Smug boomers should give empathy a chance

Many of my fellow boomers have reflexively condemned the Quebec students protesting university tuition increases.

Many of my fellow boomers among the political and chattering classes have reflexively condemned the Quebec students protesting university tuition increases.

Images of rioters torching vehicles and trashing storefronts are as disturbing in Montreal as they are in Vancouver. Unlike the Stanley Cup thugs, the students have enough common sense to wear masks rather than bare their faces to Facebook.

Is a considered political act of vandalism or violence less blameworthy than hockey hosers acting out their frustrations?

Probably not, but at least they are due more thoughtfulness in critiquing their actions, especially when the vast majority of student protesters are behaving themselves.

Commentators are quick to point out that Quebec citizens pay the highest taxes to support the highest public debt and by far the lowest tuition fees in the land.

Quebec students this year paid roughly half the $5,400 average level of undergraduate tuition faced by students across Canada. Fees at British Columbia’s premiere or research universities are  about 10 per cent below the average.

I paid $450 a year for tuition at a Montreal university in the mid to late 1970s. Adjusted for inflation that is half what Quebec students pay now, before the proposed $350 annual increases over five years, and a fraction of what their counterparts across Canada are charged.

My share of the rent on a three bedroom apartment my first year was $50. The next year I moved to a rat hole below the tracks and paid even less.

As for other student essentials, beer was 25 cents a glass in the taverns. The provincial sales tax on meals kicked in at $2.25, so Montreal fixtures like Toe Blake’s Tavern offered lunch specials for $2.24 such as rib steaks and pigs knuckles. (In those lean student days, fat was a luxury rather than a problem.)

I paid for all of this with minimum-wage jobs such as a front desk clerk at a downtown hotel, while also supplementing my academic education. (A Palestinian co-worker disabused me of my unwavering support for Israel while seeming to learn languages as fast as tour groups arrived from faraway countries. A dark, handsome but diminutive Argentinian called me John Wayne while packing a pistol in case any of his hoodlum former in-laws showed up.)

The minimum wage was $3.25, about a third of what it is today across Canada. Meanwhile, average tuition costs are12 times what I paid. It is not surprising that so many students are buried in debt when they graduate.

According to a 2006 Statistics Canada study, the proportion of students graduating with debt rose 10 points in the previous decade to 57 per cent and the average debt was then approaching $20,000.

Without no student debt to worry about and a robust economy that provided immediate entry into the full-time work world, buying a house back in my prime was no sweat.

Try out that notion on your typical 20-somethings these days, whose employment prospects are slim and who faces a bloated mortgage to buy a house.

With the release of new census data this week, the debate about what to do about the demographic time bomb that ticks away as we boomers age has come to the fore – again. In the coming decades the ratio of workers to retirees is projected to drop dramatically, meaning there will be more people collecting old-age benefits and replacement body parts and fewer people in their peak earning and taxing years to pay for them.

This demographic scenario has been anticipated for decades but nothing was done about it; governments put no money aside to cover the looming tab.

When the federal Conservatives were first elected as a minority government they cut taxes and increased spending to buy more votes.

Now that they have a majority they are getting tough by cutting old-age security – for the youngest boomers and the poor saps who followed them.

There has been much discussion in recent years about the perceived sense of entitlement among younger people. Entitled yes, but what will be left?

Next time you boomer and Best Years parents are driving to the cottage with your adult kids, don’t be surprised if they change the channel in disgust when Bob Dylan starts to wail that boomer anthem “Forever Young,” which begins “May God bless and keep you always, may your wishes all come true.”

We would do well to remember the rest of the song about “truth” and doing for others, be a bit less self-satisfied, and do more to ensure that future generations have it as good as many of us have.

Raymond Masleck is a retired Trail Times reporter.

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