09/17/2012 02:01 EDT | Updated 11/17/2012 05:12 EST

Why Politics Must Be Cross-Generational

Former President Bill Clinton speaks at a campaign event, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012, in Orlando, Fla., as he campaigns for President Barack Obama. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

There are different opinions on who gave the best speech at the Democratic convention, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, or Bill Clinton. In addition to these speakers, there were other great speeches from San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, civil rights leader John Lewis, and others.

For me, the speech that particularly stood out was Bill Clinton's. The strength of his speech was his focus on policy and ideas, rattling off statistics and keeping the audience compelled for forty-eight minutes.

The former president provided a compelling defence of Obamacare to the point that his speech (in addition to other presentations at the Democratic convention) has forced Romney to back off on attacking Obama's healthcare reform package. Romney's now talking about keeping parts of Obamacare, including guaranteeing coverage for those with a pre-existing condition.

Clinton further highlighted the benefits of Obama's other policies, including the stimulus and saving of the automobile industry, in preventing the recession from becoming a depression and putting America on the path to recovery.

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein remarked on twitter that, "A long time hallmark of Clinton's speeches is believing that voters want to hear more about policy than they usually get to. And being right." Voters want intelligent leaders who know the issues, who can propose substantive solutions.

People have real concerns -- seniors with healthcare, youth with tuition, student debts, and a difficult job market. These concerns cross generations: a father in his fifties worried about paying for his children's education, these very same children concerned about their parents' job security, and all of them concerned about an elderly relative -- parent or grandparent -- requiring healthcare.

In a recent speech given on Obama's behalf in Florida, Bill Clinton talked about medical care for seniors -- how Republican policies would undermine it -- and grants for students to help pay for post-secondary education. He addressed the concerns of different age groups, understanding the need for a politics of all generations, and that this involves substantive policies to address their concerns.

This need for an inter-generational politics is especially relevant in the context of an interesting debate that has been playing out in the Globe and Mail on the topic of youth engagement in politics. This debate involves a column for that newspaper on youth engagement, written by Young Liberal Zach Paikin along with Jonathan Scott, and a response by graduate student Griff James. It is great to see this debate in a major Canadian newspaper and especially with youth themselves as the protagonists.

In their column, Paikin and Scott contend that tech-savvy young people hold the key to forward thinking to address the problems our country faces, stating that older generations -- specifically "babyboomers" -- are stuck in outmoded, "Cold War" era - ways of thinking. They go on to state that "our politics must be disentangled from outdated modes of thinking. [And that] many politicians born in the Baby Boom are stuck in a thought process prioritizing norms over interests."

In his column responding to Paikin and Scott, Griff James stated that "the youth vote will only ever exist in the context of an inter-generational society. Politicians of all stripes must appeal to a wide range of age brackets. A plurality, not just his or her own demographic, elects politicians."

James is right. It is hardly good practice to pit generations against each other, saying one has the answers while the other is holding us back. We live in a multi-generational society, something more evident with longer life spans. We need a politics that is inclusive of the perspectives of all generations -- from the 21st-century social media savvy generation to those with the experiences of previous decades.

One thing I found missing in Paikin and Scott's article was that, for all the talk of youth engagement, there was no talk of some very real issues currently facing youth, in particular tuition fees, student debt, and an uncertain job market. A recent Toronto Star article highlighted that Canadian tuition rates are rising faster than inflation, with tuition across the country up five percent this year.

Addressing these issues is key to fostering youth engagement, as well as tackling the problems they are facing right now in their immediate lives.

In Britain, Labour MP and former leadership candidate David Miliband has taken up the issue of youth unemployment, touring and listening to youth, raising issues of concern in this regard in the House of Commons. Miliband has attacked the austerity measures of the Cameron government for exacerbating the problems of youth unemployment and plunging Britain into a double-dip recession -- the consequences of prioritizing austerity over jobs.

Miliband has a reputation as a policy-wonk, and is using this to address a real and pressing problem facing youth, a poor job market.

It is important to have a politics that engages youth, but this must be understood in the context of a multi-generational society. In all this, the key is to engage on policy and issues - to be able to assess problems faced by people in society and propose real and substantive solutions. In all this, it is important to recognize the contributions of people across a range of age groups.