Since the end of the Second World War, there has been a general expectation in Canadian society that each new generation will enjoy more prosperity than the last. And so far, this has been true. Over the past six decades, even despite a number of recessions, each generation has enjoyed a higher material standard of living than the one before.
However, this may no longer be the case. There is a distinct possibility that young people today – the children of baby boomers, also known as Generation Y – will be the first generation to not be materially better off than their parents. Young workers and families are now earning less, when adjusted for inflation, than their parents did a generation before, and the recession has hit young people harder than any other age demographic.
This change invites broader questions about commonly perceived understandings of progress and prosperity. How do we define these terms? And are progress and prosperity sustainable? Or even desirable?
Broadening the Definition
Many think of prosperity as going hand-in-hand with material wealth. And in some limited sense, this is true. An adequate income is necessary to provide basic needs such as shelter, food, and clothing, which enable people to live with dignity. Income can also help foster good health and allow time and resources for people to participate in their communities.
But material prosperity has its limits. The accumulation of material wealth in our society is causing catastrophic damage to our natural world, and is not sustainable in the long term. And this wealth has not been shared equally. Growing income inequality in Canada has meant that, while some have accumulated wealth that far surpasses their needs, others still live in poverty.
A holistic understanding of prosperity encompasses much more than simply the accumulation of material wealth. Prosperity is also the ability to pursue and realize goals and dreams – both individual and communal – and receive rewards and benefits for the time and effort invested into achieving them.
Prosperity is also the ability to raise a family and provide safety and support for one’s dependents. It is having opportunities for upward mobility: being able to gain an education, a stable job and maintaining an adequate standard of living throughout one’s life.
At a societal level, it is the distribution and sharing of resources and knowledge in a way that is equitable and just, so that all can participate and benefit from it. It must also mean ecological prosperity: using resources wisely as to not do harm to or at least sustain the environment.
The Next Generation
Since the Second World War, the majority of people in Canada have enjoyed high levels of material prosperity relative to previous generations. Access to affordable education, stable employment and social security supports have provided the means by which many people been able to realize this material prosperity.
The availability of these means, and the returns they have brought in the form of stable and secure income, have helped enable the past few generations to raise children, plan for the future, and participate more fully in society. As well, these means and returns have offered individuals and families security and peace of mind.
Mainstream assumptions about prosperity and progress that exist today are based upon these opportunities and the returns that they have provided in the past. However, the means by which past generations have realized material prosperity have changed in recent years.
While the recession has resulted in job losses, youth are also facing more long-term challenges that will limit their prosperity. The cost of education has risen substantially in the past decade, leading to high levels of student debt that are difficult to pay down afterwards.
And increasing job insecurity – through an increase in contract and temporary jobs with low wages and no benefits – has left many vulnerable to poverty. As a result, more young people are moving back in with their parents in order to pay down student loans, often with salaries from low-wage jobs, and are delaying settling down and starting families of their own.
And those who cannot rely on their family have even less support. Social spending cuts over the past two decades have weakened Canada’s social safety net. The lack of a living minimum wage and inadequate EI and social assistance levels has made it easier to fall into poverty and more difficult to rise out of it. These challenges are reflective of the need for a transformation in how our society is structured.
Rethinking our Policies
We have more than enough material wealth in Canada for everyone to meet their basic needs; what we do not have are policies that ensure this wealth is shared in a manner that enables everyone to prosper and shows care for creation as well. Instead of simply creating more wealth, we must learn to manage and share it to benefit us all.
We must decouple our understanding of prosperity as being synonymous with material wealth, and look beyond the consumption of goods to begin fostering a deeper understanding of wellbeing.
We are in need of significant public policy changes if we are to see our society prosper in a way that is equitable, sustainable, and just. Public justice calls upon governments and citizens to work towards an equitable society in which every individual has access to the services and resources necessary for their dignity and wellbeing.
Policies that promote income security and equality, affordable access to education, social security, and sustainable management of resources could help enable the next generation to prosper in a truly holistic way.