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Millennials shouldn’t lower expectations

Affordable housing rally May 24

Every generation has its cross to bear.

I hear this time and again when discussing the particular challenges of my Gen Y cohorts (for those just tuning in: job instability, stagnant wages, skyrocketing education and housing costs, environmental degradation, to name but a few).

Of course it’s true.

Our parents had the Cold War to contend with and the oil crisis. Their parents had the Second World War, and so on.

The thing that irks me, though, is when this pithy truism is trotted out in order to shut down any conversation regarding possible solutions to the very real, very worrying challenges faced by millennials.

I’m not saying we have it worse than our predecessors, although economic indicators do point to us being in the first generation in history to be less prosperous than our parents. But in revisionist history narratives, previous generations seem to have managed to get out of Dodge through sheer gumption, determination and bootstrappiness. In reality, they had help. It took an international, intergenerational effort to end the Second World War, for instance, and the era of economic prosperity peacetime ushered in made it easier for our parents to land stable, well-paying jobs than any other generation in history.

And yet, when it comes to the issues facing young people in cities like Vancouver and Toronto — chief among them housing prices — society at large seems to have thrown up its hands and said: Yeah well, that’s the way it is. Deal with it.

And so we do. We cobble together careers out of contract jobs, scramble to pay the rent and convert pantries into nurseries for growing families. Up to now, my preferred coping mechanism for this reality has been acceptance in the form of Zen-like indifference. But Eveline Xia has me wondering if maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to acquiesce to a life of lowered expectations.

“We seem to think we either have to move or accept the status quo,” she told me. “But you just look around the world and there are so many examples of conservative, free-market governments, like Hong Kong, who’ve stepped in [to the housing market].”

Indeed, as many as half of Hong Kong residents live in some kind of subsidized housing, and in Australia a robust public housing system eases the cost burden for low and middle-income earners. Xia has become somewhat of an expert in housing market interventions in the month since she vented her frustration on Twitter under the hashtag #Donthave1million. That tweet — her very first — quickly snowballed into a powerful social media campaign that has installed her as a leader in the crusade for affordable housing. She sees many options for intervention here, from preferential property tax rates for local residents to the rekindling of a national housing strategy. On May 24, she’ll be discussing them at an affordable housing rally at the Vancouver Art Gallery beginning at noon.

Xia said she believes her tweets hit such a nerve because they tapped into a generation embarrassed to speak up about their financial difficulties and fearful of being tarred with the entitlement brush. And there’s certainly been a vibrant backlash skewering millennials for making their own beds by being apathetic voters, or painting us as spoiled children holding out for white picket fences in the most expensive market in the world.

It’s a predictable response, but it misses the point. Sure, younger generations have a role to play in setting our own fortunes — voting in sufficient numbers would sure be a good start. But Xia makes the point that we’re not asking for multi-million dollar mansions. We simply need a few affordable housing options that will allow us to raise families in the communities where we live, work, and in many cases, grew up. In Xia’s view, it’s time to ask for — if not demand — the same courtesy other generations enjoyed in overcoming their challenging times: help. While Xia’s focus is on getting it from all three levels of government, I’d add another target group to the cause: our parents.

They may not be able to lend us the exorbitant sums required for a down payment, but they can lend us their political clout. The simple reality is that until we do start showing up to the ballot boxes en masse this issue won’t get much attention from the powers that be without an intergenerational effort. Rather than pitting young against old, I hope Sunday’s rally brings us together in the aim of making the world a little easier for those who are stuck in the starting blocks. So if you’re planning on coming out, perhaps invite mom and dad along. And if you’re a little skeptical that waving some signs will bring about help on the scale we need, just take a cue from even further down the generational spectrum. As my grandfather used to say: it never hurts to ask.