Will millennials remain demographic darlings for the Liberals?

Expect millennials to become the demographic darlings of the rest of the federal election campaign.

Their support for Justin Trudeau in 2015 was what put the Liberals into the running and pushed them towards victory. They liked him for his green credentials and embraced his socially progressive values.

Conversely, as a generation, they have little tolerance of discrimination of any kind.

Whether they would come back to support him again in 2019 was already an open question, but the blackface photos have Liberals doubly worried about this key slice of the electorate.

Young adults are in play. Let the wooing begin in earnest.

The approach of both the Liberals and the Conservatives over the past few months of electioneering has been to equate millennials with housing affordability.

There’s good reason for this. In April, Statistics Canada took a close look at the finances of 25-to-34-year-olds and found that they are somewhat richer than their parents and generation X at that age, but they are also highly in debt and stretched thin.

The housing market is at the centre of that tension. Home ownership levels are just as high among millennials as for other previous generations of young Canadians, but these days, those home prices are surging. Millennials are taking on big, heavy mortgages. They’re generally making good money compared to previous generations at that age, but their debt levels mean that the ratio of debt to after-tax income is sky-high for today’s young adults. It’s 1.7 times higher now than it was for young generation Xers, and 2.7 times higher than it was for young baby boomers.


And pollsters have found that their concerns about heavy debt and affordability influence their political choices. In response to questions from polling firm Leger about top issues that drive their decision to support a particular political party, the 18-34 cohort placed jobs and economic growth at the top of their list, tied with climate change. Income tax and tax levels are a close second.

The parties have responded, competing with each other to be the most generous to young adults.

The Liberals are offering up a new enhancement to a first-time, homebuyers subsidy, boosting a budget measure to make it more generous for people in Vancouver, Victoria and Toronto, where house prices have all soared.

The Liberals are also targeting young families with kids, proposing new daycare spots for before and after school, more generous benefits for parents during the first year of a baby’s life, and benefits for adoptive parents. And they’re making parental leave benefits tax free.

The Conservatives are also offering a similar parental leave tax benefit, plus proposing tax credits aimed at young families whose kids are signed up for sports or arts programs. The NDP is talking up millennial-friendly daycare, breaks on student loans and affordable housing.


And there will be plenty more, especially if the blackface-photo scandal shakes loose some of the millennial loyalty to Trudeau. The Liberals are preparing more announcements in the coming week, aiming specifically at millennials’ bank accounts.

But millennial voters aren’t just focused on those so-called pocket book or affordability issues. Environment and socially progressive values figure prominently.

David Coletto, CEO of polling firm Abacus Data who has done extensive research on young adults, says there is a generational divide around issues of equality, diversity and active support for gender equality, the GLBTQ community and racialized minorities. Millennials generally celebrate difference, he said, and they’re highly sensitive about people who don’t.

That’s where the Liberals are now in some trouble.

While Liberals have more support among millennials than other political parties, that support is notoriously fickle and can’t be taken for granted, Coletto said. Staying home on election day is a risk for Trudeau, he said.

“They really need this demographic, not just to vote Liberal but to come out and vote.”

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For Avvy Go, an anti-racism advocate who has advised a range of governments including Trudeau’s, the best-case scenario would be for politicians to draw in voters with a substantive discussion about entrenched racism and firm commitments to deal with it head on.

“I really hope that all the political parties — including the Liberals — as well as the media will seize this moment to have a real conversation about racism in Canada,” said Go, the director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic in Toronto. “Canadians have been hiding from this question for so long that it takes a sensational photo of a prime minister to force us to stare racism in its face. But if the media do not go beyond what Trudeau did and whether he should apologize, then we would have lost yet another opportunity to talk about what we as a nation should do.”

That’s a conversation most millennials seem open to having.

Heather Scoffield

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