Inside the corrosive new generational blame game - Macleans.ca

Inside the corrosive new generational blame game

The generational divide is society’s new battleground, pitting boomers against millennials and everyone in between. Who’s really to blame?

by

Generation Z has been outspoken about climate change, which is one of the many issues at the heart of an increasingly divisive generational war (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

The kid with the green mohawk declines to say much about “EAT THE RICH,” the bolded slogan on the piece of cardboard the huddle of teenagers are holding aloft. “We don’t really have an explanation,” he says, a little nervous. But his friend sums it up: “Capitalism is bad.”

About 200 people are gathered on Granville Street for a climate strike in downtown Vancouver. It’s overcast, this last Friday of November, and a majority of them are teenagers who have skipped school.

“Your climate change arrangements are just as miserable as this poster” is written on a sorry-looking piece of cardboard. The kid holding a “Climate change isn’t beary good” sign is also carrying a teddy bear.


This month’s Maclean’s magazine, which charts the current conflict between boomers and millennials—one of the defining struggles of our age—has two different covers. Here’s why.


In vain, I scan the crowd for evidence of “OK boomer,” a meme that peaked a couple of weeks earlier and is no longer cool. The phrase, a catch-all dismissal directed toward older people by its primarily youthful users, became synonymous with what many have now warned is a sign of full-on intergenerational warfare.

I’m here, a millennial chatting with teenagers who make me feel old, because I want to find out if that’s true. I want to plumb the depths of the generational divide and figure out where the fault lines are. I want to know if this conflict is just a virus of the internet or if it runs deeper, if it’s bleeding into the real world. I want to figure out if I’m crazy for thinking that maybe we can all just get along.

ANNE KINGSTON: Why intergenerational warfare is a mug’s game

You don’t need keen powers of observation to see that the frustrations of teenagers who are aware that they’re less privileged than their parents are bubbling to the surface. It is a comeuppance for the baby boomers, the postwar children whose pacifism and sexual liberation upended North American culture before their consumerism and greed did so again. The kids are woke to the flawed systems their elders created and perpetuated. They are gig-economy hustlers, attuned to income inequality, climate change and the housing bubble. They might not be able to vote yet, but they are being heard, and social media is their loudspeaker.

The rebuttal is just as one-sided. The youngsters are rolling their eyes at their moms and dads just like every ageist cohort before them. The internet has made them selfish and entitled in new and innovative ways. They can’t get off their phones. They don’t appreciate the progress that came before them. They use the freedoms their forebears fought for to whine about their feelings online. They are easily offended and failing to launch.

“We’re tired of people not understanding things and having to, like, explain it over and over and over again when they’re just not going to get it,” Serena Howard tells me. She is 12. “So, like, if someone’s just like, ‘climate change isn’t real’? OK boomer.”

On her sign:“You’ll die of old age, I’ll die of climate change,” written on a gravestone she has drawn in black, with pink flames around it and a zigzag of grass.

I guess her classmates didn’t read The Atlantic’s recent online obituary for the boomer meme, because it still has currency at her school. “Kids say it to each other if you do something stupid,” she explains. “Do you even know what that’s about, Dad?” she asks her father, Stephen, who stands by stoically.

Serena and her father, who, by the way, has his own complaints about “inertia in the way we operate our civilization,” are by no means the only intergenerational pair here. Older activists have shown up. Grandparents. But they are in the minority, and among the kids, at least, the generational tension is implicit. They are here about an inheritance.

***

I’m scrolling through TikTok, the social media platform that popularized “OK boomer.” It’s an app seen as most representative of youth culture today—ground zero for the brewing culture wars.

TikTok users are mostly in Generation Z, the consensus term for people born in 1997 or later, according to the Pew Research Center’s definitions. While we’re at it, the centre defines millennials (or Generation Y, if you will) as those born between 1981 and 1996 (me!), Generation X as those born between 1965 and 1980, and baby boomers as those born after the Second World War, between 1946 and 1964.

TikTok, owned by a Chinese company and subject to plenty of scrutiny as a result, lets users upload a video, or build on others’, and layer it with special effects, filters and text. Over several weeks of burgeoning addiction—uh, research—I paid attention to the “For You” feed, which uses an algorithm to curate content from people you don’t follow. This raises questions about censorship and privacy, but it also means, in theory, that anyone can win fame.


Listen to Marie-Danielle Smith talk about the generational blame game on The Big Story podcast.

Learn more at The Big Story Podcast.


Canadian TikTok features comedy from Albertans reclaiming Tim Hortons as a national icon. A guy orders a Gretzky at the Timmies drive-through. He gets nine creams and nine sugars. It looks awful. It goes viral. With an awareness that many of their followers are American, some Canadians put on heavy Fargo-esque accents, make “it’s true though” Trudeau jokes and teach fun facts, like “we don’t use pennies.”

But, really, there are no borders and no location stamps on TikTok. Things that propel users to supposed stardom include saying something funny about depression, having a good outfit, having an adorable pet, having an adorable pet wearing a good outfit, doing a craft, calling out bullying, telling a story about a date, dyeing your hair, drawing well, writing a song, and especially being able to copy viral dance trends. It’s an incubator for talent, a way to get noticed in an internet age similar to what YouTube offered my generation when that platform launched in 2005.

If you look for generational division on TikTok—as I am doing—you can find it. The formula is usually this. An older person, not necessarily a baby boomer, says they don’t believe in climate change. Or questions what a younger person is wearing. Or makes a homophobic comment. Or judges the use of technology. Or displays their ignorance about the economic realities of the younger person. Response: “OK boomer.”

“OK boomer. Why can’t you love me as much as you love to share memes about minions?” croons a suit-wearing, keyboard-playing @ryanbeardofficial in an original song on Oct. 24. “And OK boomer, why can’t you hold me as close as you hold your belief that climate change isn’t real? And OK boomer, why can’t you carry me like you carry your handgun in public? I want to say I’m OK, boomer. But boomer, I’m not OK.”

ESSAY: ‘We had good intentions but we fell short’: What it means to be a baby boomer

Of course, baby boomers aren’t the only ones facing mockery on the platform. Generation X has been relegated to several versions of moms. Predominantly, Gen Xers are “Karens,” who head their local PTAs and ask to speak to the manager. “Lindas,” who are enemies of “Karens,” are gluten-free and wear pantsuits. “Susans” are really nice, unproblematic, smell good and get into the wine.

“Younger people are craving this authentic connected experience,” says Jenna Jacobson, a social media expert and assistant professor at Ryerson University in Toronto. “Older generations perhaps put negative value judgments on young people being obsessed with technology, but if we reframe this, we could suggest that millennials and Gen Z are just obsessed with connecting with each other, and are these hyper-connected multimedia storytellers that are embracing technology in order to stay connected to their families, friends or even strangers all over the world.”

There is another meme that grew in popularity alongside the boomer knock, one that’s lighter on snark and heavier on historical gravitas. It has less to do with age and more to do with how society is organized, which I suspect a lot of older folks can get behind. Green mohawk kid may not have had much to say about the “EAT THE RICH” sign. But given that Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined it in the 1700s, the cri de coeur may have some staying power.

“When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich,” the philosopher said.

On TikTok, this manifests as mockery of the obnoxiously wealthy, rapid-fire economic statistics and pretend debates with presumably older alter egos that wear hats and have names like Bill. A redheaded guy with glasses staring you in the face and explaining how wealth concentration is worse in the U.S. today than it was during the late 18th-century French Revolution, when people literally slaughtered the elites. “Eat the rich,” he concludes.

With both memes, there is an impression that older people aren’t positioned to appreciate those inequalities as well as those experiencing them. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that millennials and Generation Z are objectively worse off than their elders.

Generation Squeeze, a think tank-turned-lobby group, calculates that current home prices are about eight times the average full-time income for a Canadian aged 25 to 34, versus four times the average income a few decades ago. They calculate the Canadian government spends less than $12,000 annually per citizen younger than 45, and $33,000 per citizen older than 65.

To be sure, there are numbers that contradict the poor-millennial narrative: those born between 1982 and 1991 are making higher median incomes between the ages of 25 and 34 than Gen Xers born 1965 to 1976 and baby boomers born 1950 to 1961 did, says a Statistics Canada study published earlier this year. Their net worth is also higher, earlier, as they accumulate more assets.

ESSAY: ‘Self-sufficient and unassuming’: What it means to be Gen X

But that’s a pretty selective snapshot. The same study found that Gen Xers and boomers saw their incomes rise steadily as their careers progressed, but whether millennials will see a similar upward trajectory as they age is still unknown. And despite appearing better off, the study showed millennials accumulating much more debt. Millennials aged 25 to 34 had a median debt of $35,400, compared with $19,400 for Gen Xers and $11,293 for boomers at the same age.

“There is absolutely an undercurrent of generational tension that exists at this moment in a way that we haven’t seen in the past,” says Paul Kershaw, Generation Squeeze’s founder and a professor at the University of British Columbia. Contradicting StatsCan, the group’s own research claims that millennials, on the whole, are making less money than baby boomers did at a similar age, after adjusting for inflation. “At a systems level, the way we’ve organized society, it’s built into it some intergenerational tensions that are getting harder and harder for a younger demographic to stomach quietly,” Kershaw says.

Here’s roughly how he explains it.

Say you’re 18. You go to college or university because that is what’s expected–a greater percentage of your generation will go than any before it. Everyone says it’s a good idea. But college or university is more expensive than it used to be, and you’re going to accrue more debt.

Next you fling around hundreds of PDF copies of your resume hoping at least one of them will be read by a live human being and not just a piece of automated software. You finally land your first job, but it pays less, after inflation, than what your Aunt Sharon used to make doing similar work. Raw deal.

You’d like to eventually upgrade from your basement bachelor apartment—maybe even find a pad with a window that lets in a little sunlight, or that has a door to the bedroom. A yard? Ha. White picket fences are the stuff of legend.

You know it will cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars to get an average-priced home, which, in the city, is often a studio or one-bedroom condo. But don’t sweat it. If you can’t afford that yet—most of your friends can’t—your consolation prize is that you get to pay hundreds more a month to rent a place underground.

Hard not to get a little offended, though, when your Aunt Sharon, who bought a house when it was less than half as expensive as houses are now, has just retired a millionaire. Sharon recently accused you of buying too many lattes.

ESSAY: ‘Directionless and lost’: What it means to be a millennial

“That frustration is rooted in both our lived experiences, like, ‘Yeah, we can’t seem to get ahead the same way boomers have,’ ” says Sutton Eaves, the co-executive director of Generation Squeeze. “But also, ‘Whoa,’ their values and the way that boomers have sat back on [issues such as climate change] is not aligned with how we imagine we would treat them.”

There’s a sense that boomers are “willingly ignorant” in refusing to get fired up about climate change or wealth inequality, Eaves says. What’s unique about the current standoff is that millions of young folk are able to be heard through a single meme, she says. “It’s hopefully forcing people to pay attention.”

***

Demonstrators from the National Women’s Liberation Movement picket the 1968 Miss America Pageant. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

A small boy holds up a sign that says, “Children are not born to burn.” His is the youngest face, a frowning face, in a crowd of demonstrators. On some other street, a young woman holds a sign that says, “Can makeup cover the wounds of our oppression?” Her neighbour has one that says, “Everybody is beautiful.”

These images are in black and white. The little boy was marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and 125,000 others in 1967 at an anti-Vietnam War protest, and the young women were demonstrating against a Miss America beauty pageant in 1968* New Jersey. It was the “Freedom Trash Can” protest, where bras were burned.

Every generation alive today has featured a contingent of young people who took to the streets to send a message to their elders, or to politicians, or to the elites.

ESSAY: Don’t you see yourself in us?: What it means to be Gen Z

And after those anti-war and feminist protestors grew up to find themselves at the centre of economic, political and financial dominance, every generation since has found a reason to feel disadvantaged. Social media might give us a shiny new lens but anti-boomer sentiment is not novel.

In 1995, Rick Mercer, a Gen Xer, did a rant about baby boomers for This Hour Has 22 Minutes. “They got the jobs, they kept their jobs, and when they leave their jobs, their jobs are cancelled, leaving no jobs. And now with the longest life expectancy rate of any group since the beginning of time, they’re gonna gallivant along and collect the pension until the funds are all gone or they’re all 106, whatever comes first,” he preaches in a video available on the CBC archive.

Ten years later, Vice put together a “Kill Your Parents Issue.” Just as today’s “OK boomer” is a backlash against a backlash of older people blaming societal ills on avocado toast-eating (I admit it) snowflake millennials, Vice was responding to provocations such as an essay contest held by Vanity Fair in 2005. It purported to want to explore “what’s on the minds of America’s youth.” But the call for entries postulated that “younger Americans are content to watch their MTV, fiddle with their game players, follow the love lives of Brad, Jen, Jessica and Paris, and assume the hard work is being done for them by others.”

Vice fired back. “They ‘can’t remember the ’60s’ and they ruined everything for every generation to come. Though their politics were knee-jerk liberal 25 years ago, today they combine the worst of both parties,” it published. “They pretend to be Democrats but secretly vote Republican at the last second so they don’t have to pay taxes on the incredible amount of income they’ve accrued doing nothing. Almost everything bad about today can be traced back to them.”

READ: What defines your generation? 16 Canadians weigh in

In 2010, this magazine declared that “Generation Screwed” would have lower incomes, worse jobs, higher taxes and bleaker futures because of their boomer parents. Another Maclean’s cover in July 2014 asked, “Are you ready for Generation Z? They’re smarter than boomers and way more ambitious than millennials. Brace yourselves for the ultimate generation war.” And a third from a few months later, in September 2014, featured a white-haired woman in a mint tracksuit throwing around $100 bills. Headline: “Old. Rich. Spoiled.” David Cravit, from the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP), described it as an “inflammatory contribution to the problem.”

So, are today’s teenagers getting a fair shake when the New York Times declares, in 2019, “the end of friendly generational relations”? When Bloomberg worries about ageist stereotyping and the Guardian warns about “the cultural dominance of upper-middle-class youth”? I don’t know.

Humans are just a bunch of messy bitches who love drama, to put it in the modern slang. No wonder social media has helped us gleefully to our opposite silos. Rich vs. poor. Young vs. old. Democrat vs. Republican. Liberal vs. Conservative. Woke vs. . . . asleep?

After “OK boomer” burst into the mainstream in November, it didn’t take long before a conservative radio host in the United States, Bob Lonsberry, went on Twitter and called it an epithet comparable to the n-word, for which he was ruthlessly mocked. Or for William Shatner to tweet, in an argument with a younger person: “Is that all your generation does is point fingers and blame others for their pity parties?” Or for a 25-year-old legislator in New Zealand to use the phrase in parliament, during a debate about climate change.

Seek evidence that a young or old person is ignorant because of their age and ye shall find.

Take Billie Eilish, the 18-year-old pop star who makes me feel old and is idolized by so many in Generation Z. She’s never heard of Van Halen. This became clear during an interview with Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show at the beginning of December. It quickly went viral.

Seek a serious, thoughtful rebuttal to some viral example of ignorance and ye shall also find.

Wolf Van Halen joined Van Halen as a bassist in 2006 and is currently its youngest member. He wasn’t even born when the band formed in the ’70s. “If you haven’t heard of @billieeilish, go check her out. She’s cool. If you haven’t heard of @VanHalen, go check them out. They’re cool too,” he tweeted in response to the clip. “Music is supposed to bring us together, not divide us. Listen to what you want and don’t shame others for not knowing what you like.”

Seek an attempt to monetize social division? You bet!

Merchandise featuring “OK boomer” or some variation was almost instantly available, Fox tried to trademark the phrase for a game show and, for a local example, the Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver held a 19+ “Boomer vs. Gen Z” party. “We are talking Fleetwood Mac vs. Billie Eilish, Post Malone vs. Bruce Springsteen, Lil Nas X vs. Led Zeppelin, you get the vibe!” the event description said.

READ: A guide to the generations

It wouldn’t be hard to write today’s generation wars off as a new coat of paint on an age-old trend. “The young people roll their eyes at the old fuddy-duddies, the old fuddy-duddies shake their fists at the young whippersnappers,” says CARP’s Cravit. “I’m a baby boomer, obviously. When we were in our young petulant age, our mantra was, ‘Never trust anybody over 30.’ Let alone old people.”

“Get off my lawn” is essentially written into our genetic code, according to research out of the University of California, Santa Barbara, which the journal Science Advances published in October. People forget how it felt to grow up. They judge kids according to the values they’ve adopted as adults. For example, if you’re authoritarian as an adult, you’re more likely to think “kids these days” don’t respect their elders. If you read a lot, you assume kids do not.

We’ve only bothered organizing ourselves into “generations” since Karl Mannheim proposed a theory of generations in 1928, based on the idea that as a young person you are influenced by your socio-historic environment. A 2018 research paper in Organizational Dynamics, by researchers in St. Louis and Leipzig, Germany, argues that generational theory creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. You stereotype other generations. You treat them differently. So they end up being different.

***

“The old people, quote unquote, who the millennials are upset with, are not leaving the stage, are not retiring any time soon, have a lot longer to go, have the money, have the political power, the voting power, the job power. And there is an imbalance.”

That’s how Cravit describes the state of play. He is the vice-president of CARP’s media branch, ZoomerMedia Ltd. It publishes Zoomer magazine. (Named before the internet decided that “zoomer” could be a nickname for Gen Zers.) “Old people” have the media power, too, apparently. CARP’s American counterpart owns one of the largest, most profitable media companies in the U.S. In the wake of reporting on “OK boomer,” the AARP’s senior vice president and editorial director told Axios, “OK, millennials. But we’re the people that actually have the money.”

“I do think the younger generations have some beefs,” Cravit says. “I don’t think the beef is with the boomers necessarily. It might just be with the hand they were dealt, and the timing.”

Baby boomers still represent the largest chunk of our population and more than half of seniors, according to Statistics Canada. As of July, half of Canadians were at least 40.8 years old; 20 years ago, the median age was 36.4. For every 100 people in the workforce, there are 50 kids and seniors, a number that has increased steadily over time, leaving more people dependent on those who are working.

Cravit argues a broader shift is under way because baby boomers are living longer than their parents and redefining what it means to get older. The benchmarks are shifting. “Now, the millennials, who look like they’re absolutely screwed as a generation, well you know, they’re going to live to 120. And it isn’t going to matter by then whether they got their first house at 25 like their parents did, or whether they got their first house at 45. Because they’re going to just live a lot longer.”

READ: What is ‘Generation Alpha?’

Cravit points out that America’s top politicians are all in their 70s. President Donald Trump is 73. Those considered the front-runners to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are 77, 78 and 70, respectively. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, is 79. “Sorry, but the boomers are not going to leave the stage just because it says in some book that this is supposed to happen when you’re 65,” he says.

I counter that in Canada, the most powerful politicians aren’t the oldest ones anymore. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 48, and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, 41, are Gen Xers. (Andrew Scheer, the Conservative leader who ran in the election but said he was stepping down in December, is 40, too.) Canadian federal politicians are generally younger. The average age in the U.S. House of Representatives as of last year’s midterms was 57.8 years, and senators 61.8, according to the Congressional Research Service. The median age of Canadian MPs elected in October was 51.

Cravit says that while that may be the case, “Margaret Atwood is still going strong.” That’s true. In 2019, Atwood won the Booker. And for that matter, Trudeau’s boomer mother, Margaret Trudeau, 71, was garnering rave reviews across North America for her one-woman comedy show.

In any case, I take Cravit’s comments to mean he thinks younger folks should just sit tight and wait our turn. And it’s true that life expectancy has gone up. According to StatsCan, the number of centenarians in Canada has tripled since the turn of the century. The agency predicted that people who were 65 in the years 2015-2017 will live another 21 years—about four more than their parents did.

But it’s too early to claim that millennials will live longer than their forebears. They are suffering from higher rates of ailments such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, depression and anxiety, leading some researchers to question whether their life expectancy will actually be shorter than that of Generation X, according to a November report by the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper.

Kershaw, the Generation Squeeze founder, had little patience for Cravit’s theory, which he says discounts the “massive effort and sacrifice that younger Canadians are making to adapt to the deteriorating economy and the generational housing divide.”

The weight of that housing problem, in particular, seems to elude older generations—as Cravit’s nonchalance on the subject suggests. While boomers point to the rock-bottom mortgage rates available these days to first-time buyers—they paid 20-plus per cent in the early ’80s!—millennials counter that today’s cheap money has driven up overall home costs. This has caused first-time buyers to take on unprecedented levels of debt. In some parts of Vancouver, we learned from a Zoocasa report in November, it can take centuries on a median income to save enough money for a down payment alone.

No surprise, then, that millennials are adjusting their expectations and looking at a smaller footprint. Multi-generational housing is the norm in many other countries, and so too with some of Canada’s immigrant populations, but it has become more popular across the board, says Ashley Smith, the president of the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver. StatsCan reports that households with members of at least three generations under one roof increased by 37.5 per cent between 2001 and 2016.

Still, 80 per cent of Canadian young adults want to own some kind of home, according to an Abacus Data poll released in May (only 27 per cent currently do). So Generation Squeeze is proposing solutions that Eaves, Generation Squeeze’s co-executive director, admits will sound “scary” to a lot of older homeowners. For one: try using tax measures and regulation to stall the growth of the housing market to allow earnings to catch up. For another: raise taxes on housing wealth as well as income, so the tax burden falls more evenly across generations. All this is coming to a head as many older people dip into their property wealth to sustain their established lifestyles—fuelling complaints that they are oblivious to the drift of events around them. Or maybe they just don’t care. Cravit’s cohort, Kershaw notes, popularized early retirement and the reverse mortgage, which helps older people unlock the housing equity they’ve been sitting on. He thinks you could make a meme out of HomeEquity Bank’s CHIP reverse mortgage ads. I looked them up and he’s not wrong. One spot from 2018 features an older man in a large house asking his wife, “Hon, what do you say, indoor or outdoor hot tub?” She replies, “Why not both?”

***

With a hunch that it operates at the nexus of the issues I’ve been thinking about, I walk up to the Gordon Neighbourhood House in the west end of Vancouver early one morning. As volunteers set up stacks of yogourt and boxes of potatoes, I explain, to some bewilderment, that I am looking for evidence of intergenerational solidarity.

Vancouver Food Bank volunteers are mostly seniors and students, says Gina Ness, manager of community food hubs, before my visit. The youngest ones are getting their volunteer hours for high school. Their 13 locations serve 8,000 clients a week; 25 per cent children, 45 per cent adults and 30 per cent seniors. “There hasn’t been a climate-change, housing-crisis boomer blame, in my experience,” she says, with a succinctness my questions lack.

When I get there, Susan Olafson, a 64-year-old volunteer with trim grey hair, is willing to humour me. “When people come together, then their differences dissolve, I think. If you actually interact with people of other generations, then you stop having prejudices,” she says.

Chris Di Giulio, a tall 23-year-old who attends Capilano University and describes himself as a “young old person,” says this is a place you don’t see an age gap. What about in other places? “I don’t experience it, but I see a lot of generational gaps in terms of technology and things like that,” he says. “For most older-generation people, they don’t have the same savvy to deal with computers or how complicated smart TVs can be now.” (Olafson scoffs a little at that.)

Even here, there is a hint of prejudice in the way students and seniors talk about each other. But they are united in common cause, helping people disadvantaged by income inequality and skyrocketing housing costs.

That sense of shared purpose is enough to give me pause. Could the very issues dividing us today along lines of age—housing, wealth disparity, climate change—be the things to pull us together in the future? In this moment of heightened awareness, we are at a point of reckoning. Will those dilemmas widen the generational chasm or—inshallah—force us onto common ground?

Great challenges, after all, have historically caused whole societies to snap out of their petty disagreements and collaborate—think wars, depressions, natural disasters. Young draft dodgers were not the only ones to oppose America’s misadventure in Vietnam. Bright-eyed grads are not the only ones worrying about debt. And despite the vocal activism of Greta Thunberg et al, teens today are not the only ones who recognize an existential threat in climate change.

Canada’s recent election found our political leaders increasingly pressured not just to signal that they recognize its seriousness but also to produce credible policy. The party that conspicuously failed to do so—the Tories—missed an opportunity to form government. Maybe it’s a sign. On something as universally threatening as global warming, you don’t need to sway an entire generation into changing its world view. You just need a tipping point.

Housing affordability is also regularly discussed on the national stage. In 2019, for the first time, the federal budget included analysis on the intergenerational impact of its measures. And millennials are increasingly represented in politics.

On the doorstep this fall, whether it was about a threatened planet or a weakening economy, we were reminded—almost incessantly—to think of the children. And it’s hard not to think about children when they’re living with you into their 20s. This, too, may have its long-term upside: if younger generations are struggling, then, in many cases, older generations are noticing it from across the kitchen table. That changing norm has helped families stay close, and not just physically—TD Ameritrade’s 2019 Young Money survey found 63 per cent of millennials and Gen Zers would call their mom or dad their best friend.

If this sounds naive, take a listen to Kershaw, whose role with Generation Squeeze has made him pretty much the country’s leading voice of millennial protest. His lament comes as much from a place of concern as it does from anger. “My mum’s a senior now,” he says. “I want her to have a financially secure, healthy retirement. I don’t know any younger Canadian who would want anything less for their parents and grandparents going forward. I don’t think there’s any older Canadian out there who has set out to say, ‘I’m going to screw my kids and grandchildren.’ ”

A trio of teenaged girls at the climate strike react compassionately—if a bit patronizingly—when I ask them about whether they feel frustrated by their elders. “They were taught that way since they were kids. So changing their habits, and changing what they do, is really hard,” says 17-year-old Mali. “So we just have to be patient.”

As much as TikTok popularized a brand of knives-out generational warfare, having a wholesome grandma or a funny dad is also a bona fide route to popularity. Some older people who make the effort to learn how the app works are affectionately rewarded with hundreds of thousands of likes, as was a grey-braided woman who said in her debut: “Good morning, beautiful people of TikTok. This is my first video, so hello! Yes, I’m old as dirt and twice as dusty. I’m 63.”

And its younger users—even those who’ve become popular on the app because of their takes on generational division—take the whole idea of distinct cohorts with a huge grain of salt.

“Generational theory is meant to describe people within a time period, not to be used against each other as a discrimination tool. Literally everyone is different,” @realtimewithjayson said in a TikTok video on Nov. 19. “You’ve got people out there being raised by their grandparents. People with older parents than average in their generation. People coming from other countries trying to adapt to this society. You’re all different. And you all suck.”

The thing is, anecdotally and statistically speaking, these kids decidedly don’t suck. The Gen Zers, the nephews and cousins I’ve been watching grow up, are environmentally conscious and more socially aware than ever. With the technology in their pockets to connect to the whole world, they are well-positioned to prove it. To prove that there are bigger things to worry about, and better things to do with the tech revolution than to squabble endlessly over who’s the most ignorant guy on Twitter.

And even if we learn our lesson? At some protest in 20 years, millennials’ babies, with all the newest gadgets, are still going to hold up sad cardboard (or the equivalent) and ask us to listen. Like the kids in Vancouver, maybe they’ll still be dancing in the street to Village People’s YMCA. And the Gen Zers, whether or not we still call them that, will get their turn to wander around and feel old.


This article appears in print in the February 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “War of the ages.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

CORRECTION, Jan. 8, 2020: The print version of this story said the Miss America beauty pageant protest happened in 1958. It was, in fact, in 1968.