Ask a Boomer: Do we really have it harder?
Michael Fane is 67 years old. When he was 20, he watched the moon landing live on television. In university, he paid $345 for a calculator that weighed as much as a brick. He’s owned several detached homes over the years — detached homes! In Vancouver! As a 28-year-old, a lot about Michael’s life feels totally foreign to me.
It’s easy to make these kinds of comparisons, and to write off the baby boomers as wholly unsympathetic to the circumstances of young people. But Michael really had more of a millennial lifestyle — he put off the conventional markers of “adulthood” until his 30s, switched careers frequently over the years, and although he worked really hard to provide for his two kids, he always tried to prioritize family and travel.
Oh, yeah, Michael’s also my dad.
I’ve spent most of my life ignoring his advice when it comes to my choice of music, clothing, or romantic partners. But since he’s managed to retire pretty comfortably, I think it might be time to suck up my pride and ask for some fatherly guidance.
Any regrets about agreeing to do this?
Nope, go for it. Just remember that with free advice you get what you pay for.
Alright. What do you think is different between your experiences in your 20s and mine?
I don’t think that our experiences are much different. It’s easy to look at the price of things as a marker, but it isn’t always indicative. Sure, when I was your age, a case of beer was $2.10. But when it comes to the necessities of life, our struggles were the same.
I’ve told you the story about how in university we’d donate blood before out going to drink to save money, right? It’s because the important things were expensive. A house in Vancouver back then was $200,000. Factor in inflation, and that’s about $800,000, not far off from where it is now. I knew guys at UBC who lived in the forest to save on rent. They slept in cars in the parking lots. Of course, people were hippies back then, so they didn’t much care. But it’s really the price of the luxuries that have changed for your generation. And the definition of what’s a luxury and what’s a necessity have shifted. I was 7 or 8 before my family got a television set. No one paid for cable until the 70’s. Only rich people had dishwashers. But these things are considered necessities now. The minimum acceptable lifestyle of kids today was a luxury lifestyle when I was a kid. But then again, the Beatles’ White Album was $9 on vinyl [$65 today]. And we considered that a necessity.
I don’t know if I consider tuition a luxury, and that’s definitely skyrocketed over the price of inflation.
That’s true. Tuition was $400 a year when I studied engineering. Keep in mind the minimum wage was $2, but sure, it was different. I went into the bush as a highway labourer for a couple of months over the summers and paid for it all. You could make $17 an hour there. People made sacrifices, and you budgeted for things. I still think that’s the same for how your generation manages today.
Our expenses might be similiar, but I think the environment is fundamentally different. My brother and I graduated into a recession. We’ve fought for jobs, even in the big cities. I don’t know if the boomers had to navigate something comparable.
Well, it depends on where you were in the baby boom. Coming out of university, we were entering the job market when everyone currently in it was in their 50’s. Instead of paying an older engineer $18,000, you could pay a younger worker $14,000 and have them work 60 hour weeks. We blew out the older generation, because we would work cheap. Now all us old fogies are hitting retirement age, and that gap is going to get filled in with people who are 30. So there’s a huge opportunity for your generation there. The guys who are 45 and 50 now will end up working for you.
You’re an anomaly among boomers. You married late, had my brother and I when you were pushing 40, and you’ve switched between a few careers over the years. In a lot of ways, you’re kind of a millennial.
I think that’s an important distinction to make. My brothers all followed the more conventional path. Now your uncle Bill owns a couple of Rolls Royces and vacations in Maui. It worked out pretty well for him. But as I see it, you can get to the top of the tree in two ways. You can sit on an acorn or climb. Owning property, or working a traditional, well-paying job, that’s sitting on an acorn. Working job to job, that’s climbing. Your mother and I climbed.
Climbing sounds a lot more grueling. But you’ve retired comfortably. How did you make it work?
Well, marrying your stepmom was helpful. She came with a government pension. But really, it was maintaining the habits from when times were tougher.
What kind of habits were these?
Saving money when the times were good. Spending it on the luxuries that mattered to us. At the risk of sounding like a crotchety old guy, I do think young people should question some of their hobbies. They’re expensive, and they don’t add much to your life. Quit smoking and pay yourself the money you’d spend on cigarettes. Put it into your tax-free savings account. This will pay off in the long run.
Any other advice you want to give to the kids today?
You have a bachelor’s degree in English. When I was your age, you may as well have gotten a degree in basket weaving. But you’ve found your own opportunities. And it’s worked out well for you. You don’t need my advice.
Sure, it’s worked out for now.
“For now.” That’s probably the best advice anyone could ever offer. In my generation, a bachelor’s degree could buy you a lifetime of work. Now it might offer you five years. So stay flexible, stay prepared. And for god’s sake, do what you want to do. When I was your age, people studied engineering because it guaranteed a job that would pay you $14,000 a year [about $80,000 now]. That’s not the case today. Nothing is guaranteed, even if you go into medicine or law. Things are happening faster and faster. Self-driving cars ten years ago? That was total science fiction. The trick is to be flexible. Invest in yourself, in your ability to adapt. Study what makes you happy and learn how to think for yourself.
This is pretty solid advice. Thanks for doing this dad.
Always lovely to talk to you. Even if it is on assignment.