Read President Patrick Deane's 2017 Spring Convocation address

June 20, 2017
photo by Sarah Janes     Patrick Deane, Spring Convocation 2017

This is a condensed version of the original address that was given during the 2017 Spring Convocation.

A few weeks ago, Statistics Canada released a series of data derived from the 2016 census, bearing on the age and sex of the Canadian population. The report was based on the first census since mandatory completion of the long form was restored, and it made big news, because it revealed that Canada has undergone a significant generational shift.

For the first time since Confederation in 1867 the seniors’ share of the population now exceeds the children’s share; and the group in between (15 to 64 year-olds) is shrinking proportionately.

StatsCan reports that such knowledge “will be especially helpful for adapting social programs for children, adults and seniors to the new demographic reality,” but I wonder about that. Undoubtedly it will help us identify and understand “the new demographic reality,” but what it will mean to “adapt” to that “reality” is much more than a statistical question.

Implicit in the phrase “demographic reality” is an assumption that certain consequences must inevitably follow the shift: for example, that funding for health and social programs will move proportionately to the aging and the elderly, even as the working population that must pay for those programs shrinks. That may be logical, and providing proper care to the elderly, no matter how numerous they are, should not be negotiable in a civilized nation. Nevertheless, there are vitally important questions we must still ask about what this scenario means for the younger generation.

These are especially important questions to ask in 2017, as Canada marks 150 years as a nation. Our sesquicentennial is an opportunity to look into the future and to imagine what Canada will become in the next 50 or 100 years; and it is in that context that the 2016 census results are so thought-provoking. They tell us that a far-reaching and unprecedented “generational shift” is happening right now, just as we’re running up the anniversary flag. It is a shift that sends us back to our last big national event, the centennial, in 1967.

That celebration coincided with another very significant and related generational shift, the end-point of the baby boom, the population surge that began after the Second World War. It is the aging members of that generation whose entry into the ranks of seniors has given rise to the demographic changes that the 2016 Census recently revealed.

I am a baby boomer, and it was my generation that seemed so incomprehensible to our parents that a special term had to be coined: “the Generation Gap.” The Gap expressed itself through significant and sometimes profound differences of opinion about music, politics, personal values and other topics. Families like mine became cultural battlegrounds. I remember well my father’s red-faced fury when he discovered in my elder brother’s drawer a pair of blue jeans with an extravagant floral design and a shirt with puffed sleeves!

“Generation Gap” was a term invented by sociologists, building on Karl Mannheim’s earlier theory of generations. For Mannheim, a generation was not simply a cohort of people born and achieving maturity between specified years; it was also one shaped by its particular historical experience. Mine was, for example, post-war and post-Hiroshima, but definitely not post-nuclear, as we lived in daily apprehension of a nuclear apocalypse. My wife remembers being trained in school to duck under her desk and cover her head in anticipation of an atomic blast.

While the 2016 census seems to confirm we are in the midst of a decisive generational shift, it is still far too early to speculate on the qualitative dimensions of whatever gap might open up between your generation and mine.

There will certainly be economic and other consequences of the aging of the Canadian population. Today, as seniors come to outnumber children and the active, wealth-producing workforce shrinks, it is obvious that significant challenges lie ahead as the torch passes from one generation to the next.

I am profoundly hopeful about the future, however, because of my faith in all of you. In 1970, anthropologist Margaret Mead published Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap, beautifully capturing the service that every new generation performs for its society. “The young,” she wrote, are “free to act on their initiative [and] can lead their elders in the direction of the unknown.” The young “must ask the questions that we would never think to ask,” and through creativity, curiosity and innovativeness find answers their elders cannot imagine.

I have worked in universities for more than 40 years and have always—indeed increasingly—been invigorated by the way students have challenged received wisdom and advanced the human intellectual and social project. If there was ever a gap between us, I have strained to hear your voices from the other side, to learn from what you have had to say and from what you have done.

Your future is a project on which we collaborate. My generation provides what knowledge and wisdom we can, but we’re depending on you to surpass us in making this a brighter world.

This is a celebration, so I haven’t dwelt on the challenges you will face, some of which my generation has created. We need to admit our failings and shortcomings and trust your energy, creativity and positive values.

I became an educator because I wanted to take part in creating a more just society. I do not believe my generation was unique in its idealism, altruism and social conscience. Indeed, I know from working with many of you that those three values are as much if not more alive amongst you than they ever were amongst my peers. That is in its own way a bit of a miracle, given the state of the world that we’re in the process of handing over to you.

We delight in your success, we are in awe of your talent, and we are excited to see where you will take us.

Good luck.