The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: generations

Old Bald Men


What could I say?  I stared at the younger man seated opposite a few months ago and was dumbfounded.  In fact, it was the only time since I departed politics that I can honestly say I was offended.  “The last thing we need right now is old bald men standing in the way.  You’ve had your chance at politics and it’s time you moved aside to let the younger generation in.”

There was something obviously brash about the statement, but it was the sheer arrogance of the attitude that came across that might not bode well for politics.   Opinion and ideology have become the new vocabulary of the modern political structure, offering way more heat than light.  It reminds me of Jon Krakauer’s insight in Into the Wild:

It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God given right to have it.”

And yet his urgency that day had much truth to it.  Politics at all levels is most populated by older folks who seem stuck in some kind of partisan time warp, incapable of leading their communities, or their countries, out of the life of diminishing returns so common today.

But I wanted to ask him why he thought I was one of those who stood in the way of his peers?  What was wrong with having seven kids and four grandchildren?  Was being a 30-year professional firefighter not a good thing?  I would presume that freeing slaves in Sudan had to add some different and urgent perspective to one’s CV?  I was smart and lucky enough to marry a terrific humanitarian.  I survived a cancer scare and kept my wits about me.  Being a board member of Emerging Leaders surely should say that I’m not blind to the resources the young can bring to community life, shouldn’t it?  Can spending my waking moments working on community development behind the scenes really be a bad thing?  And as a politician, I spent most of my time trying to provide access to those Gen “X”ers, “Y”ers and Millennials to the corridors of power so that they could introduce their keen insights and ideas to the broader world.

Please don’t misinterpret me here; I’m not looking for praise.  But do such things automatically disqualify me for public service because of my age?  Is the issue not really one of putting one’s community first instead of merely holding on to power for power’s sake?  I know politicians, men and women, under the age of 40, who are even more partisan and jealous of office holding.  The reality is that most of those in office are in their older years – a demographic reality.  But the great problem with politics is the absence of good people who put their ridings before their reputations and that isn’t an age-specific trait.

I recently finished Walter Isaacsons’s book Benjamin Franklin, in which he does a masterful job of showing how the generations needed to come together if America was to survive.  In the sweltering summer of 1787, representatives gathered in Philadelphia to negotiate a constitution that would become the most successful in history.  Looking at the delegates, Thomas Jefferson noted, “If it does not go well, it will show that we have not the wisdom among us to govern ourselves.”  They were largely young and their success hardly assured.  At 81, Franklin was the oldest by 15 years and exactly twice the average age of the rest.  Oh yeah, and he was bald.

By this vast experience it was suspected that Franklin would take on the role as leader.  He declined and instead nominated George Washington, in a move that would see the latter become American’s first president.  Then things got down to business and soon enough the young leaders crossed swords over all sorts of differences.  But at pivotal moments Franklin intervened, his wit, experience and sagacity often responsible for obtaining numerous compromises from all sides.

Virtually every delegate at the constitutional convention held little confidence that the average citizen was capable of self-government.  As the oldest in attendance, Franklin was nevertheless the most youthful in spirit when it came to capabilities of the emerging citizenry.  He embodied the spirit of the Enlightenment and human potential.  He held the convention together though his experience and wisdom, and when the impossible was accomplished many said it was through his vastness of spirit and mind that the Constitution was attained.  It was Franklin who coined the phrase E Pluribus Unum – Out of the Many, One – and he had lived long enough to pave the way for the next generation of leadership.

Are such things impossible these days?  Are old bald men no longer as useful?  Could it be true that the great error of the younger generation is to believe that their intelligence is an adequate substitute for experience?  Of course.  But the mistake of the older generation is the opposite: believing that experience is a proper substitute for intelligence.

My time to leave is not quite yet.  There is work to be done, for experience to prepare the path for the remarkable intelligence of the young to receive its rightful place of prominence.  It has taken me a long, long time to become young.  I’m closer to living my youthful ideals than at any point in my long lifetime.  Don’t shut the door just yet.  We have need of one another and I have a few miles yet to go before I sleep.

“Smashing Time” – Community Engagement Podcast (23)

Political policies in the modern era have turned pitting the different generations – Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y – against one another.  At the community level this can have devastating effects, as many cities watch their younger creative classes exiting for opportunities better acquired elsewhere.  It’s time to obliterate the generational barriers that limit our abilities, split our families, and ultimately keep our communities under-performing.  I work in sectors where the generations cooperate together to make significant differences.

Just click on the audio button below to listen to the five-minute podcast.

A Dance For the Generations

Today’s the big day, as I head in shortly for the six-hour operation to have half of my stomach removed. It could have happened a couple of weeks ago except that an issue of vital concern preempted it – the wedding of my daughter Kimberly. I’d asked the surgeons if we could postpone the procedure so that I could be there for the big day. They graciously relented and it became one of the great events of my life.

In so many ways it’s doubtful that a father ever stands as tall in accomplishment as the occasion when he walks his daughter down the aisle. There’s simply little else to compare with that moment. She was radiant, excited, and absolutely wanting to get on with married life, as you would expect.

Speaking during the reception, I reminded those attending of how Michelangelo spent hours attempting to perceive the image in the blocks of marble that eventually formed part of his magnificent legacy. Other sculptors of the day attempted to impose their will, their respective vision, on the material, but Michelangelo instead believed that there was a vibrant form inside waiting to get out and he carefully spent months, years even, unleashing it. As I saw Kim that day I realized that both her mother and I had approached her in a similar fashion – an awesome life waiting to discover its own potential. As I took her arm to proceed down the aisle, I recalled Anne Frank’s own observation from her moving diary: “Parents can only give good advice or put their child on the right path, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”

I was there the moment Kimberly was born, but on her wedding day she had burst out of her confines and become a remarkable presence and a gift to life. She had done it – took the best that we, and others, had to offer, but then developed them herself into a life that was fully ready to take on the future in goodness, compassion and zeal. What can you say as a father when you stand facing your daughter on her wedding day and realize that she has moved past you in potential? I was humbled in her presence – totally. Life had worked as it should. She was ready for her future; my past had been fulfilled.

We gave her love, but her thoughts were her own. We provided shelter but not her personality. She picked her marvelous mate, not us. She selected her future and we were inspired by her choices. When I kissed her and guided her to the hand of mate, Drew, I realized again that in some ways she was never fully our daughter. She was Life guaranteeing its own good future.

In so many ways Kimberly had accomplished the task life had given to her – it wasn’t just about parents producing children, but children producing adults. I had matured through her and had benefited through her growth. Fatherhood had become a long, slow letting go that started at the moment of her birth. But I received a fully grown woman as a consolation; my daughter had become my friend. My heart was somehow beating outside of my own body, inside the life of a daughter who will far outlast me.

Let me be truthful. I loved walking her down the aisle, just as I did speaking during the ceremony and the reception, but the moment I waited for more than anything else was the chance to dance with her – just the two of us – at the reception. In preparation, I had selected “Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder. It was the only song that made any sense after I realized what she had become. The moment the first strains began she moved on the floor towards me and the rest was magic. “I love you so much, Kim,” were the only words I said – the rest was gloriously lost in the rhythm of life. To watch us dance was to hear our hearts speak.

And then the moment of wonder occurred when all seven of my kids came up on the floor and we danced together. The circle of life was not only complete; it was full – and moving. When the three grandkids came up and joined us, I couldn’t help but wonder, What are the chances of this – together with them all, dancing as one?  My dancing partners were my promissory note to life, reminding me that, for a time, I lived and I mattered. It was all as God intended; I moved within my own narrative, fulfilled.

You’ll see some pictures at the bottom of this post that somewhat tell the tale of that dance of generations. I don’t mean to impose them on you, and there’s no need for you to view them if you’re not interested. But it was one of those magic moments that occasionally surprise us in life and these photos tell that story. They will be what flood my thoughts as I move into the operating room. By thankfully giving me that weekend, the surgeons guaranteed a more fulfilled patient. The memories will sustain my spirit and be there to greet me when I awake. I danced with all my kids and my grandkids just prior to a new challenge set before me. Can there be any greater inspiration? Can God be any kinder?

Long In The Tooth

The call caught me somewhat by surprise. From a West coast publishing firm: “Would I be willing to write a book on my years in Parliament?” I thought about it for a minute and then asked, “Why?” “Because you knew a lot of the players,” the publisher said, “and you have a transparent style of writing – might be some juicy tidbits there.” I listened politely, but declined.

What’s the point of penning a book that only confirms what people think about politics already? Some wonderful things happened to me while I was in Ottawa and I met some terrific MPs and civil servants. But such things were easily outnumbered by the numbing sense of negativity and sheer disrespect. There were enough mistakes to go around for all parties, but the tone, the sheer feeling of powerlessness, came from a government in a love affair with its own base, not its country’s future.

And now Nanos Research has just come out with a poll showing that Canadians are growing increasingly pessimistic. You can read about it here. A decade now of negative campaign ads, partisan bashing, has sapped the optimism of citizens from their feelings concerning the future.

Some were surprised to discover that older Canadians are actually more pessimistic than their younger counterparts. Nic Nanos said that an increasing number of Baby Boomers are missing the “good old days.” Actually, I believe that. Speaking to so many in this cohort in the past year has convinced me that they are aware that some bad policy decisions have ruined many of the chances for their children that they had enjoyed in earlier decades.

We are learning that more and more Gen X’ers are moving back home because of a lack of financial opportunity – minimum wage work, unemployment, no benefits, unwillingness to start a family. And there are those that never left – growing numbers of them who are staying on with their parents despite being in their thirties.

Increasingly these Baby Boomer parents and grandparents are understanding that the world they handed their kids is not the one delivered to them following World War Two and they are going to seek policy solutions that can reverse the decline – something the present government is reticent to provide. Stephen Harper’s legacy will inevitably be one of improving the lot of the wealthy while marginalizing the previous gains of the middle-class. It will not go well. He’s banking on the Boomers wanting to keep their money when in reality many of them will be bemoaning the lack of proper policy infrastructure that permitted their kids to slide back a generation or two. The PM is placing his bets on their self-absorption just at the time when they are having to come to terms with the sad realization that their kids will be the first generation in living memory to fail to accelerate past their parents in economic opportunity. The PM sees them as the promised land of Canadian voters. It’s time some party turned that on its head.

This chasing after the undecided voters is much like wringing out a towel that only has a little moisture left in it. The very exertion of the effort is making politics look like … well, a wrung-out towel. The imagination appears gone, and all that is left is bickering and fighting over the scraps from off the table. This is the present government’s legacy to our children – steep debt, unemployment, underemployment, financial decline, a disillusioned age, and the belief that the Boomers have grown to accept it. There is no vision in this, merely the desire for power and pessimistic endurance. In furthering the efforts of voter suppression, the Conservative government believes it can leave the majority of Canadian Boomers dormant in their desolation.

Perhaps not. Chasing the “sweet spot” is a lot like watching toddlers play soccer, where they all follow the ball across the field, leaving their positions unheld. All parties spend so much time chasing the declining pool of voters that significant challenges like climate change, deficits, unemployment, and future security remain untended.

We require a party to come out fully on the side of the next generation, plain and simple. Banking on decline is not a vision. Neither is it sustainable. Of course we’re getting grumpy as a nation, just as Nanos suggests. But much of that is due to the reality that parents miss their kids who have moved away in search of declining opportunities. They pine for their grandkids, whose future looks even bleaker.

The Liberal Party, now in search of policies that can assist it and the country in renewing a sense of optimism, can step into these times of disillusionment and reverse the tide for the Gen X’ers and Y’ers.. We require a party that doesn’t pretend to be young again but actually makes it so by siding outright with those young generations whose positive future is in jeopardy. We just need a party that will make that it’s policy and not just use it as a sentiment.


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