Then and Now: the Great Divide
Each generation truly believes that they had it much harder than the generations who follow them. We’ve all listened to our parents’ and grandparents’ stories about trudging through three-foot snowdrifts as they made their way to school. That was then.
In our case, the case of baby boomers, it’s time to admit, albeit grudgingly, to having it easier than those who came after us. For all purposes, it looks like millenials, your kids and mine, are going to face a tougher, more cynical, more morally upside down world than we did.
At least up until now, as we, too, address the reality of uncertain retirements in rapidly fluctuating times. In tumultuous circumstances, it’s all too easy to make mistakes, to miscalculate, to be either glib or too strict.
The news is that for the first time in decades, home ownership is going down in Canada. A recent Toronto Star article shows “a modest but unmistakable decline in the number of 30-year-old Canadian homeowners. Only 50.2 per cent of millennials owned their homes in 2016, compared to 55 per cent of baby boomers, who were the same age in 1981.”
The Huffington Post adds, “In 2016, more than 9.5 million of the 14.1 million households captured in the census owned their own homes, a home ownership rate of 67.8 per cent…after 20 years (or more) of baby boomers flooding the real estate market.”
It’s no wonder that home ownership is out of bounds without the bank of mom and dad. The only properties that millenials can reasonably consider purchasing are condos and some anxious boomers, eager to downsize, are competing with 30-year olds, with the effect of pushing prices higher on these units.
Unlike millennials, we grew up in salutary times. My first house was a tiny beauty in Toronto’s Bloor West Village that I purchased below asking price for $60,000 in 1979. There were no other bidders on this yellow brick and my offer was conditional on financing, which I received in a blink of an eye from one of our big banks. Today that home must be worth close to $1,000,000.
At that time, wages were on the rise and home prices were shockingly reasonable. As soon as I graduated from university and landed a good-paying job, I bought one, as did most of my friends. We never thought otherwise.
That was then. Cynicism and apathy were not cool. Our role models were heroes or big thinkers or both. When we were small children Dwight Eisenhower was the president of the United States. Ike was followed by John F. Kennedy. At the same time in Canada, John Diefenbaker was the Prime Minister; next came Lester B. Pearson.
Whatever your political stripe, you can probably agree that these four men were leaders of principle and integrity whose election to the highest position in the land made sense. During World War II, Eisenhower was a five-star general and served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe. He supervised and planned the successful invasion of France and Germany along the Western Front. He helped liberate the Nazi concentration camps.
Pearson was an accomplished diplomat, ambassador to the U.S. and won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a settlement to the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis. Diefenbaker ushered in the first Canadian Bill of Rights and granted the vote to the First Nations and Inuit peoples. All four leaders put country before personal interests or private peccadilloes.
Today the public’s connection to its leaders is much more murky. Both millennials and those on the brink of retirement or struggling with a hard retirement can be overwhelmed by the inequities and the disruptions of this new century. Many long-cherished assumptions are no longer true.
Take the case of men and women in their 50s and 60s who are “surviving America in the twenty-first century.” The synopsis in Next Avenue of award-winning journalist Jessica Bruder’s book, Nomadland, outlines the story of older adults who “are not quite homeless, they are “houseless,” living in secondhand RVs, trailers and vans and driving from one location to another to pick up seasonal low-wage jobs, if they can get them, with little or no benefits.”
Many of these folks work for Amazon’s “Camper Force.” During the Christmas season, these workers pull items off warehouse shelves. They live on about $1000 a month.
The book describes “people who never imagined being nomads.” According to the author, some witnessed their savings wiped out during the Great Recession; some were laid off from good paying professional jobs and some “felt they’d spent too long losing a rigged game.” They’re downwardly mobile older Americans trying to get by in beat-up mobile homes while they criss-cross the continent searching for short-term work.
It would have been impossible to imagine this scenario at the turn of the century. Working people who retired before 2008, for the most part, could look forward to a peaceful retirement. In the U.S. that is no longer the case. Today cities across North America, including Toronto and Vancouver, are vying for Amazon to set up a second headquarters on their turf. This is where the low-paid jobs for seniors are divvied up: at huge warehouses where older adults walk fifteen miles a day pulling product from shelves for next day delivery.
Generally the situation is better in Canada. Yet a recent report by the Royal Bank shows that “households accumulated credit at the quickest pace in July 2017 since October 2011, with outstanding balances rising by 5.7% from a year-ago. This compared to a recent low of 2.6% in January 2016 and resulted in the amount of debt owed by Canadians climbing to nearly $2.1 trillion.”
Since writing about retirement for the last four years, I’ve come up with three building blocks for a good retirement, one that ensures that “nomadland” never clouds your future.
Unless you have a high paying job or own a successful business or you’ve inherited substantial wealth, the path to enjoying a good retirement is dependent on three things: a job with benefits and a pension, a two-income family, and the purchase of a home. Two out of three works fine. One often spells hardship.
During turbulent times, it’s easy to make mistakes, to run low on money, to spend above our means, to move house too many times, to ignore socking away funds for retirement or sticking to the budget. It’s easier to be profligate when public figures are imprudent, impetuous or downright dishonest.
When we grew up, following the leader made sense. That was then. Now we need to think for ourselves, be smart, make a plan and stick to it.