As the Conservatives, NDP and Liberals compete for Canadians’ trust, it begs the question: who are they talking about when they say “middle class?”
Who are middle class Canadians and is it true that this socioeconomic group is disappearing? This Globe and Mail article on the subject says it well, “Rather than shrinking wages, there is evidence to suggest the middle itself is being hollowed out. The proportion of people in middle-income families has shrunk since the mid-1990s, while a share of those at the lower and higher ends rose, Statistics Canada data show.”
A CBC article specifically defines middle class as “the 60 per cent of Canadians who make more than the bottom 20 per cent (more than about $10,000 as individual income) and less than the top 20 per cent (less than about $60,000).”
But while specific financial markers can help delineate middle class status, it remains a highly subjective, relative term. Historically speaking, post WWII, middle class in North America meant a family with a single-bread winner (typically the father) and a mother at home with an average of three kids, who have the ability to own a house, a car, have enough food on the table, some disposable income and the ability to save.
If you ask experts, there are multiple ways of seeing the middle class.
“The middle class still exists,” says Leslie Pal, Professor of Public Policy and Administration and Director of the Centre on Governance and Public Management at the University of Carleton, “but it’s under threat.”
“The question is not whether the middle class is shrinking,” adds Pal, “but can someone between 20-30 years old expect to be middle class in the future? And the answer is no.”
Defining middle class in Canada
There are two ways of looking at the middle class. The first is to focus all the attention on the baby boomers and define middle class based on their experience. While this is problematic, it also makes sense for two reasons: (1) baby boomers make up a large portion of Canada’s total population, so, in terms of simple number crunching, their experience results in a national average and (2) because baby boomers are the majority, their votes become valuable and therefore most of the political rhetoric on middle class inevitably revolves around their experience. The hiccup with this scenario is that middle class baby boomers are relatively financially wealthy.
The second way of seeing middle class acknowledges the situation from an intergenerational point of view.
“Data suggests it’s really important to be careful about using the language of the middle class squeeze,” adds Paul Kershaw, Interim Associate Director, Human Early Learning Partnership at the University of British Columbia and Founder of Generation Squeeze Campaign. “While this language is popular among some political parties, it hides the reality that the squeeze is much more of an age issue.”
As Kershaw points out, high housing prices explain why the median 55-64 year old today reports wealth that has nearly tripled compared to the same age group a generation ago. “That’s not a middle class squeeze,” says Kershaw. “That’s the middle of a demographic nearing retirement with more wealth than the country has ever seen.”
High home prices that were good for people who bought homes decades ago are crushing their kids and grandchildren’s dreams of home ownership. “Gens X and Y pay housing prices that have nearly doubled after adjusting for the CPI, with wages that are down $3/hour, even though they are more than twice as likely to have postsecondary [education] today compared to the past, and take jobs that are far less likely to pay generous pensions,” he explains. “In sum, the squeeze is primarily on younger generations.”
Political focus is on the baby boomer middle class
As 93% of Canadians self-identify as middle class, all three political parties have high stakes when it comes to winning the hearts of middle class voters.
“The middle class is the political battle ground,” states Pal. “And it’s not about which parties benefit the middle class but how they are appealing to an older, greying middle class.”
In other words, the three parties are either completely ignoring the generational aspect of the problem or simply don’t understand it. Instead, their energy is going into securing the votes of middle class baby boomers.
According to Pal, there are two broad directions the three parties have taken to appeal to the baby boomer middle class. “One is what I call the jelly bean policy and the other is policy that tackles major problems,” he says.
In jelly bean policy, small offerings are made to baby boomer middle class voters because they’re already living relatively comfortably and have no sense of urgency.
Here we see the Conservatives’ tax breaks on sports equipment, bus passes and policy that unbundles cable packages and the NDP’s messages regarding high ATM fees. “They’re tiny policies,” says Pal. “Like giving jelly beans, it’s sweet and tasty, but it doesn’t fix the problem.”
The other direction solves larger problems, with a focus on reforming the pension system. Much has been done to this regard and there is much to do.
“The use of the term middle class [in the political arena] is rhetorical to some extent,” says Pal. “The Tories have crafted a package whose appeal is sharper [to the baby boomers.]” They’re tough on crime, focused on tax breaks and have strict immigration policy.
The Liberals’ middle class rhetoric is lighter on policing and immigration and focuses on minorities, making ends meet and affordable education, while the NDP is focusing on household debt and lowering credit card fees. The NDP has created a number of social support systems that have safeguarded the middle class, including Medicare. However, their focus has traditionally been about protecting main-street workers and minorities.
But none of the three parties are drafting policy that addresses the threat of a disappearing middle class in the future. As they get ready for the 2015 election — and with the help of sophisticated technology to micro-target various demographic groups — they’ll have to remember to tailor real policies aimed at the group that’s potentially got the most to lose, generation squeeze.
The parties might benefit reading the recommendations of Generation Squeeze‘s research including three policy proposals under the umbrella term, New Deal for Families.
Sanita Fejzic is an Ottawa-based literary author and freelance writer. She freelances for a number of newspapers, magazines and blogs including rabble.ca, The Ottawa Magazine and Apt 613. She was also the author of “The Beaver Tales” blog for Xtra newspaper as well as the Ottawa correspondent for 2B, Être and Entre Elles magazines. Sanita’s first novella, To Be Matthew Moore, was shortlisted for the 2014 Ken Klonsky Contest, and she has published her poetry and short stories in various literary magazines including The Continuist, Guerilla, Byword and The Newer York.
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