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Using Red Squares as Red Herrings: Scapegoating youth in the attack on progress

June 5, 2012

7-minute read

Why is it still, for some, a newsflash that reality for today’s youth is a solar system away from the world of just 25 or 30 years ago?

The thumbnail sketch is bleak: since 1987, incomes have stagnated for most Canadian homes—with two exceptions. The lowest income earners have actually lost ground while the wealthiest among us have disproportionately benefited. Meanwhile, people are working harder and longer than ever before, with less to show for it except maybe where sheer exhaustion is concerned. And then there’s household debt which has risen from 93% in 1990 to 150% today.

The infamous 1995 Paul Martin budget oversaw massive cuts to and restructuring of social programs, and a major change in the role and size of government. Since then, total government expenditures as a percentage of GDP fell significantly.  And while from 1975 to 1995 Canada’s system of transfer payments was key in reducing inequality, its role since then has declined, reinforcing the trend to greater income inequality.

Add to this toxic socioeconomic brew the fallout from declining levels of government support for higher education in Canada which has resulted in a number of new realities: over the past 30 years, government grants as a share of university operating revenue plummeted from 84% to 58%, and the share funded by tuition fees rose from 12% to 35%.

Yes, some researchers are fond of claiming that when fees increase (say, more than twice the cost of living in the past 30 years) it doesn’t reduce participation. Except among low-income families who are half as likely to attend post-secondary education in Canada.

But it’s revealing that decreasing fees appears to have a positive effect on participation rates. The publicly-funded CEGEP system is largely responsible for Quebec’s highest post-secondary education participation rate in Canada, allowing more people to pursue education when it makes sense for them. Newfoundland-Labrador rolled back and froze tuition fees and, in spite of an aging population, fewer students now leave the province to pursue a degree.

We know the vast benefits of accessible higher education—and not just physical accessibility. Societies that make this a priority tend to be healthier, have a more politically-active citizenry, enjoy greater levels of community and family involvement, and have more social mobility. There are economic returns as well, all of which means that the demand for public education—or public health care, or public child care—is not a request for “free” anything, or even not wanting to pay one’s “fair share”.

The question is; do we pay up front, with user fees which disadvantage people based on income and the personal debt incurred—something that will only worsen as governments continue to withdraw funding? Or do we pay afterwards, in increased levels of income tax which guarantees we pay what we can “afford”, and in contributing to the other benefits we all enjoy as a result of living in a highly educated, non-indebted society?

This is what the self-righteous (or perhaps just morally outraged) “they already pay the lowest fees in the country” hisses obscured: the Quebec students’ attempt to focus on the long-term effects of individualizing the cost of higher education—rising debt. Today, students graduate owing an average of $37k (less in Quebec), and often this doesn’t include intangibles like parents remortgaging their homes to help. Additionally, many students are working their way through university to offset expenses.

We know that the effects of student debt are not exactly “character building”. Postponement of owning a home or starting a family. Fewer assets. Having to settle for temporary, insecure and part-time jobs that often become long-term while trying to pay off loans and living in your parent’s basement. Graduates are finding themselves taking jobs—any job—regardless of how well-suited it is, or whether they have a future in this line of work, or whether they want it…or just desperately need the paycheque.

Youth is a life stage characterized by economic dependence and this can be maintained or changed at the cultural and political level. But the collective impact of growing personal debt, cuts to public services, governments wedded to self-amputation, growing inequality, and a precarious labour market with a youth unemployment rate of more than 20% has extended this stage of dependence. It’s a one-two punch: governments are reinforcing the economic instability that restricts authentic choices for youth for longer periods of time, and media punditry blames youth for not being more economically independent.

Political privilege is not being used to examine shortcomings of the economic and political system for all of us, particularly the most vulnerable. It’s being used to “prove” the apparent immaturity and lack of independence of this cohort—their so-called “failure to launch”.

This isn’t a new theory (and it isn’t mine), but I do recall when researchers at youth marketing conferences began to eagerly talk about two phenomena: the “kids are getting older, younger” trend (KAGOY), and the “young adults aren’t making the major life decisions they were making 20 years ago” trend. But while grade school- and high school-aged kids are taking charge of some of the household decision-making—what cars or computers to buy, or what to have for dinner—it’s a consumer version of self-determination. When it comes to larger life-defining decisions like owning a house or having kids or having a secure and well-paying job, not so much. And the reasons are obvious, or should be: a job market with fewer opportunities particularly where youth employment is concerned, rising levels of debt, and a high cost of living tend to limit your options.

To comment on or—worse!—act against these political, social and economic structural weaknesses, however, results in widespread accusations of “entitlement.” Coddled. Spoiled brats. The kindest insults might be “naïve” or “idealistic”. The language that is increasingly slung at young people is nothing short of venomous, comparing demands for an anti-poverty strategy or accessible education to an apparent addiction to iPods or lattes.

To be clear, I don’t think what we’re experiencing is so much an attack on youth, though it often feels that way, as it is an attack on progress. (Some days it feels like an attack on the inadequate status quo.) Although it’s true that, as people of all ages resist the slide into austerity, youth seem to be today’s most convenient scapegoats. They also, because of their age, will live with the fallout of this attack the longest. Until the next generation, of course, which will grow up with the legacy of unfunded cradle-to-grave austerity and the inconvenient truth of environmental degradation. But since Sun News hasn’t figured out how to successfully vilify infants as “entitled and coddled” since, you know, they’re babies (although their self-centred parents are another story), let’s focus on youth.

The Quebec student strike provides us with a road map of how this scapegoating strategy is implemented; the Charest government used the negative public sentiment towards red square-wearing students (entitled! unrealistic!) that it had helped fuel as a red herring to try and distract attention from debate on the effects of an austerity agenda, provincial priorities like Plan Nord, and, more immediately, a construction industry corruption scandal. (In this case, due to a number of factors, it backfired. Spectacularly.)

The vilification of resistance or protest is not new. And the language used to describe protestors—particularly ones under 35—has a decidedly “grumpy old man” feel that’s not especially innovative, either. The tendency of older generations to refer to their offspring as “unappreciative” or “lazy” is practically ubiquitous, in a “when I was a kid I walked barefoot 20 miles through snowy fields uphill both ways to school every day” kind of way. But it’s as if today this punch-line stereotype passes for socio-political analysis to dismiss and belittle those drawing attention to the implementation of regressive laws and policies.

The rising tuition and other user fees we pay; the ridiculous cost of child care; the fallout from cuts to or elimination of programs that serve us all, but particularly the most vulnerable; the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us; the knowledge that we will be working harder, longer, and with less security; and the consistent undermining, particularly for younger workers, of the right to retire with dignity—these things are the price of apathy. And I don’t just mean not enough people, young and old, are stepping up to fight for progressive changes that are not going to be handed to us. I also mean that today, governments and other punditry are for the most part apathetic and even downright hostile toward the notion of progress generally, and towards the needs of young people specifically.

The narrative behind that Macleans cover of the apathetic (hoodie! unruly eyebrows!) and hostile (red mask!) protestor would be better applied to a number of our elected officials and a couple of Globe reporters who are apathetic towards the issues many of us face on a daily basis, and hostile to those who have the audacity to draw attention to them, often in creative, unpredictable ways.

Youth are not completely off the radar, of course. We still get occasional news stories profiling “leaders of tomorrow” (they’re never leaders of today), or youth-like members of the self-declared “silent majority” who are given significant air time to speak out against students who speak out against regressive government policies. Earlier this year, in an incredibly cynical moment, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley attempted to sell the notion of delayed retirement by telling young people they shouldn’t have to support an aging society--even while shutting down Youth Employment Centres.

But when we vilify people for wanting something better than what they’re told is their lot in life, we condemn us all to social regression. We can only make gains when we are prepared to fight for improvements that we may never personally enjoy—but our kids will. Or our grandkids. Or someone else’s kids. Which is why the argument that “others have it worse, so what right do you have to complain?” is the ultimate red herring.

“Least worst” is not a high-water mark—in university funding, or tuition fees, or debt levels, or treatment of Indigenous peoples and of marginalized communities, or environmental justice, or the goals we set as a society that claims it is committed to justice or fairness or prosperity.

What we are seeing in Quebec, and what is spreading across the country, mi casserole es su casserole-esque, is about fighting for a legacy we can be proud to leave.

Not one that only the most privileged can afford to live with.

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