Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Sympathy for the Boomer

I was born in the middle of generation X. The job market I entered was dismal, so I got nowhere, went back to school, piled up debt, and returned to a slightly less dismal job market. Then I turned 30. And the whole time I envied baby boomers, with their Beaver Cleaver childhoods, their memories of Woodstock and disco, their golden job markets, their yuppiedom, their stocks, real estate, and Club Med vacations. It all came to them on an engraved silver tray.

And now? Of course. For my generation, and the rest of us in third class, the age of eligibility for Old Age Security will be pushed up, but only after the boomers retire and start living off our taxes.

Oh, the generational unfairness of it all.

It's fun to write this stuff. And easy. I wish I believed it. But I don't. In fact, I think it's balderdash, and because we've heard a lot of it since the OAS changes were announced, let me explain why.

First, it gets a basic fact wrong. Baby boomers will not be spared the changes, at least not entirely.

The age of eligibility for OAS will gradually rise, starting with those born in April, 1958. They can start to collect at 65 years and one month.

Someone born in December, 1959 will be eligible at 65 years and 11 months. December, 1960: 66 years and five months. December, 1961: 66 years and 11 months.

The change will stop when the age of eligibility hits 67. That will be the cutoff for anyone born in February, 1962, or later.

Baby boomers are those born between 1946 and 1964. In Canada, the peak of the boom was 1959. So contrary to what many are saying, many boomers will, in whole or in part, be affected by this change.

But that's a detail. What's really wrong here was on vivid display in a recent column penned by the uber boomer, the Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente.

"Please don't resent me because I'm a boomer - although I wouldn't blame you if you do," Wente wrote.

"We are the gilded generation. Things have always gone our way." Wente says it was ridiculously easy for her and her husband to get their first jobs in the late 1960s. They scored a real estate windfall. Her pension is excellent.

Why, for Wente and her fellow boomers, the sun was sunnier, the air fresher, and the birds sang more sweetly. And now they will win the OAS lottery, too.

I do not doubt the delightfulness of Margaret Wente's life. But the story she relates no more tells the history of her generation than a Norman Rockwell painting reflects small town life in the 1930s.

The first baby boomers - born 1946 - entered the job market around 1965. Unemployment was indeed low. And Wente is right that jobs came easily. For a few years.

But the 1973 oil embargo produced a severe recession and the end of the post-war economic boom. (The main beneficiaries of which were the pre-boomers, born during the Depression, but no one ever complains about them, perhaps because it's perverse to whine about how lucky they were to be born in the worst era of the last several centuries.)

By the mid-1970s, the youth unemployment rate was similar to what it is today. And those youths, please remember, were baby boomers who remembered where they were when Kennedy died.

It got worse. In the brutal doubledip recession of the early 1980s, 70 per cent of job losses were suffered by young workers, compared to 52 per cent in the last recession. Youth unemployment peaked at almost 20 per cent. The young people looking for their first jobs in that wasteland included the lucky duckies born at the baby boom's 1959 peak.

And important as youth unemployment is, it doesn't capture every aspect of the fear and uncertainty baby boomers encountered along the way. Remember 1968? No, it wasn't all tie-dye and free love. It was assassinations, invasions, riots, and the eve of destruction. The early '70s? So many horrors loomed that "the world crisis" became a catch-all term for the coming crash of civilization.

The early '80s? Like the early '70s, plus crushing interest rates and the threat of nuclear incineration.

Of course when we look back on the past we don't feel the fear and uncertainty that people experienced at the time. We can't. We know how that movie ends. And when fear and uncertainty are drained from the past, it appears much more pleasant than it did when it was the present.

This same hindsight bias makes the future look scarier than it is, because we contrast a seemingly fearand-uncertainty-free past with a future that is frightening unclear. So it seems only natural to assume, as so many commentators do, that today's young people will have to struggle as the boomers never did, and never live as well.

And so they may. Or maybe they'll enjoy the greatest prosperity in history. The truth is we don't know how younger generations will do because we don't know how the economy will fare over the next 30 or 40 years.

But let's set aside illusions of the past and future. It's still true that baby boomers - or most of them, anyway - will get an important benefit earlier than those who come after. On its face, that looks unfair.

But remember that there has been very steady growth in life expectancy. As a result, holding the age of eligibility steady at 65 does not ensure that everyone gets the same benefit. It means that later generations, with longer life expectancies, collect OAS for more years, which is to say they get a greater benefit than earlier generations.

So if we don't raise the age of eligibility, baby boomers' OAS benefit will be less than that of the generations that follow them. Which isn't fair to the poor old boomers.

But perhaps it's too hard to see baby boomers as generational victims. I understand that.

So maybe those of us born after 1964 should simply think of it this way: We may have to work a little longer than boomers but we'll live longer, too. Which is a pretty good deal. Try not to gloat.