Cana­dian shades of grey

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - John Roe

The sober­ing 2016 Cana­dian cen­sus num­bers re­leased this week tell the na­tion what any good doc­tor would say to a grey-haired pa­tient. We’re get­ting older. We’re slow­ing down. We have to do things dif­fer­ently. And we need to take better care of our­selves.

All this, at least, is cer­tain af­ter Sta­tis­tics Canada re­vealed se­niors (age 65 and older) out­num­ber chil­dren (age 14 and un­der) for the first time in Cana­dian his­tory. Just as sig­nif­i­cant is the cen­sus find­ing that the work­ing-age pop­u­la­tion (Cana­di­ans be­tween 15 and 64) who do so much to sup­port us all has barely in­creased at all — a measly two per cent over five years.

These pro­found de­mo­graphic trans­for­ma­tions will con­tinue un­til at least 2031 and have a huge im­pact on ev­ery­thing from health care, pub­lic ser­vices, the work­force, hous­ing and taxation to the over­all econ­omy. Canada will never be the same.

But while the ag­ing of this na­tion presents a se­ri­ous chal­lenge — pub­lic health care costs will soar for ag­ing baby boomers even as gov­ern­ments grap­ple with shrink­ing tax rev­enues — it also brings ex­cit­ing new op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Don’t think of this as a grey tsunami wreak­ing de­struc­tion in its path; con­sider it a slow-mov­ing grey tide that can gen­tly lift us up in un­ex­pected ways.

We should, first of all, cel­e­brate the in­creased life ex­pectancy in this coun­try. Cana­di­ans on av­er­age now live to the age of 82, com­pared to 78 a quar­ter of a cen­tury ago and just 48 years old in 1900. That’s amaz­ing progress, as well as a trib­ute to our pub­lic health care sys­tem.

But to­day’s se­niors are not just liv­ing longer, they’re liv­ing health­ier, more vig­or­ous lives. And when it comes to Canada’s fu­ture, they rep­re­sent a vast, too of­ten un­tapped re­source.

They’re brim­ming with knowl­edge, wis­dom and ex­pe­ri­ence ac­cu­mu­lated over a life­time that can all still be put to use.

Rather than dis­dain­ing se­niors as a li­a­bil­ity, they should be cel­e­brated as an as­set. Gov­ern­ments should rec­og­nize this and ex­plore new ways to help them stay em­ployed longer.

This does not have to be a zero sum game where the young are shut out of the work­force be­cause se­niors hog the best jobs. The youth un­em­ploy­ment rate is dou­ble that of older work­ers and that is­sue, too, must be ad­dressed.

But if se­niors keep work­ing, they’ll con­tinue con­tribut­ing to eco­nomic growth and pay­ing in­come taxes. That will be good for ev­ery­one — in­clud­ing young job seek­ers.

Em­ploy­ers, who have much to gain from older em­ploy­ees, should be more flex­i­ble. Shorter work weeks or lim­ited con­tracts would suit many se­niors.

Mean­while, canny en­trepreneurs will leap at the new op­por­tu­ni­ties to serve and sell to se­niors. For in­stance, many el­derly peo­ple want to live in their homes as long as pos­si­ble and will hap­pily pay those who help them do so.

It’s time for Canada to take full ad­van­tage of what its ex­pand­ing co­hort of se­niors has to of­fer.

“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,” the poet Robert Brown­ing once wrote.

The words could ap­ply to this grey­ing na­tion, too.

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