Growing old fast

Globe and Mail Update
Tuesday, July 16 – Online Edition, Posted at 12:18 PM EST

The great bulge of baby boomers is edging toward retirement, Statistics Canada warned Tuesday, with possible repercussions for the labour force, economy, social services and health-care systems.

The median age of Canadians is increasing quickly, according to a report released Tuesday, as is the number of older workers, the number of those over 80 and of those over 100. Conversely, the number of those aged less than four and those less than 20 has dropped significantly since 1991.

In the five years leading up to 2001, the median age of Canadians jumped by 2.3 years to 37.6, the biggest increase in more than a century, Statscan revealed.

The country's median age at which one-half the population is older and one-half younger has been rising steadily since 1966, the end of the baby boom, when it was 25.4. More recently, Canada's population has grown at record-low levels, which Statscan ascribes to the sharp drop in birth rates since 1991.

Had the birth-rate remained steady, the report says, the median age would have increased by only 1.8 years between 1996 and 2001.

News this spring that Canada's population growth had slowed to 4 per cent caused alarm among many policymakers, who called for a dramatic increase in immigration. The Prime Minister, Immigration Minister Denis Coderre and the House Immigration Committee all said that Canada needs to attract more immigrants. But not everyone agrees Canada is threatened by depopulation.

University of Toronto economics professor David Foot cites a 1989 review by the Department of Health and Welfare that shows the population would continue to grow for the next 25 years, even if immigration was cut in half.

Canada's seniors

Tuesday's report shows the number of those aged over 80 has increased dramatically, jumping 41.2 per cent between 1991 and 2001. That group is projected to increase a further 43 per cent in the next 10 years, by which time it will number more than 1.3 million.

The number of senior men, as compared with senior women, is moving closer to parity for the first time in half a century, the report says. The number of those men declined during the 40 years after 1951, bottoming at 72 for every 100 women in 1991. It has since climbed to 75 for every 100.

Among those 100 and older, men remain far behind women, outnumbered by roughly four to one. There was a 21-per-cent increase in the number of centenarians between 1991 and 2001, but the vast majority of those 3,055 of 3,795 were woman, Statscan reveals. The report says, however, that all of those people are anomalies, born with a projected lifespan of 56 years with a 1-per-cent chance of reaching 100.

Work force

The working-age population is also aging, the report A profile of the Canadian population by age and sex: Canada ages reveals. The number of Canadians aged 45 to 64 increased by 35.8 per cent between 1991 and 2001.

Statscan warns that fewer young people are entering the work force. In 1991, the report says, there were 1.6 people aged 15 to 24 for every person aged 55 to 64. By 2001, that ratio had dropped to 1.4. And by 2011, the report suggests, the number may drop enough that parity will be reached.

Some economists and social analysts have warned that government services may be threatened if a small work force has to support a large non-working population. But James Bissett, former executive director of Canada's Immigration Service, points out that western Europe has found that, as their labour forces shrink, gross national product expands and wealth and prosperity increases.

Among G8 nations, Canada is younger than or roughly equal to European members, but older than the United States and Russia. The report says that the United States is aging less quickly than other industrialized nations largely because of its high fertility rates. Quite the opposite of Canada's situation, the report notes, the number of those over 65 in the United States actually declined slightly in the past 10 years. That group now makes up 13.0 per cent of the Canadian population but only 12.3 per cent in the United States.

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