Canadian shades of grey
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.