Reduced expectations

Canadians point the way to a leaner society

JOE CHIDLEY December 30 1996

Reduced expectations

Canadians point the way to a leaner society

JOE CHIDLEY December 30 1996

Reduced expectations

Canadians point the way to a leaner society



Welcome to Canada in the year 2005. That, at least, is the vision that emerges from the Maclean’s/CBC News year-end poll, which explores Canadians’ expectations for their society in the early years of the approaching millennium. Their responses about the economy, jobs and social services are generally pessimistic—echoing the bleak national mood that last year’s annual poll uncovered for the first time in its grim detail. To better illuminate that trend, this year’s questionnaire asked

respondents not only to consider the likelihood of 16 specific scenarios for the future, but also to pronounce on their acceptability. Their responses point to some hot-button political issues—mainly related to work—where Canadians are clearly unhappy about what they see awaiting them in the future. Conversely, the nation appears remarkably sanguine about some supposedly volatile issues—with almost as many respondents finding the notion of a separate Quebec acceptable (37 per cent) and those considering that outcome likely within a decade (42 per cent). Overall, their responses to a range of questions about the future of medicare, education, work and national unity present a clear message to politicians: people are looking for solutions.

Pollster Allan Gregg, who has worked with Maclean’s on the annual year-end sampling of the nation’s mood since its inception in 1984, concludes that Canadians have now gone beyond worry and into a kind acquiescence, brought about by years of economic anxiety. The sources of the anxiety are well known: years of recession followed by a jobless recovery, deep government cutbacks, an economy subject to the whims of foreign currency traders, chronic homelessness in the cities, increasing child poverty—the list goes on. But the acquiescence is clearly more complex. As they look to the future, Canadians seem to have concluded that the depressing economic conditions are here to stay. And not only do they have little faith that the traditional welfare state can make things better, but a remarkably large constituency also does not believe it should. Indeed, Canadians—in what Gregg calls “incredibly high”

The classified section of the on-line newspaper contains hundreds of employment opportunities, but not one is for a full-time job. The people with work are putting in longer hours and getting less money than they did back in the ’90s. Most cannot afford to retire at 65.

With the private sector taking on a larger role in shaping society, the public sector has become increasingly irrelevant, effectively neutered by its diminished spending power. Health care and universities operate on two tiers—publicly supported institutions for those with limited funds, and a private system for those with money. Cashstrapped governments have passed off the burden of many social services to charities, government pensions are a thing of the past, and there is little assistance for people who lose their jobs. The risk of violence and harm has increased. And the nation is only hanging together by a thread. It is a lean, mean world, where people must fend for themselves against the vagaries of society and the marketplace.

now expect government deficits to be lower by the turn of the century, up from the 31 % who expressed that opinion in last year’s poll.

say it is unlikely that any part of Canada will join the United States within the next decade.

numbers—now seem willing to accept fundamental changes in the social safety net.

That new reality is most apparent in attitudes towards three pillars of Canada’s social system: universal medicare, public education and government-funded welfare. Despite the long-standing political notion of universality as a sacred trust in Canada, eight out of 10 respondents now expect a two-tiered health system to be in place within 10 years. Even respondents who are generally optimistic about the future on other issues foresee two-tier medicare by a 3-to-l margin. Eight out of 10 also expect private universities—independent of government funding—to be operating by 2005 for those who are prepared to pay. And 79 per cent expect governments to increasingly ask charitable organizations to provide social services.

Even more remarkably, the poll finds a high acceptance level for those scenarios. A solid majority— 61 per cent—say that the evolution of private universities is at least somewhat acceptable. Similarly, 53 per cent are at least resigned to having government hand over social services to charities. And almost half of respondents—47 per cent—find the expected emergence of a two-tier health-care system acceptable.

Those findings do not surprise former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent, now a visiting fellow at England’s Oxford University, where he is conducting research on 3 the future of the welfare state. “Psychologically, Cana5 dians are still in a precarious state,” Broadbent says. 1 “From a job point of view, everyone but the rich is feel-

ing more insecure. When people are in those circumstances— regrettably—they tend to become more self-protective, less generous.” But Broadbent cautions that the poll findings should be considered in a broader international context, one in which he detects increasing dissatisfaction with “the Thatcher-Reaganite cutback philosophy.” As an example, he points to recent polling data in England that show a majority of Britons wanting to preserve their nationalized health system, even if that means higher taxes. Says Broadbent: “If you asked Canadians whether they would be willing to pay more taxes to preserve universal medicare—notwithstanding that 47 per cent said they approved of a two-tiered system—the same people could end up saying yes.”

But if they are showing signs of shedding their attachment to government programs, Canadians are also turning their expectations towards the private sector. Fully 87 per cent of respondents say they expect private enterprise to play a much bigger role in society. More to the point, almost as many—83 per cent—say they find that acceptable. But they clearly do not have faith that business leaders will solve a deep-seated anxiety about the future— one focused mainly on jobs.

Every poll question concerning the future of employment shows a wide variance between what people expect and what they want. Eight out of 10 respondents consider it likely that many people will never find full-time work over the course of their lives, a prospect that just three out of 10 find acceptable. Similarly, eight out of 10 respondents expect most people to be unable to retire at age 65, and, again, less than a third find that acceptable. As for the nature of work in the next century, almost eight in 10 anticipate that people in 2005 will be working longer for fewer rewards, a view most strongly held in Quebec (84 per cent) and by 18-to-24-year-olds (83 per cent). Only 37 per cent, however, find that acceptable.

In the workplace of the future—offering tough jobs or no jobs, and no safety net—few Canadians expect government to be there to help those who fall through the cracks. On the pocketbook issue of government pensions, 80 per cent deem it likely they will disappear within 10 years. Again, the notion meets with a low degree of acceptance—39 per cent. A smaller majority—64 per cent—expect governments to provide little or no assistance to people who lose their jobs. But that is the least acceptable notion of all—approved of by a mere 23 per cent (including, oddly, almost a

MILLENNIAL ANGST By 2005, will there be... ? Percentage Percentage saying that saying that is HOT ISSUES is likely acceptable People who never find . .... . 80% 30% full-time work No government pensions 80% 39% Many people unable to retire at 65 30% Charities taking over 7go/ 53% social services Longer work, fewer rewards 78% 37% Little government assistance 64% 23% LOW-RESISTANCE ISSUES Larger role for private sector 87% 83% Large city populations 83% 75% half nonwhite Two-tier health care 81% 47% Private universities 80% 61% RELATIVE NON-ISSUES A separate Quebec Parts of Canada joining the United States

say they would accept a revival of spiritual values Oand a rejection of materialism, even though only 47% think that is likely by 2005.

consider the end of government pensions unacceptable, even though 80% expect that to happen by 2005.

third of respondents in Newfoundland, where unemployment is running above 18 per cent).

On the surface, the political message seems stark: concentrate on creating jobs. But a close look at the responses reveals a more complex pattern, including some significant gender gaps. Asked if they expect the threat of violence in society to escalate, 84 per cent of women say yes, compared with 78 per cent of men. Women are more inclined than men to say that some government programs will disappear—and to heartily disapprove of those changes. While 51 per cent of men consider the prospect of two-tiered

health care acceptable, the level among women is 43 per cent. Fewer women than men find the notion of private universities acceptable—53 per cent, compared with 69 per cent. And only 34 per cent of women deem the elimination of government pensions acceptable, compared with 43 per cent of men. “Although it’s changing, women still tend to take care of children and old people,” says Maude Barlow, chairwoman of the Council of Canadians, an Ottawa-based public interest group. “Women know who will have the responsibility when the social programs are gone. When care for sick people is left more and more to ‘families,’ that’s mainly women—and women know it.”

Women also have a greater tendency to foresee trouble in the workplace. They consider it more likely than men do that people will be unable to retire at 65 (81 per cent to 76), and they find that prospect less acceptable (27 per cent to 33). They see the possibility of working longer for less as both more likely (81 per cent) and less acceptable (34 per cent) than men (at 75 and 39 per cent, respectively). And only 24 per cent of women find the prospect of never finding full-time work an acceptable social situation,

compared with 36 per cent of men.

Among age-groups, 18-to-24-yearolds—the youngest and therefore the one most vulnerable to future trends—foresee the most profound changes in society. For one thing, they have the greatest faith in technology: 76 per cent of them think it will make life easier for Canadians, nine percentage points above the national average. As well, 38 per cent of those young Canadians, compared with 33 per cent overall, consider it likely that, early in the next millennium, many people will live well past 100 years. On the issue of immigration, they most readily embrace the notion that the number of nonwhite Canadians would equal whites in major urban centres: 75 per cent of all respondents, 80 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds and only 67 per cent of seniors approve of that possibility.

Still, what set young Canadians apart most clearly are their attitudes towards government and social programs. Well over half of 18-to-24year-olds—57 per cent—endorse two-tiered health care, and fully 68 per cent would welcome private universities—a higher approval rating than in any other age-group. Similarly, they are most accepting of the disappearance of government assistance for the unemployed (28 per cent), are likely to welcome transferring social services to charities (56 per cent, exceeded only by 55-to-64-year-olds), and show the highest acceptability of the disappearance of government pensions (42 per cent).

Many of their responses, in fact, reveal a stark difference in attitudes from those of the next youngest age-group. The 25-to-34-yearolds, roughly encompassing the so-called Generation X, were born and raised in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Canadian social safety net was arguably at its strongest. And they are clearly more tied— and more willing to defend—its main elements. Only 44 per cent of Gen-X’ers, for instance, accept two-tier health care—the lowest of any age-group, and 13 points below the younger generation. Similarly, only 55 per cent of 25-to-34-year-olds accept the idea of private universities—again the lowest, along with seniors, and again 13 points below 18-to-24-year-olds. Gen-X’ers also diverge from their younger counterparts over working harder for fewer rewards: only 28 per cent accept the notion, the least of any group and seven points below 18-to-24-year-olds.

So what is it with the younger generation? Aside from their hard line on pensions, health care and other social issues, they are also the most likely age-group to say that corporate leaders deserve their huge salaries. One explanation for their attitudes, according to Gregg, is that 18-to-24-year-olds grew up in the late 1970s and

The youngest respondents, aged 18 to 24, are most likely to believe that by the year 2005: • there will be no government assistance for those who lose their jobs (72%) • those with jobs will be working harder for fewer rewards (83%) • there will be no government pensions (89%). That age group is also most accepting of: • a two-tier health system (57%) • private universities (68%) • as many nonwhites as whites in the cities (80%).

aged 45 to 54 think it is likely that, by 2005, many people will never find full-time work.

of respondents expect that almost everyone will live well past 100 by the year 2005.

Quebecers, at 49%, are most likely, and Ontarians, at 62%, least likely to believe Quebec will be a separate country by 2005.

1980s—the time of Thatcher, Reagan and Mulroney, when pro-business rhetoric about getting government off the backs of the people had wide currency. For them, the arguments for an all-embracing social welfare system are less compelling than they are to older generations. The same seems to apply to the issue of national unity: in the poll, 18-to-24-year-olds are more likely than older groups to expect Quebec to separate and, at 41 per cent, are also more accepting of separation. “They are the most happy with what have historically been unacceptable possibilities, and they are the most pro-free enterprise of any agegroup,” notes Gregg. “The Gen-X’ers see things decaying and they are angry about it. But these kids are saying, "What else is there?’ ” Meanwhile, just over a year after the close-call

referendum in Quebec, Canadians overall remain uncertain as to whether their country will—or even should—survive. Asked if they expect Canada or part of it to join the United States in the next 10 years, 70 per cent (including 55 per cent in Quebec) say that is unlikely. And only a quarter of respondents consider that notion acceptable. But turning to the possibility of Quebec becoming a separate country within 10 years, 42 per cent nationally, and 49 per cent in Quebec, think it likely. What is more, 37 per cent across the country, and 55 per cent in Quebec, find that possibility acceptable. “English Canada has gone to sleep on this issue,” says Gregg. “But in Quebec, you’ve got 60 per cent of francophones saying that separation is acceptable. That sense of inevitability does not bode well for the future of Canada.” The two solitudes, it seems, are still alive and well—and still not agreeing. At least some things never change. □

believe the risk of being exposed to violence or harm will be greater in 2005 than it is now.