Also read Dakshana Bascaramurty on why the Millennials' sense of entitlement is fair. Join Margaret Wente and Dakshana Bascaramurty at 1 p.m. ET Monday to discuss the Boomers' retirement and the Millennial generation's future.
Please don't resent me because I'm a boomer – although I wouldn't blame you if you do. The government has made it very clear that the concept of shared sacrifice does not apply to my generation. Unlike people under 54, we boomers will get every penny of the Old Age Security benefits we've been promised, and probably all the health care, too. Think of how we'd squawk if they tried to lay a glove on us. We're entitled to our entitlements!
We are the gilded generation. Things have always gone our way. We grew up in brand-new suburbs and went to brand-new schools. We never had to fight a war. University was practically free. My future husband (he's a boomer, too) and I graduated from university with zero debt and found good jobs right away. Nobody had heard of unpaid internships back then.
Here's how I landed my first job after university, with a major book publisher: I saw an ad in The Globe and Mail, picked up the phone and got hired the next day. Three weeks later, someone quit, and I was promoted to head of publicity. I didn't make much money, but I had an office and a secretary and an expense account. I was 22.
In 1967, my future husband marched on the Pentagon, and helped to end the U.S. military draft. (Compared to the protest movement of the Sixties, the Occupy movement is a toothless tiger.) Then, like most of the love-bead generation, he joined the Establishment. He got a job in Canadian TV. There were only two networks then, so the industry had high profits and hardly any competition. Pretty soon he was making twice as much as television producers make today.
Real estate was very good to us. In 1980, I borrowed some money from my mom and paid $95,000 for a decrepit house in Toronto's up-and-coming Beach. Mortgage rates zoomed to 17 per cent. That was scary. But I got raises every year, and a combination of inflation and soaring house prices did the rest. Between the mid-1980s and 2008, we boomers enjoyed the most prolonged period of prosperity in modern times. By 2010, modest investments in Toronto real estate had made many paper millionaires.
At work, I joined an excellent defined-benefit pension plan. New employees don't get it.
Not all boomers are as lucky as we were. I know plenty of folks (especially women) who can't afford to retire and need every cent of Old Age Security they'll get. Yet I also know that lots of younger people won't have it as good as we did. You want a union job at a car plant? You'll make a lot less than your elders do, and you will never catch up. The airline industry will never pay what it once did either. Students today typically graduate with $25,000 worth of debt, then take a few more years to latch on to the job market. The modest house my mom helped me buy now costs a modest fortune.
As for an inheritance, the Millennials shouldn't count on one. Unlike our own parents, who thought it was immoral to dip into their capital, we boomers would rather spend our savings than preserve them. Whatever money we have left after travelling the world will disappear pretty fast once we check into that upscale assisted-living home, at $7,000 a month. Did I mention that we'll live forever?
We boomers have been the biggest winners from the social-welfare state. Today that state is stacked against the young. In Canada, we spend twice as much of our national income on health care as we do on education – but health care mainly benefits the old. According to a recent C.D. Howe report, annual health-care costs for a person over 65 are three to four times greater than for someone under 44. For a person over 85, they're 12 times greater. As the boomers age, the math gets ugly. By the 2020s, nearly 17 per cent of Canada's GDP will be spent on health care – up from 12 per cent today.
You know where this is going, don't you? The welfare state as we know it can't last. The rollbacks to the OAS are just the start of broader changes. Some time in the next few years everybody will have to start paying more for health care, through higher taxes, private insurance, means testing, user fees or some mix of those things. This will affect future generations a lot more than it will us. The boomers' kids, and grandkids, will never get a deal as good as we have.
Should we boomers feel guilty about this? I think so. We like to say we earned it, and I guess, in part, we did. But we also won the birth-year lottery. Perhaps we shouldn't cling so stubbornly to our entitlements. Perhaps we owe something to the future. Perhaps it's time to pay it forward.