It's not about old vs. young. Growing inequality is the real problem.

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I turn to Maclean's if I want to know what idea conservatives will be pushing next. So when I saw a recent copy of Maclean's featuring a jarring photo of an old person's wrinkled hand with the middle finger raised, I realized the right is gearing up to make generational conflict the next big thing.

Along with the photo of the raised middle finger was a cover photo of a smiling, white-haired older woman holding a wad of $50 bills, with many more floating around her head, as if money were raining down on her. The cover headline: "OLD. RICH. SPOILED."

The gist of the piece was that older Canadians are making out like bandits, enjoying untold affluence and scooping up the lion's share of government financial support, while young people struggle to get by.

A study by the Conference Board of Canada this week painted a similar picture of the growing income gap between old and young -- a gap that could "trigger a backlash" in youth unwilling to pay high taxes when the benefits largely go to old people, suggested report co-author and conference board vice-president David Stewart-Patterson.

Both Maclean's and the conference board report raise an incredibly important issue: the lack of opportunity for young people in today's economy.

But they also both put a very particular spin on this tale -- a spin that pits old against young, while studiously avoiding the root cause of the problem: policies that have led to a dramatically rising gap between rich and poor of all ages.

"It's the golden age of seniors," Maclean's tells us. 

Well, for some. In fact, there's a huge divide between high-income and low-income seniors, and the Harper government has accentuated that divide -- by failing to strengthen the Canada Pension Plan (which is crucial to low-income seniors) and by supporting pension changes that leave workers financially vulnerable.

Meanwhile, the Harper government has further enriched some of the richest old people by introducing income-splitting for seniors -- an outrageous tax break that offers no benefit whatsoever for the vast majority of old people, but more than $6,500 a year in tax savings for the richest seniors.

So the suggestion that seniors as a group receive too much government support is absurd. Rich seniors, who need it least, are dramatically over-subsidized by government, while poor seniors definitely need more help, but have been all but abandoned by the Harper government.

For that matter, the precarious financial situation of young people is part of the erosion of economic security of working people in general, as the increasingly powerful corporate sector has pushed governments to redesign tax and trade laws in its favour, and to weaken union and workplace protections. This has allowed corporations to scoop up an increasingly large share of national income, at the expense of labour.

This corporate-government attack on workers has been fierce, but older workers, with more seniority, have been better positioned to defend themselves.

As a result, it's now common to have two-tier workplaces, where new hires receive pay and benefits that are a fraction of what long-time employees receive.

But it's corporations that have created this highly unequal situation, by taking advantage of vulnerable younger workers. Unions have fought bitterly against the two-tier workplace, knowing it will weaken worker solidarity.

Both Maclean's and the conference board's Stewart-Patterson suggest that young people could deal with their plight by launching a tax revolt -- the right's favourite cause that would lead to further cuts to our social safety net. How convenient for the right if it could enlist young people in its anti-tax crusade. 

A much better solution for young people, however, would be strengthening the social safety net by increasing government subsidies for university and college tuition, creating a universal child-care program, and directly investing in job creation, particularly for youth.

Above all, the right wants to ensure that the anger of disaffected youth doesn't end up directed towards the corporate elite -- as it was during Occupy Wall Street's campaign against the growing wealth and power of the 1%.

The accumulations at the top have continued to grow, and will lead to an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, as economist Thomas Piketty has documented in his widely acclaimed New York Times best-seller Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

When Maclean's ran a cover story about income inequality last year, there was no hint of class conflict, no rich CEO with his middle finger raised.

Rather, the story, entitled "Who Earns What?" simply laid out what different people were paid, including some famous big-earners, and posed the question on the cover: "How do you measure up?"

Readers with low salaries were thereby encouraged -- not to feel that the system as unfairly rigged towards the CEO crowd -- but rather to feel inadequate about their own personal deficiency.

Winner of a National Newspaper Award, Linda McQuaig has been a reporter for the Globe and Mail, a columnist for the National Post and the Toronto Star. She was the New Democrat candidate in Toronto Centre in 2013. She is the author of seven controversial best-sellers, including Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and other Canadian Myths and It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet. Her most recent book (co-written with Neil Brooks) is The Trouble with Billionaires: How the Super-Rich Hijacked the World, and How We Can Take It Back.

This article is reprinted with permission from iPolitics

Photo: frugg/flickr

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