Work in progress: millennial anxiety reaches across generations

Jessica Barrett / Calgary Herald

When I first conceived of my year-long project on the working world for the Calgary Herald’s Michelle Lang Fellowship, I have to admit, most of my proposal was based on a hunch. Through straw polls, coffee banter with friends and colleagues, discussions with my own parents and, of course, my own experience in the job market, I was fairly certain I wasn’t the only one gazing at an uncertain economic future with some apprehension.

To back up my pitch, I assembled a smattering of news stories pointing out the dismal projections for younger workers, growing income inequality, boomers delaying retirement and the like.

But when it came to my thesis – namely that the working world is changing and we’re not feeling all that great about it – there was very little evidence out there to prove that I wasn’t just butting up against the walls of my own little bubble.

Turns out the folks at the Broadbent Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank, felt the same. In response to the same dinnertime conversation I was picking up on, they decided to commission a poll to determine just how widespread concern over job prospects and economic futures for younger workers is.

The results, published today, show anxiety over the changing face of work, and all the social challenges it implies, runs deep across the generations.

The poll surveyed 1,064 boomers aged 50-65 and 983 millennials aged 20-30 about their experiences in the work force and sheds some much-needed light on how Canadians are feeling about the economy. The figures were weighted to reflect census data on population age, gender, education and region.

So, what do the numbers say? Many boomers and millennials are anxious about the younger generation’s job prospects, homeownership potential and ability to fund social programs through taxes.

Interestingly, boomer parents seem to be more pessimistic about their children’s future than millennials are about their own prospects. Nearly half of boomers, 49 per cent, feel their kids are facing a poorer future than they had, while 34 per cent of millennials feel they are worse off than their parents.

But at the same time, millennials know they are facing a working life with fewer guarantees. More than half anticipated a career where contract work played a role, compared to 14 per cent of boomers who said they faced the same instability in their own careers. Meanwhile, only a third of millennials were confident they’d own their homes at retirement, compared to more than half of boomers, and one in five millennials say they don’t know anyone with an employer-funded pension.

Rick Smith, executive director of the Broadbent Institute, said he wasn’t surprised to find a high level of angst across age cohorts, but he didn’t anticipate seeing so much agreement between the generations on possible causes of economic instability. A significant majority of both generations expressed a high level of distrust for corporations, he noted, with both blaming irresponsible corporate behaviour for bringing on the 2008 financial crisis.

“Our starting point was very similar to yours: is this our imagination or not?” Smith said in an interview Monday.

“If you were to rank likely topics of dinner-time conversation in Canada these days, youth unemployment is high on that list. These numbers bear out that anecdotal experience.”

Smith said the results of the poll will be used to inform policy recommendations coming out of a summit the institute is holding later this month in Ottawa.

Here are some other highlights from the survey (which you can read here). I’m interested to know if you agree, send me an email or leave a comment below and let me know how you’re feeling about your work prospects.

  • Just over half, 52 per cent, of millennials expect contract work to make up a significant part of their working lives, either alone or in conjunction with permanent jobs. In contrast, 14 per cent of boomers said their work lives relied on contract work;
  • 39 per cent of millennials anticipate a career comprised of permanent jobs, compared to 66 per cent of boomers who experienced permanent employment;
  • Millennials with university degrees were more likely to anticipate a career encompassing contract work than those with high school or college education;
  • 70 per cent of millennials and 78 per cent of boomers cite irresponsible business behaviour as the cause of the 2008 recession;
  • 60 per cent of millennials anticipate the gap between rich and poor to grow during their lifetime;
  • 55 per cent of millennials and 59 per cent of boomers say declining enrolment in unions has made good jobs harder to find;
  • 48 per cent of millennials and 60 per cent of boomers say reduced corporate tax rates have not resulted in more investment in creating jobs in Canada.

The poll does not provide a margin of error because it is not a random, probability-based sample.


Parents, youth agree: the economic road ahead is rocky

Survey highlights millennials’ fears and boomers’ worries about precarious work

OTTAWA—In an innovative survey of both millennials and boomer parents, a poll asked two generations their thoughts about their economic future and the policies affecting it. Both young people in the workforce and their parents expressed deep unease about a future of precarious, low-benefit work. 

The poll, conducted by Abacus Data for the Broadbent Institute, shows only a minority in both groups believe the economic opportunities of young people will be better than the boomer generation. And a majority of millennials and boomers don’t trust corporations to create good jobs in Canada, even as governments enact policies businesses want.

“Without a change in direction, Canada won’t see one generation leaving things better for the next,” said Rick Smith, Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute. “Young people think income inequality will grow in their lifetime, while their parents worry about how the social programs they’ll need in retirement will be paid for.”

The poll’s key findings:

  • There are four times as many millennials who think they will face contract work than what baby boomers report they faced in their life.
  • Boomers are more likely to think their children will slip in economic class than are millennials when asked about their future economic status; and about half (49%) of boomers believe economic opportunities are worse for their children than when they were their children's age.
  • Only a small minority of millennials (21%) and boomers (15%) believe corporations will work harder to make sure good jobs are created in Canada; large majorities in both groups believe corporations will concentrate more on their profits, even if good jobs aren’t created.
  • Millennials are three times as likely to think income inequality will grow than narrow in their lifetime. 
  • A majority of boomers fear their children’s generation won’t be able to pay for social programs they will need in retirement.

"These findings show people are skeptical that corporations will create good jobs in Canada. They believe most people will be worse off if the government continues to withdraw and turns to individuals to make up the difference,” said Smith. “The survey is a wake-up call about the need for a new deal for today’s youth.”

The Abacus Data survey surveyed 983 Canadians aged 20-30 in the job market — millennials — and 1,064 people aged 50-65 — baby boomers — with at least one child aged 20 or older. The online survey was completed from February 6-10, 2014.

The full report is available at

From March 28-30 in Ottawa, the Broadbent Institute will hold its first annual Progress Summit  a high-profile event that will bring together an exciting group of policy experts from across Canada and around the world. The issue of youth unemployment will be top of the agenda for this event. Learn more at


For more information, please contact:

Mike Fancie, Broadbent Institute
613-866-3606 or mfancie [at ] broadbentinstitute [dot] ca

Millennials, boomers fret about tough economic future

Joe Friesen / Globe & Mail

The perception of a growing generational divide seems to be taking hold among millennials and their baby boomer parents, as both groups now tend to believe that the economic future looks bleak for the younger generation, a new survey shows.

The survey, which was commissioned by the Broadbent Institute, found that millennials fear their working lives will be governed by precarious, short-term arrangements and that the gulf between rich and poor will grow. Their parents, meanwhile, worry that the younger generation will not produce enough income to support the social programs they’re counting on in old age.

“Parents across this country are fretting about the economic prospects of their kids. They’re worried their kids aren’t going to have the same economic opportunities as they did,” said Rick Smith, executive director of the Broadbent Institute, a left-wing think tank. “What really leaps out at me here is there’s a very high degree of angst.”

A feeling of anxiety about the economic prospects of a younger generation is not uncommon historically. What’s not clear is whether today’s fears are justified. Youth unemployment is at 13.6 per cent, unchanged over the last year and down from the peak of a recession that continues to send ripples through the global economy. This is also a period of significant technological change and it’s unclear what impact that will have over the long term. What’s clear is that a sense of pessimism, justified or not, is gaining momentum.

Baby boomers are more likely to say that their children face worse economic times than they did as young people. Just less than 50 per cent of the boomers surveyed said their children’s economic opportunities are worse than their own at that age, compared with 40 per cent that said they were better and 12 per cent that said they were the same, according to the online survey by Abacus. More than 55 per cent of boomers said they worried the younger generation won’t support social programs through taxes.

Millennials are expecting a different kind of working world from the one their parents entered. They expect to work a mixture of permanent and temporary jobs, compared with the more stable arrangements their parents had. They say lower rates of unionization will make good jobs harder to find and are more likely to say they don’t know anyone with an employer-provided pension, the survey said. Sixty per cent say the gap between rich and poor will increase over their lifetime, and only 16 per cent believe it will shrink.

Frances Woolley, an economist at Carleton University, said there’s no question today’s labour market is more unequal. This is a “winner take all” society, as some call it, where the greatest income gains go to those at the top of the spectrum and some, particularly those without a university education, will face a difficult job market. But one thing to consider is that the baby boomers had the good fortune to be born at the right time, an era of peace and prosperity, Prof. Woolley said.

“The older generation has had such a blessed life,” Prof. Woolley said. “Some generations are born in better times than others. That’s just the way it is.”

Matthew Cuthbert is a 27-year-old graduate of the University of Toronto. He has experienced the millennial’s anxiety. He has nearly $50,000 in student and credit-card debt and works at a community centre in customer service, earning $31,000 a year. He and many of his friends are the precariat, he said, a new class of precarious worker. It’s not what he was expecting, but after seven months unemployed, he’s grateful for the work.

“It’s frustrating to watch this break down. When I started school there was so much more optimism around the economy,” he said. “It’s far from the ideal situation that any of us anticipated.“

Younger Canadians feel angst about their financial prospects

Don Curren / Wall Street Journal

Canadians in the millennial and boomer generations disagree about much, but hold one thing in common: they’re deeply anxious about the economic future of young Canadians.

That was the key finding of a survey of Canadians between 20 and 30–the “millennial” generation–who are in the work force, and boomers, or those aged between 50 and 65, by the left-leaning Broadbent Institute.

“It puts [some numbers], for the first time, to the fact there’s deep angst, among both millennials and their parents, about the reduced economic opportunities available to young people, today,”Rick Smith, executive direction of the institute, told Canada Real Time.

“The scale of the angst certainly took us by surprise,” he said. “The strength of feeling here is really quite astonishing.”

The online survey, conducted last month, found that 41% of the millennials expect their working lives to comprise a mix of contract work and permanent jobs, with 39% anticipating a succession of permanent jobs.

That contrasts markedly with the experience of the boomers, 66% of whom reported working lives consisting of a string of permanent jobs and only 10% of whom experienced the combination of contracts and permanent positions expected by the millennials. 

A near majority of 49% of the boomers said things are worse for their children today, while 40% believe their kids’ economic opportunities are better than theirs were when they were the same age. More millennials—56%–said they expected their opportunities to be the same as or worse than their parents’.

On the housing front, more than half of boomers are certain they’ll own their home at retirement, but only a third of millennials are as confident.

Mr. Smith said the relative pessimism about the prospects of working Canadians, both among millennials and boomers, reflects their “lived experiences” in the last few years.

The survey found that 92% of boomers know someone with a workplace pension, with 51% of them knowing some or many. That compares with only 30% of millennials who know at least some people who have a workplace pension, and 20% knowing no one with such a benefit.

A big majority of both millennials and boomers agreed free-trade agreements have made Canadian businesses more profitable by making it cheaper to make things in other countries. But a majority of these same respondents also said trade agreements have cost Canadians jobs and opportunities.

Overall, the survey pointed to concern about the prospects of younger Canadians now, but also into the future, Mr. Smith said.

“This concern is not only for economic prospects of youth currently, it’s also a realization of economic prospects for youth in the future are likely to be dimmed,” he said.

“People don’t view this as a blip. They’re not anticipating that things are going to bounce back, any time soon,” Mr. Smith said.

Fair Elections Act attacks participation and debate

For many months the Conservative government has blatantly taken away by fiat the right to strike of union members within federal jurisdiction. They are now threatening to shut down environmental charities that are talking about climate change. And they are ramming through Parliament changes to the elections act that will almost certainly mean that many thousands of Canadians will not be able to vote.

Taken together these actions restrict freedom of association, limit freedom of speech and curtail a citizen’s right to vote. In short, there is a steady chipping away at the underpinnings of democracy.

Inspired by the voter suppression tactics used by the Republicans to disenfranchise marginalized groups in the U.S., the new election law would make it harder for certain groups to vote. The law would end the ability to “vouch” for the bona fides of a neighbour, a tool that allowed 120,000 voters — disproportionately aboriginal, youth and seniors — to cast ballots in the last election.

Conservatives claim that vouching allows for widespread fraud, a charge that experts deny.

The move is part of a broader sweep of changes that also serves to suppress the vote. For example, the new law will remove the ability of electors to use voter identification cards. Elections Canada had only in the last few years piloted the use of the cards to make it easier to cast a ballot at polling sites serving seniors’ residences, long-term care facilities, aboriginal reserves and on-campus student residences. The conclusion of this pilot project was that the “initiative made the voter identification process run more smoothly and reduced the need to ask the responsible authorities for letters of attestation of residence.”

In other words, voter identification cards had been successful in enfranchising these groups. Conservative MP Brad Butt, a member of the committee dealing with this measure, has been compelled to retract a completely fabricated story he had told in the House about this so-called fraud. Despite his apparent breach of parliamentary privilege, the Conservatives rejected an opposition bid to have a House committee look into Butt’s false claims that he saw voter identification cards stolen from recycling boxes to commit fraud.

Just as anti-democratic are changes that amount to a massive clawback to Elections Canada’s outreach mandate. This would severely restrict the agency’s public education and information programs, essentially prohibiting Elections Canada from encouraging people to vote. Gone would be its ability to support programs in our schools, like Student Vote’s mock elections, or the outreach work in aboriginal communities. To believe it’s accidental that these groups normally prefer the opposition parties is to believe in the tooth fairy.

The government’s bill also denies Elections Canada the kinds of powers it needs to investigate serious electoral wrongdoing, such as the robocalls fraud perpetrated by Conservatives in 2011 — the most important new powers requested by Elections Canada.

It is fitting, then, that the new law is being rammed through Parliament. Once more, Harper is using closure — a way to end debate early — to prevent people asking, for example, why school programs that teach kids how to vote are so bad. Why let MPs actually debate democracy when it’s not valuable enough to educate children about? The government has also voted down an opposition motion to have public hearings on a bill that will make such fundamental changes in our electoral system.

But such is the new normal in Ottawa, where sweeping bills that change dozens of laws are rammed through without debate. The government is also vowing to silence environmental charities because they engage in “political” activity. In Canada and other democracies such activist charities are widely seen as core institutions in a democratic civil society.

Canadian charities helped stop acid rain and smoking in restaurants. Their advocacy helped bring about mandatory seatbelts and led to tough drunk driving laws. Charities participating in public debate are helping the whole world understand how environmental degradation is threatening the planet.

While shutting down environmental charities would make it harder for Canadian voices to join others to tell the world what’s happening to the planet, it is also the case that the U.S. and Europe see the Canadian government’s indifference to the environment as a negative in reaching major decisions on trade in oil.

Having spent more than two decades in the House of Commons, I can think of no prime minister who has been so focused on undermining electoral participation and public debate.

We have a tradition of Conservatives, New Democrats and Liberals respecting everyone’s right to have a say. Past governments have avoided turning democratic process into a tool for one party’s advantage. Changes in electoral processes were always based on all-party consensus.

That Harper derides such all-party consensus is, sadly, no surprise. That his robotic backbench will unquestioningly obey is not news either. Except now, the victims of his disregard for debate aren’t only the people we elect. It’s those doing the electing as well.

Photo: midnightglory. Used under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.

The prescription for manufacturing

Three economists on how the manufacturing sector can bounce back
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Know your advantages

Manufacturing absolutely has a future in Canada, and in particular southwestern Ontario. The key to understanding the future of the industry is in knowing where our competitive advantages lie.

Low labour costs will never be a comparative advantage for Canadian manufacturing, but given those “costs” are largely wages, this should not be seen as a problem. Less obvious is how proximity to markets is no longer a comparative advantage for traditional manufacturing regions. The world’s economic centre of gravity is heading toward Asia, which places goods from southwestern Ontario at a geographic disadvantage compared to most other parts of North America. Even markets within North America are changing. In 1900, neighbouring cities such as Cleveland (7th), Buffalo (8th) and Detroit (13th) were among the biggest cities in the U.S. Now those cities are 48th, 73rd and 18th in population.

This disadvantage may pose less of a problem than it to appears at first glance. With supply chains becoming increasingly global, a smartphone assembled in China may have an operating system designed in Kitchener-Waterloo and Brantford, applications programmed in London and Windsor and use precision-crafted parts from St. Thomas and Sarnia.

The region maintains a number of advantages, including a financial sector that is familiar with the industry. We have one of the most well-educated workforces in the world, which gives us an advantage when it comes to precision manufacturing and products where high-quality control is important, such as food. Although our labour costs are high, there are significant cost advantages in other areas, such as access to land and clean water. Manufacturers that use these advantages are well-positioned for future growth.

— Mike Moffatt, assistant professor, Ivey Business School

Three ways to act now

Ontario manufacturing has had a rough ride over the last decade. A number of factors have been at play, including the rise of the dollar, the deep U.S. recession, and the growth of competition from emerging economies. However, we should not conclude that Ontario manufacturing is down for the count. Far from it.

In some research looking at leading Canadian firms done at Ivey’s Lawrence Centre, we find reasons for optimism. Firms such as Linamar, Magna and Shawcor are competing and winning at home and in global markets. Focusing on high value-added manufacturing, they are making the most of Canada’s skilled workforce and capacity for innovation to win new business around the globe.

Business and public-sector leaders convened with Ivey researchers in November to translate our research findings into action. They agreed on three recommendations for immediate action.

Leaders agreed that the primary responsibility for manufacturing success lies with the private sector. Therefore they aimed their first two recommendations at firms. Their first was to find a mentor: Firms seeking to expand into international markets need the counsel and advice of seasoned executives.

Their second recommendation was to form partnerships with local educational institutions. To attract the next generation of skilled workers and managers to manufacturing, firms need to connect directly with students by visiting classrooms and hosting plant tours. Linamar is a good example of a firm that is putting these ideas into practice.

Finally, leaders are looking for governments to raise their game, particularly in the area of attracting investment. Despite Canada’s many advantages, jurisdictions such as Mexico are winning the investment attraction game, even when wages are a small part of the total business proposition. Ottawa, provinces and municipalities need to work together to put our best case forward.

Ontario can compete and win at manufacturing. The leading firms we studied prove it. We need to stop focusing on our problems and start taking action on solutions.

— Paul Boothe, director of the Lawrence Centre at Ivey

How to work together

The recent depreciation of the Canadian dollar combined with recovery in the United States opens up a temporary window for recovery of Ontario’s hard-hit manufacturing sector. Those companies that have survived a brutal decade have the opportunity to grow. However, recovery will not happen automatically, and will require a major effort on the part of many players.

Support for new corporate investment is critical, but lowering the overall corporate tax rate has had little impact. Ontario’s corporate tax system should use enhanced tax credits to reward companies that invest heavily in new machinery and equipment, research and development, and worker skills.

Governments must also ensure access to the “patient” equity capital needed to finance investment that has a long-term payoff. Given the small scale of venture capital funds in Ontario and the focus of banks on short-term loans, we should establish an Ontario public investment bank focused exclusively on manufacturing. Such a body should operate at arms’ length from government, on the model of the federal Export Development Corporation.

Ontario has had a patchy record of fostering collaboration between the key players in a successful modern economy: government, companies, the post-secondary educational system; local governments; and unions. Drawing on past successes, Ontario should establish province-wide and local sector councils, bringing key players together to promote and deliver skills training and collaborative research programs. Community colleges can play a major role in rebuilding local manufacturing.

A revival of Ontario manufacturing will require active government leadership, and a spirit of partnership. It will certainly not come about if public institutions and unions are seen as the enemy.

— Andrew Jackson, Senior Policy Advisor, Broadbent Institute

Canadian families experience robust growth in net wealth despite high debt

Julian Beltrame / Canadian Press

Canadian families have become wealthier over the past several years, with net worth rising despite the well-documented growth in household debt and a setback from the recession, a new Statistics Canada study shows.

In a report that takes a long view on the state of Canadian finances, the agency finds that the 2012 median net worth among family units — of two or more persons and unattached individuals — has risen 44.5 per cent since 2005 to $243,800 and up almost 80 per cent since 1999.

Those family units have also accumulated more debt, a total of $1.34 trillion in 2012, up from $864.6 billion in 2005. Most of the debt — about $1 trillion — has been used to finance home purchases. All figures are in inflation-adjusted dollars.

The Conservative government said the report shows that Liberal criticism of their policies as not benefiting Canadians generally is wrong.

"That is a very significant increase ... after-tax disposable income has increased by 10 per cent across all income bracket," said Employment Minister Jason Kenney.

But while the overall picture of family finances was positive, the report also pointed to continuing disparities across regions, age groups and types of families.

The biggest single reason for the improvement in finances overall has been due to house prices reaching record levels, notes economist Andrew Jackson of the Broadbent Institute, and those prices are widely projected to moderate or even fall in the next few years.

"The big question is if and when we get a housing price correction, individuals will still be holding the debt and that is a cause for concern," he said.

Real estate prices have risen faster than mortgage debt and other assets, he notes, but if the trend reverses, some Canadian families may discover their wealth rests on "shifting sand."

For those who owned their homes, the median reported value of the residence was $300,000, up 46.6 per cent from 2005 and 83.2 per cent from 1999.

In terms of inequality, the report found that the wealthiest 20 per cent of family units accounted for 67.4 per cent of the total national net worth, although that was slightly lower than the 69.2 per cent the top quintile possessed in 2005.

Meanwhile, the top 40 per cent of families possessed 88.9 per cent of total net worth, leaving the bottom 60 per cent with a mere 11.1 per cent of the pie.

The lowest quintile — the poorest 20 per cent of families — had an overall negative net worth, meaning that as a group they had more debts than assets.

That segment of the population saw its family median net worth drop from about $1,300 in 1999 to $1,100 in 2012. By contrast, the top quintile saw its family median net worth rise from $981,400 in 2005 to $1.38 million in 2012.

Bank of Montreal chief economist Doug Porter said the data, while positive, still shows household debt remains a concern.

"The standout is the tremendous growth in net worth over the 13-year period. It works out to average annual increases of better than five per cent, which is quite impressive," he said.

But that doesn't mean household debt is a non-issue, he added, predicting that the biggest impact on the economy will be to act as a check on consumer spending going forward.

Overall, total family assets in Canada rose to $9.4 trillion in 2012, with the value of families' principle home representing one third of the total assets. Pension assets, including employer plans and private pension plans, made up 30 per cent of the total, while other real estate holdings — rental properties, cottages, timeshares and commercial properties — represent almost 10 per cent.

But the report confirms large disparities in net worth depending on age, the nature of the family unit and regions of the country.

For instance, median net worth was highest for families where the person with the highest income was 55 to 64 years old in 2012. For that group it came in at $533,600, more than double that of the overall population.

And lone parent families had the lowest median net worth — only $37,000.

Regionally, British Columbia reported the highest family median net worth at $344,000, followed by Saskatchewan ($271,400), Alberta ($267,500), and Ontario ($265,700). B.C. families had the biggest improvement since 1999, jumping from $150,700 when the province placed fourth.

At the bottom, family units in Newfoundland and Labrador and Prince Edward Island had a median net worth of $167,900 and $150,300 respectively.

Canada’s family wealth gains look “fragile”

Don Curren / Wall Street Journal

If you divide Canadian families up into fifths in terms of net worth, the lowest quintile had net assets of about 1,300 Canadian dollars ($1,170) in 1999.

In 2012, it was actually below that; the overall worth of the lowest 20% of families declined 15.4% to C$1,100 by 2012, according to the “Survey of Financial Security” from Statistics Canada.

It’s a stark indication Canada is not immune the drift toward economic inequality in evidence in many other economies around the world.

“All in all, [the Statistics Canada report is] further disturbing evidence that economic inequality remains a serious concern,” said a blog posting from the left-leaning Broadbent Institute.

Income inequality is more frequently used as a metric when assessing economic inequality. But net worth, the wealth a family has when its debts are subtracted from its assets, also provides insight.

It’s important to note that, unlike the bottom 20%, Canadians in the four other quintiles did reasonably well in those 13 years.

The median net worth of Canadian families was C$243,800 in 2012, up 44.5% from 2005, and almost 80% more than the 1999 median of C$137,000, after adjusting for inflation.

Some analysts say the report undermines the idea Canada’s middle class is under siege, and that’s supported by the fact that the three middle quintiles all enjoyed gains of more than 75% since 1999.

But there is a catch. Much of the gain in wealth was driven by the increase in housing prices. If they drop, as many expect, that could erode much of the gains.

“Housing prices went up faster than any other form of wealth, including financial wealth, [and] housing wealth is more equally distributed,” said Andrew Jackson, senior policy adviser to the Broadbent Institute.

As in 1999 and 2005, the principal residence was the largest asset for Canadian households in 2012. Their median value was C$300,000, up 83.2% from 1999 and 46.6% more than in 2005.

Housing prices fluctuate, but debt is generally fixed. When the housing market collapsed in the U.S., many American households that had high net worth on paper watched it being eradicated as slumping housing prices left them with a sharply reduced asset position, or indebted overall.

“The experience of the U.S. tells us that housing values can fall, and housing debts will remain,” Mr. Jackson said.

If Canada’s housing market is subject to a sharp correction, as some analysts forecast, the value of Canadian families’ principal asset will decline without an offsetting decline in debt.

That fact points to the “fragility” of Canadians’ recent gains in wealth, Mr. Jackson said.

Flaherty’s doubts about income splitting are one step to addressing inequality

This week has been a watershed moment in the battle against income inequality in Canada.

The curious twist is that it was comments made by Jim Flaherty – who, as Finance Minister, has actually exacerbated income inequality – that illuminate a fundamental shift in Canada’s political imagination.

Sometimes, the world works in mysterious ways.

A lot of ink has already been spilled about Mr. Flaherty’s unexpected decision to publicly repudiate family income splitting, the day after tabling a budget that set up the Conservative government to deliver on precisely this tax cut. After all, it’s not every day that a finance minister chooses to oppose a key electoral promise of the prime minister.

Mr. Flaherty’s comments immediately split the Conservative caucus, forcing Prime Minister Stephen Harper to cast doubt publicly on what was expected to be the core goody in the Conservative’s re-election arsenal.

While the political questions surrounding Mr. Flaherty’s decision to speak out are intriguing, it is the precise words that Mr. Flaherty used to articulate his opposition to income splitting that matter most.

“It benefits some parts of the Canadian population a lot. And other parts of the Canadian population virtually not at all,” Mr. Flaherty said. Earlier, he had mused that the tax measure needed “a long, hard, analytical look” by experts “to see who it affects in this society and to what degree. Because [he wasn’t] sure that overall it benefits our society.”

Given this government’s clear track record of introducing boutique tax initiatives that favour the wealthy, this sudden concern with equity is striking.

Mr. Flaherty, of course, is right about this $3-billion Mad Men giveaway.

Family income splitting would benefit only a small minority of families, giving a significant tax break to high-income traditional families with one earner and a stay-at-home spouse, while delivering little or nothing to middle- and lower-income families and nothing to single parents.

According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the top 5 per cent of all families would see more benefit from this tax change than the bottom 60 per cent – and 86 per cent of families would see no benefit at all. It would, in effect, actively make income inequality, not to mention gender inequality, worse.

But the Conservatives surely knew these troubling facts when they made the promise (emphatically and repeatedly) to introduce income splitting back in their election platform in 2011. So something changed in the world around Mr. Flaherty.

And that something, I believe, is the maturing of income inequality as an issue in the imagination of the Canadian public and, as a result, in the considerations of the politicians that serve us.

It is this maturing that allowed Mr. Flaherty not only to recognize that income inequality is a serious problem deserving of attention; but also to acknowledge that government – even Conservative governments – should not enact tax policy that deliberately makes the situation worse.

The story of how this change came about is yet to be told, but it no doubt has its roots in the tireless work and advocacy of citizen and civil society groups, academics, brave politicians and other equity-seeking voices. This change remains a tentative victory, as Conservative cabinet ministers continue to pop up this week to split with Mr. Flaherty and defend family income splitting and its genesis in the determined lobbying of social conservative pressure groups.

And the unfortunate reality is that we are still becoming ever more unequal, a trend due in large measure to political choices. Many countries have found ways to mitigate the growth of income inequality, while in Canada the policy response has tended to reinforce rather than offset the trend.

We know that since the mid-1990s, the social role of government has been dramatically cut back and its redistributive impact has faded. According to the OECD, government taxes and transfers lowered the gap between rich and poor most in Canada, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. By the early 2000s, we joined Switzerland and the U.S. as the countries with the smallest redistributive impact.

That’s why I take caution not to overstate things here. But I do believe Mr. Flaherty’s remarks signal some hope that there is growing public support and political will to address income inequality. At the very least, important public policy will now be tested against a simple and compelling principle: Does this make income inequality better or worse?

This article originally appeared in the Globe & Mail.

Photo: Just a Prairie Boy. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.

Progress Summit keynote Julia Gillard to head international education fund

Broadbent Institute congratulates Gillard, looks forward to her participation in the Summit

OTTAWA—The Broadbent Institute is delighted by the news that former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was named yesterday to lead the Global Partnership for Education, an international initiative to provide quality childhood education in developing countries. Gillard is giving the keynote speech at the Institute's Progress Summit in Ottawa on March 29th.

Gillard will be joined as a keynote speaker by economist and author Mariana Mazzucato, Canadian-born French MP Axelle Lemaire, and Human Rights Campaign's Director of Marketing Anastasia Khoo. A dynamic roster of panel speakers will also add their voices to the debate on fairer and more sustainable approaches to building a prosperous 21st century Canadian economy.

"Progressives like Julia Gillard will offer unique perspectives on cutting-edge ideas," said Broadbent Institute Executive Director Rick Smith. "The summit is all about bringing together top-notch policy experts to provide an innovative and tangible contribution to the Canadian public policy debate."

The Progress Summit will take place from March 28-30 in Ottawa. The latest speakers list, including keynote speaker biographies and photos, is available online at


For more information, or to request media accreditation, please contact:

Mike Fancie, Broadbent Institute
613-866-3606 or mfancie at broadbentinstitute dot ca