a strong union and generous pay and benefits. I bought a house in downtown Toronto for what now looks like a fire-sale price. I can rely on a company pension when I retire, not to mention Canada Pension, free health care and seniors' discounts.

I'd rather see these rewards scaled back, at least for prosperous boomers like me, than be a millstone around your necks.

Eric: It's true: You were lucky, obscenely lucky, and my generation will always resent you for it. (Hi, Dad!) The era of growing middle-class incomes and swelling government entitlements – on which you and your peers battened so gleefully – looks more and more like a historical blip. Smart people like Thomas Piketty insist that the Western world is re-entering a period of economic bifurcation, like the kind we had before the Second World War.

So the privilege checking is warranted and grudgingly acknowledged. Still, I wouldn't go overboard with the self-flagellation. In many ways, I'm happy to have been born a millennial. We have problems, sure, but many of them are the shadow side of huge underacknowledged advantages: a more competitive job market means way more people are graduating from university; living with our parents into our 20s is a sign we actually like our parents; a PC culture is merely a sign that we're way more enlightened about race, gender and sexuality than any previous generation.

Still, if you're expecting to be put up at the Ritz in your dotage, dream on – you've had it good, and don't you forget it.

Marcus: I'm glad you're not feeling too burdened by me and my generation. You can pay next time we go to the movies.

I agree that you guys have things we didn't. Supercomputers in your pockets. Cities that are much more diverse, cosmopolitan and lively than the poky, provincial Toronto I grew up in. (Our idea of exotic food was Italian at George's Spaghetti House.) A galaxy of potential careers – in computer animation, say, or international human-rights law – that didn't exist before.

My worry is that my spoiled generation, used to having it good, will demand a gilded old age that will weigh on yours. We spend far too much on the present, far too little on the future. Health care already consumes a huge chunk of government spending, and much of it goes to people in their final years. As the boomers age, that cost can only rise. Guess who is paying?

On the other hand, I saw my hero Davey Keon win a Stanley Cup for Toronto. So there. In effect, we've rigged the whole system to favour the present.

Eric: I'll pay for movies the second your narrow, semi-detached house with no real yard space drops below $1-million in value. (Also: C'mon, The Martian was totally worth two prices of admission.)

Seriously though: Boomers are loaded. Statscan estimates that you people hold more than half of Canada's wealth. A lot of that is in home value. We millennials, at least those of us living in Toronto and Vancouver, like to gripe about how lucky our parents are to live in these stately downtown piles that we could never afford. But those windfalls you're sitting on (and sleeping in) are the ticket to a future of intergenerational harmony.

The truth is, seniors have never been healthier or richer than they are now. That means they'll be living longer, but those extra years are going to be full of golf and skiing and Floridian vacations. Demographers talk about the "rectangularization" of life expectancy – a vivid if spooky image of long-lasting well-being and then sudden death. Of course health-care spending will go up as people like you get decrepit – but not as dramatically as a lot of people think.

So cheer up, Pops. If you lived, and sailed, until you were 90, then followed the rectangle's vertical line, you'd be right on trend.

Marcus: Long-lasting well-being followed by sudden death? Sweet. It's how most of us would prefer to go. Unfortunately, many of us will spend our last years in expensive decline. Even if we manage the long-lasting well-being, our final months will often cost the health system a fortune as it struggles to prolong the inevitable.

But let's not be too morbid. You're right: Most boomers can look forward to a comfortable retirement. Life, in so many ways, has never been better. All the moaning and groaning we heard in the recent election campaign strikes me as way overdone. The middle class is not about to disappear; seniors, as you say, have never been better off; and young people who work hard and get an education can still build a bright future in what is, after all, one of the world's most fortunate countries. Why else would so many people want to move here?

We just have to fix things so that the system tilts more to the needs of the future and less toward maintaining the well-being of those who already have it good. A future-focused Canada would invest more in education and infrastructure, spend less on benefits to the already prosperous and stop subsidizing existing companies and industries that would naturally disappear, or evolve, if left to themselves. As they said in the Clinton days, don't stop thinking about tomorrow.

Eric: Two words for boomers: ice floe.

Marcus: There won't be any. Global warming.

Eric: Yeah, thanks for driving all those yacht-sized American cars to all those sprawling air-conditioned suburbs all those years. I'm sure the tailfins were fun.

Meanwhile, people are starting to get wind of our Oedipal tête-à-tête. Another reporter just sent me this study as ammo: "Why does the federal government spend five times more per retiree than per person under 45?"

Hey, good question! Politicians definitely pander disproportionately to the canasta set (although it probably helps that the canasta set votes).

Still, I would say our bigger problem isn't that we coddle the old, but that we push them away. Compared with places like Italy or Japan, we treat the aged terribly. Go to any North American old folks' home and you get the uneasy feeling of being in a funhouse-mirror version of an Edwardian boarding school – a whole generation of people farmed out to be cared for at great expense by someone other than their family. Of course, it often makes good sense to put grandma in a home, if she needs specialized care, say.

Other times, it's just a drag to have your decrepit old parents around. North American culture fetishizes youth and stigmatizes aging. As our society gets older, that probably needs to stop. More three-generation households may be in the cards.

Dad, if you're wondering whether to take this as an invitation, my question is: Are you offering free babysitting?

Marcus: As long as you have babies that I can sit. Procreation is out of fashion. Having children has become a lifestyle choice – one that many people decide not to make.

As a boomer, I was lucky to grow up in a big extended family, with two siblings and 12 cousins. They are still important people in my life. A lower birth rate obviously means fewer aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews. I once met a young woman in China who, because of the one-child policy, had no aunts, uncles or siblings – only two aging parents to worry about on her own. There is a whole generation like her.

We are drifting in that direction. It isn't so much the economic cost that's worrying – fewer young, working people to support more older, retired ones – it's the social and psychological cost. It's an irony that, at a time when people are richer and safer than ever, they are choosing to bring fewer children into the world. In case I am being too subtle, I will spell it out: Boy, give me grandchildren.

Eric: Says the guy who had his first kid (me) at 35.

Anyway, it's all very well to have lots of kids when the banks are giving out houses for free and everyone's dream job is just a handshake away. Increasingly, it takes two degrees, or a degree and a bunch of internships, to land any kind of meaningful white-collar job. Then it takes a bunch of years toiling in those jobs to afford a house in a Canadian city. On top of which, people my age take longer to "find themselves" than your generation did. Social roles, gender roles, even things like manners are loosening if not disintegrating. More of us need to take a few years to sort out what kind of person we want to be before, you know, creating other people.

Which is all great! More education, still relatively affordable in Canada, is a good thing. So is the profusion of white-collar jobs. And the freedom to work out our personalities on the fly. It just means that we might start our families a little later than the boomers did. Though probably before we're 35 …

Marcus: You're right. My bad. If I'd started a family earlier I might have a whiff of grandchildren by now. Why repeat my mistake?

Today, it seems just about everyone delays having children, or puts it off till it's too late. Is it really just for economic reasons? Boomers like my parents weren't wealthy when they had kids. My dad came out of the Navy and built himself a career in advertising. It didn't pay that much. What they had was optimism. One of the reasons that the boomers had all those kids was because they believed in the future. Where is that spirit now?

There is so much anxiety in the air. Will our struggling young people ever be able to buy a house, get a steady job, be able to save for retirement? Most manage to find some kind of housing all the same – if not a downtown house in Vancouver or Toronto, then a condo or a place in the suburbs. Most who have good schooling find jobs. Most can save money if they stick with a plan. Perhaps y'all should stop wringing your manicured hands and do what my parents did: Get on with life.

Eric: Weren’t we worried at some stage that this wasn’t going to be personal or combative enough? So much for that. This is what WASP men do for therapy. I would also like to state for the record that I have never had a manicure in my life. I anxiously bite my nails far too often to need one.