Michael Valpy's searing look at our disengaged youth that want little or nothing to do with our society illustrates the failure of mainstream politics to speak in terms that resonate with our young people, that address their concerns and the bleakness with which they view their future.
[There is today] a population cohort that David Herle, one of Canada’s best known political strategists and a corporate consultant on branding and reputation, has labelled the Spectators, so-called because its members aren’t engaged — at least in traditional ways — with the society around them, and see little point in trying to influence the course of events unfolding in their country and the world.
Mass media, built on the assumption of shared values and aspirations in society, don’t reach them.
They are inclined to see mainstream Canadian society as alien. A pack of cards. A sham. According to Herle’s research, they share few if any of the life goals or aspirations as their fellow citizens.
They tend to dislike their work and do it only for the money.
They put a higher value on being alone than other segments of Canadian society — a finding that has resonance to recent research showing Canadians are shifting out of their more traditional collectivist society toward a more individualistic society.
At the core of the Spectators’ alienation, says Herle, is a feeling of a lack of control over the direction of their lives. They do not think that life has offered them many opportunities, and they do not feel they can influence their financial or personal direction. “They see themselves as corks bobbing in the water, pushed and pulled where the tides take them,” Herle wrote in Policy Options last fall.
The Spectators — who comprise as much as 25 per cent of the population — are the extreme end of a profound faultline in Canadian society defined by age and education
In the middle of the divide are the remaining cohort of older Canadians, but predominantly the great majority of the population under 45. They deeply distrust government (nearly three-quarters of Canadians think the Harper government is moving in the wrong direction) and Canadian politics in general. In sum, they are withdrawing from formal participation in Canadian democracy and think social conservative values such as respect for authority are irrelevant. This view is particularly pronounced among those who are young, university-educated and Quebeckers.
An EKOS Research poll done for this series shows only 15 per cent of younger Canadians trust the older generation, and only 25 per cent of older Canadians trust younger Canadians. The poll also shows that 40 per cent of young Canadians (and 36 per cent of all Canadians) would consider breaking or ignoring federal laws with which they disagreed. Forty per cent also indicated that whatever public life Canadians have in common is determined by its elites. Seven out of 10 young Canadians report they have little or no influence on their communities.
Hand in hand with political mistrust is economic pessimism — the fear of middle class and young Canadians that their futures are dark, that the Millennials will be the first generation of Canadians to do worse economically than their parents. And, as a corollary, that inequality is becoming the norm in Canada, with a small group of uber-rich grabbing an ever-increasing share of the country’s wealth while everyone else either goes nowhere or slides backward.
In its most recent survey of Canadians’ values, EKOS reports that for the first time in the history of its research, economic issues are twinned with concerns about fairness and inequality.
“These are not the traditional and more modest concerns we have seen in the past about the gap between rich and poor. This new and more potent linkage is the perceived gap between the uber rich and everyone else, and nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in what can only be described as the crisis of the middle class,” the EKOS reports says.
This is a society losing its glue. How far down the road before it bubbles to the surface? British sociologist Michael Mann once wrote that social cohesion is not marked by a society of common values but by a society that can tolerate conflicting values.
The values and goals of mainstream Canada do not intuitively appeal to Spectators. They are not generally happy. They don’t feel particularly optimistic about their own lives or the lives of future generations. If they worry less than others about falling behind, it is because they do not expect to get ahead. Their lives have not been filled with opportunity.
According to Herle’s study, Spectators are under 35, mainly male, mainly living in the suburbs of large metropolitan areas and mainly third-generation Canadian or beyond (Mihailescu is in the so-called 1.5 generation but otherwise fits the template rather well).
What’s truly interesting — and even spooky — about them is that, for the most part, it is not apathy, not ignorance, not the generational aberrations that accompany being young, that shape their beliefs and values but a concrete rejection of established social institutions coupled with fear that the Western idealized dream of progress forever is dead and that what’s coming down the road toward them, economically and socially, is not nice.
Samara, in its study on the politically disengaged in Canada (“The Real Outsiders”), has found a widespread parallel feeling of powerlessness and rejection of the current institutions of Canadian democracy as effective instruments of the people’s voice.
Graves predicts that the voting rate among the young may slip into the teens-percentage in the next couple of elections and never recover. Moreover, he suggests the ranks of the young and the economically insecure and precariously employed may soon coalesce.
(Young Canadians’ unemployment rate is resolutely stuck at more than twice the national average, they’re humiliated with unpaid internships, they’re told on a regular basis they have the wrong skills and education for the jobs they seek and many increasingly fear they’ll never be able to afford to live in the cities where they grew up.)
Herle asks: “What does it mean for democracy when so many people believe any attempt at making a difference is pointless and lack faith that political change can create meaningful outcomes?”
Keep in mind economist Judith Maxwell’s definition of social cohesion: The process of “building shared values and communities of interpretation, reducing disparities in wealth and income, and generally enabling people to have a sense that they are engaged in a common enterprise.”
Scant signs of that.
Only 14 per cent of poll respondents felt the federal government represented their values — and the gulf was massive between younger and older Canadians — and 37 per cent said they would be likely to break any law that morally offended them.
Canadian society has two groups withdrawing from formal democratic participation — the young and the economically vulnerable — while changes are rapidly taking place that impact negatively on their lives.
There are roughly four times as many votes registered by seniors as by younger voters. This effect is compounded by dramatic differences in political preferences with seniors being more than twice as likely as younger voters to favour conservative choices.
“In a decade or two,” says Graves, “the younger voters will be in the prime of their lives and paying for the political choices of their now departed grandparents which are not likely to reflect the priorities or, one could speculate, the needs of next Canada.”
In other words, the young — or youngish — Spectators who now dismiss as severely flawed and even irrelevant the country’s political and democratic institutions may likely possess a vengeful hostility toward them 10 or 20 years from now.
“In the case of the economically vulnerable,” continues Graves, “disengagement from the political world no doubt worsens their positions of relative privation. Dealing with the burgeoning gap between rich and poor has clearly not been a priority for upper North American governments over the past 30 years and that inequality has escalated beyond the levels seen in the gilded age of the early 20th century.”
For the young, the prospect of years of stagnant economic growth (or worse) due to global economic troubles may make their current economic difficulties a more permanent problem.
The purpose of Herle’s project was to poke into Canadians’ values and aspirations and segment them into groups that would help marketers shape their selling pitches: “Much of marketing communications,” wrote Herle in Policy Options, “is based on aspirations considered to be universal. If a group doesn’t share those aspirations, how can we create advertising that finds affinity with them?”
Which was precisely the problem with the Spectators. They don’t believe in status buying. Or consuming for the sake of consuming. They also don’t believe in many of the touchstones of Canadian society — like democracy. And Parliament.
And so Herle lamented: “Where are we headed when a quarter of our population, whose incomes are roughly in line with those of the rest, tell us that the Western ideal of progress is not making them happy or satisfied?” (They don’t believe in progress, either.)
And then the clincher: “The problem is we don’t know what to say to them.”
That’s the chasm.
Valpy's fine piece of journalism is a warning to us all. It is a damning indictment of our mainstream political parties including New Democrats. Mark Twain wrote that many men die at 27, we only get around to burying them at 72. He might have been writing of the geezer class we have in Parliament - Harper, Mulcair and the youngest geezer of the lot, Trudeau.
What are we going to do to repair our society, to restore social cohesion, to re-engage with the disaffected? It's not going to happen until we commit to policies such as democratic reform, the restoration of a free press, reversing inequality, the environment, returning collective bargaining and organized labour to its rightful place, rolling back corporatism and embracing new economic principles required to accommodate our changing world. We have to do these things. We have to have these discussions. We have to seek a genuine social consensus that reflects the interests and needs of everyone including those we have driven out of our political process. This will be almost impossible without a near complete resurrection of the political Left and the restoration of at least some vestiges of progressivism to the Liberals. These things we must do if our country is to have the future it deserves.