Canada facing age crunch
Little in the national fabric will remain untouched as 2001
census shows what could be in store for a greying population
By JENNIFER LEWINGTON
URBAN AFFAIRS REPORTER
Wednesday, July 17, 2002 Print Edition, Page A1
Canadians could face delayed retirement, even higher health-care costs, more school closings and a shortage of skilled workers, judging by census data released yesterday on the fast-aging profile of the country.
The reverberations from the 2001 census, released yesterday by Statistics Canada, may set off politically charged debates on immigration, pension policy and skills training.
"It is a bit of a turning point," said Doug Norris, director-general of census and demographic data for Statistics Canada.
The population and gender profile of Canada as of May 15, 2001, marks the second round of data from the census, whose first results were released last March.
This time, the numbers raise some big themes.
One is that the first wave of baby boomers, those born between 1947 and 1966, are now in their mid-50s and closing in on retirement. The other is the dearth of children born in the early 1990s.
It's a one-two punch that last year drove up Canada's median age to 37.6 years, up 2.3 years from 1996. That's the biggest census-to-census increase in a century, according to Statscan.
Another big trend is that, with one important exception, the country ages from west to east. Atlantic Canada and Quebec have populations older than the Canadian average, while Ontario, Western Canada (with the notable exception of British Columbia) and the territories have relatively younger residents.
Meanwhile, Statscan reported that suburban communities are aging, a sign that children raised in the suburbs have migrated downtown. Rural and small-town Canada is aging fast, but, unlike the suburbs, dwindling in population.
The gender profile of the country shows that women outnumber men in all provinces, especially in Atlantic Canada. But there are more men than women in all three territories.
One of the most controversial implications of the census involves the labour market, especially how the baby boomers will react to their impending retirement.
University of Toronto economist David Foot, who discounts fears of census-driven labour-market shortages, still sees the need for adjustments as baby boomers gradually vacate the work force over the next 20 years.
"We have to be far more innovative in dealing with a gradually and slowly aging work force," Professor Foot said. Those now in their mid-50s, many becoming grandparents, may want to retire early or work a four-day week.
This semi-retirement option, he notes, could make it easier for employers to recruit younger, and cheaper, workers without completely losing experienced staff.
Conversely, the boomer generation may opt to remain working, especially as the current instability in the stock market affects the value of their pensions.
In contrast to Prof. Foot, others analysts are very worried about a looming shortage of skilled workers, especially if the baby-boom generation speeds up its retirement.
Even though the alarm bells rung by the 2001 census data were clear in earlier census results over the past decade, Ms. Berdahl sees little action yet on pension reform, innovative retirement practices or other labour-force issues.
She is one of many who urge more flexible pensions and other measures to make it easier for those in their 50s and early 60s to work part time, or even leave the labour force and return later without losing retirement benefits.
Shirley Seward, chief executive officer of the Canadian Business and Labour Centre, an Ottawa-based research group, says that skilled-labour shortages already exist in some areas -- with teachers, university professors and construction workers among those retiring early.
"It means that as the aging process continues and spreads, there is going to be a very important shortage of skilled labour," she warned.
Later this month, her research group will release a survey of business and labour leaders that puts a shortage of skilled workers as one of five top concerns -- up from when they were last surveyed, in 1996.
Ms. Seward added that Canadian immigration policy must change to reflect the country's growing demand for foreign-born workers to replace the current, aging work force.
"Canada obviously needs to get a lot more serious about immigration," she said, including doing a better job in recognizing the credentials of those trained elsewhere.
Beyond labour-force issues are some big-ticket questions for the cost of health care and, especially in rural and small-town Canada, access to doctors and other medical services.
Statscan's Mr. Norris points out that the 80-and-up age group expanded by more than 40 per cent over the past five years and likely will grow by 43 per cent over the next five years. This means the demand for health services, whether provided by hospitals or through community-based senior care, will rise dramatically.
Andy Mitchell, the federal secretary of state for rural development, says governments can help small and rural communities with their health-care needs through the provision of high-speed Internet access for tele-health medicine.
"That gives you access to health care you might not otherwise have," he said. "Our role needs to be to provide rural communities the opportunities to be sustainable and have an opportunity to develop strong communities."
While much of the census focus is on the rapidly aging population, there are immediate implications for the country's low birth rate. In 2001, the youngest Canadian age group -- those aged up to 4 -- declined by 11 per cent compared to 1996 figures.
That means less demand for daycare services and the possible closing of elementary schools.
Ms. Berdahl says the under-20 generation of Canadians faces a much different future than their baby-boom predecessors.
"We had the baby-boom generation that was able to define Canada in part by its abundance," she said. "This generation is going to partly define Canada by its scarcity."