Jordan: There is a generational war going on. Yeah, you might have heard. We’ve talked about it. We’re all guilty of it. We’re guilty of it on this podcast. You know what it sounds like
Newsclip: The cover of the new Time magazine taking a look at the millennials, also known as the “ME” generation. And narcissistic self-interested, unfocused, lazy, but entitled is the big one. The millennials and generation Z have the Peter Pan syndrome. They don’t ever want to grow up. Okay. Then your generation needs everything to be about you and that’s very upsetting to us Baby boomers because being self-absorbed in is kind of our thing.
Jordan: Memes and stereotypes and rants are fun. They’re great for getting attention online, but this week, a new project decided to actually go to the numbers and the science to answer some questions. Are millennials really lazy and entitled? Are the baby boomers keeping younger people from owning homes and finding jobs? Are old people living so much longer that they’re to blame for income inequality? Do people coming out of school these days really make less money than they used to? And, critically, is the generation gap really worse than it’s ever been, or are we just doing the same thing that we’ve always done? The same thing that it turns out is hard coded into our genetics. Are the boomers to blame? Are millennials to blame? Or is the real villain, the person who came up with the concept of generations in the first place? I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Marie-Danielle Smith of Maclean’s went to the numbers to try to figure out what’s true and what’s not when it comes to who to blame. Hey, MD.
Jordan: My first question for you is, where did the whole concept of the dual covers for this Maclean’s issue come from and the gigantic package you folks put together on this?
Marie-Danielle: You might’ve heard of a thing called, “Okay, Boomer”?
Jordan: We even did a podcast about, “Okay Boomer” so I even know what it means!
Marie-Danielle: Yeah, so this, so this was an idea that, uh, or I guess a retort that was popularized in the fall and prompted a lot of soul searching about whether there’s some kind of generational warfare happening and if it’s there, is it based on reality? Is it a creature of the internet? Um, and what’s behind it? We decided that we should go big with that idea and delve into it ourselves.
Jordan: What are the two covers?
Marie-Danielle: One cover has an older gentleman on the front and it says it’s all your fault Boomers. And then on the reverse side, it’s a younger woman and it says it’s all your fault Millennials. So depending on the way that you pick up the magazine, you’ll see one or the other.
Jordan: So, like I mentioned to you, we covered, “Okay Boomer” before when it was a meme, and we kind of just talked about, uh, the general assumptions, uh, that go on between generations and the rhetoric that gets thrown around. But you guys actually decided to try to look at the data and see, um, who has it better, who has it worse, who’s at fault? What kind of a process was that?
Marie-Danielle: Uh, well, this story is about everything if you think about it. The idea of age cohorts is just permeates everything in our society from work, um, to schooling, education, uh, money, business. Every, everything that you can think of has some angle to it that has to do with generational differences. So it was a pretty big task, um, to bite off and chew. And so I decided that, you know, there’s a few things we can focus on. Uh, we have statistics that show data, uh, to do with income inequality. We have evidence that younger generations are more mobilized on the issue of climate change. Uh, there’s a few areas where we can kind of. Dig deeper and dissect whether this difference between generations is, uh, is real? How big is it and how much animosity is it really causing, or is some of this just, you know, scuttlebutt on the internet?
Jordan: Right. And when you did look into that, what was the first thing you found that was different than you’d expect going off what the scuttlebutt on the internet says?
Marie-Danielle: Well, I guess, I mean, the first thing that I personally thought about when I was writing this story was, when I look at my own life and I look at my family and this the wide age range, uh, among my family and friends, I don’t feel a generational animosity right away. Um, I can’t really see it. Um, the ways in which I think we can all notice differences are in the beliefs, uh, thoughts and beliefs about policy, ideas, thoughts, and beliefs about the way that people should vote and what issues are important. Housing costs are very, very different for young people today than they were 30 or 40 years ago. But when we sit down at the dinner table, we’re not necessarily, um, having these raging debates over those issues. And what really, um, brings us together is, uh, without getting too kumbaya is, is love, you know, I mean, generations get along, uh, in a lot of ways. So I just wanted to figure out how crazy I was for thinking, uh, that we can all just kind of get along and enjoy each other. And how can we come together on some of these issues that do divide us?
Jordan: When you look at what boomers say about millennials and millennials say about boomers, what do they get right? That’s actually backed up by data, like who’s, who’s using real facts here?
Marie-Danielle: Well there’s sort of two competing narratives, right? And maybe first we can talk about what those narratives are, um, that are not necessarily backed up by data. This is what we typically see online: We see older people suggesting that younger people are entitled, um, that they don’t work very hard, uh, that they don’t appreciate the social progress that came before them, that they’re whining about their feelings online and that they’re not, you know, appreciating this sort of ground that was trodden by their forebears to get us here. On the other hand, you have younger people saying, you guys have been at the peak of political and financial dominance for a very long time. They’re saying to the boomers, listen, you had things much better than we did, and we are waking up to this now and we want changes and we feel hard done by, because you’ve used this power to benefit yourselves at our expense.
Jordan: So what parts of those narratives are true?
Marie-Danielle: A little bit of all of it is true and it’s– there’s some contradicting data here that I found quite interesting. Um, there’s a group in Canada called generation squeeze, which, uh, is sort of the primary group advocating for policies that help millennials and those younger than them. Their data that they’ve compiled, has a few key points that I think, um, illustrate the problems here. One is that. Your full-time income, if you’re between 25 and 34 it’s about eight times that income is, is how much you’ll pay for. For an average house, it was only four times your average income a few decades ago. They also claim, and there is some dispute here with some stats can data, which I can get into, but their claim is that generally speaking, millennials also make less money if you adjust for inflation than baby boomers did.
Jordan: Where does that come into conflict with StatsCan?
Marie-Danielle: StatsCan did a study recently that shows a slice of the millennial generation versus a slice of Gen Xers and a slice of baby boomers sort of when they were around the same age. Um, it doesn’t reflect the generation as a whole, and I think that’s where there might be some discrepancy, but what the stats can data shows is that on average, the median incomes for millennials at a, at a younger age. Is higher and the net worth is higher too than it was for Gen Xers and baby boomers. The, the caveat to that is that the debt, uh, for millennials is much, much higher. Um, and your net worth is higher because you’re accumulating assets that are more expensive. Right? Housing is more expensive, right. The median debt for a millennial, um, age 25 to 34, this study found is $35,000, um, versus $19,000 for gen Xers around the same age and $11,000 for boomers around the same age. So, so that’s where, um, generation squeeze and other advocates really like to focus because the debt load, uh, is what causes a lot of the, the anxiety that we see from younger generations.
Jordan: So what kinds of stuff then is the converse of that? What gets filtered into that narrative that is just not true when you look at the numbers?
Marie-Danielle: So when you look at, um, for example, uh, the idea that younger generations are lazy. There’s this idea that they, you know, boomers or older people sometimes feel, younger people act as though they’re entitled and you know, they’re staying at home for a long time. They’re using the bank of mom and dad to get ahead and they’re, they’re not working very hard and advancing in their careers the way they could if they just pulled up their bootstraps. Um. That’s not really true, if you look at the data, millennials are not working less. They’re not less interested in buying a house. They’re not less interested in starting a family necessarily. Um, they’re just sitting on fewer resources allowing them to do that at the same age as baby boomers did. Uh, the timeline has changed in a big way. Um, when you look at generation Z, which is the generation that’s behind Okay Boomer, right? They are the ones on TikTok, this, um, social media platform that we can, we can talk about. They are, uh, by all accounts, a very responsible cohort of young people. Um, the data show that. They are more cognizant of environmental concerns. They’re more socially aware than the generations that came before them. They’re drinking less, they’re taking fewer drugs, you know, they’re less promiscuous, or at least they’re having safer sex than then generations before them were. So on many fronts. And, and I’m talking to you about. Social, uh, social stuff, not just political and economic side of things, they seem to be pretty okay. And so we have this tendency, as older people to judge a younger generations negatively, and that’s actually written into our genetic code. That’s actually, studies have shown something that older people have always done when they’ve looked down at, at the kids. It’s not really fair if you look at it.
Jordan: That was something that I was going to ask you though, because it’s a fascinating element of your story is that how much of this is just our genetic code repeating itself, that old people are always like, Oh, kids these days?
Marie-Danielle: Yeah. And you know, I mean, you can find plenty of examples too, um, from the last 50 years of, uh, older people complaining about younger people and vice versa, right. I mean, this is not the first time that people have blamed the Baby Boomers for, you know, taking their jobs or hanging on stingily to power, people like Rick Mercer were talking about that when, when he was a much younger person a couple of decades ago. He’s ranting about it on TV, you know, so this is not new. And like I was saying, we also have evidence, scientific evidence to support the idea that, uh, this is just something that we do as humans. Uh, there’s this study that came out a little while ago that suggests that adults will actually judge young people according to the traits that they have adopted or the, the values that they have adopted as adults. They don’t remember what it was like to grow up. So if you as an adult, um, have developed sort of an authoritarian tendency, instead of remembering what you were like as a kid, you’ll judge the kids right now according to your current values. And you’ll think to yourself, man, they sure don’t seem to respect their elders or if right now you read a lot of books as a grown up, you don’t remember how many books you used to read as a kid and said, you think to yourself, well, these kids don’t seem to be reading very much.
Jordan: The other thing I found fascinating and should have known but didn’t, is that we actually haven’t had generations for very long.
Marie-Danielle: Yeah. Uh, this theory was only proposed in 1928 we’ve been dividing ourselves into these groups for under a hundred years, and we don’t know yet. I don’t think any consensus has been reached on whether that’s actually a good way of defining our societies. It might not make a lot of sense. There’s some research that I cite in the article too, that found generational theory, uh, is sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. See another generation as different, you will treat them differently. And so they turn out to be different because you’ve been treating them differently. So it’s, it’s unclear how useful this is actually as a way to define ourselves. Even though it makes sense in some ways and, and helps me to narrow down my statistical categories for this kind of reporting.
Jordan: This is a question I could probably ask, uh, about any topic we cover, but, uh, how much of this is made worse by the internet?
Marie-Danielle: So you could argue that it’s made worse because the internet has driven us to our opposite silos and made us sort of polarized in a new way. You could also say that the internet has made things a little better. Because for a younger generations today, they are being listened to on a new level and at a new scale because of social media and because of, you know, viral hashtags and beams, um, in a way that I think they couldn’t be before. Um, we’d today we had the media are paying attention. To the trends of, you know, 13- to 15-year-olds. Um, because that’s available to us. We can see some of the content that they’re putting out there. And I think that this positions them really well actually to take advantage of that and to sort of show us what they’re about and what they want to see in the world. And I think this is why people like Greta Thunberg and other young activists are seeing this global platform, um, that they might not have if we were still living in a time when adults were looking to, you know, MTV to see what the gen Xers were thinking about. This, just kind of a, there’s definitely a positive way to look at this. I think it’s, it’s a new megaphone for a young people as much as it has highlighted the divisions in our society.
Jordan: As you reported this piece and talk to people on both sides of the divide, that might not really be a divide. What do they have in common and where do they share common goals that they could actually work together on? And is that happening?
Marie-Danielle: Yeah, I mean, to some degree it is happening and, and I guess I would point to politics as a venue where a, while people might be extremely frustrated, there is sort of a slow progress in Canada. Our leaders are a younger, they are younger than in the U S for example, where we talk about, you know, Donald Trump being a baby boomer and all of the leading candidates for the democratic nomination in 2020 being baby boomers. Here we see a millennials increasingly represented in national politics, and you know, our prime minister is a gen Xer. Things like climate change, income inequality, and housing costs, even if we don’t have a wonderful solutions for them, we are talking about those things at a national level, and I think younger politicians especially are pursuing those issues in a big way.
Jordan: Well, you mentioned how old all of America’s politicians are. I mean, how much of this is exacerbated by the fact that the baby boomers aren’t really dying off the way previous generations might have at around that age? Right? Some of these people are going to live for decades still.
Marie-Danielle: Yeah. I mean, so this is actually a bit of a misnomer to, uh, something that, um, I was told by a representative of the CARP, the Canadian association of retired persons is that, well, you know, young people should just kind of wait their turn in a way, because they’re going to live so much longer than baby boomers even are, and they’re living so much longer than their parents and grandparents were. Everything’s just happening on an extended time table. Uh, the argument being that, you know, if baby boomers are going to live like, say a decade longer, and then millennials, maybe I’ll live another decade longer than baby boomers, it doesn’t matter if you buy your first house at 25 or at 45. Um, that’s not necessarily true though. If you look at the stats, uh, baby boomers have only got about four years extra on the previous generations. Yeah. Um. Longevity is certainly is increasing. Uh, life expectancy is up in Canada, and, you know, we have way more centenarians than we used to, but on average, you’re not looking at, you know, decades longer, necessarily, uh, in your life. And there’s also some evidence that seems to support the idea that millennials, uh, could live shorter lives than gen X or is, for example, there is a bit of research showing that because of high rates of anxiety, which I think you could argue, um, things like income inequality has in prices, climate change are contributing to, that they’re going to possibly not exceed the lives of those that came before them. This means that the argument is sort of bunk in a way. There’s still time for medical research to catch up, of course, and, and there’s plenty of progress ahead, I’m sure, but we shouldn’t act as though millennials have got these hundred and 20 year lives ahead of them that make it so that the struggles of their youth don’t end up mattering.
Jordan: Did you or Maclean’s in general, I guess come to any kind of conclusion at the end of this?
Marie-Danielle: It’s complicated. It’s hard to come to a conclusion. And I think you can look at the same set of statistics and factoids and arrive at different conclusions depending who you are and possibly how old you are, you might land on a different opinion, uh, after you’ve read the package that we put together here, and I think that’s what’s fun about it. We aren’t going to make that decision, but here’s, here’s the evidence. Here’s what we believe. For myself after doing reporting on this, after trying to actually go out there and find examples of intergenerational solidarity, I went to a place where seniors and students are volunteering together and asked them if they see much division where they are and their families. And I think on the ground you could make the argument that at least with certain causes, certain issues, there’s a lot more reason for optimism than there is her pessimism and that because of the internet, we have this opportunity to come together in a new way, even though it’s going to come with a lot of snark.
Jordan: That’s what the internet does best.
Jordan: Thanks, MD.
Marie-Danielle: You’re welcome.
Jordan: That was Marie-Danielle Smith of Maclean’s, and of course this has been The Big Story. Find us at thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN and find every episode of this podcast. Actually only the last 300 episodes, but that should be enough. Wherever you get podcasts on Apple, on Google, on Stitcher, on Spotify, on Castbox, you pick, give us a rating, give us a review, make sure it is five stars. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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