Statscan numbers highlight concerns about aging and the work force

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

A significant number of mature workers are expected to retire from the labour force in the next 20 years – the latest sign of a demographic shift as Canada's population ages. (Getty Images)

Canada’s statistics agency will use 2011 census results to shine a spotlight on gradual but profound shifts in this aging country – one where the elderly will soon outweigh children as a share of the population and there will be difficulty finding sufficient younger workers to replace those ready to retire.

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Statistics Canada will release the first wave of 2011 census data next Wednesday, highlighting population shifts. But the “age and sex” component of the census, expected to be released by this spring, will further illuminate the greying of eastern provinces compared with Ontario and others further west.

The data lands in the middle of a heated national debate over whether Ottawa should make Canadians wait an extra two years for government Old Age Security benefits, a policy change that could spur them to postpone retirement beyond 65.

An internal Statscan document, obtained by The Globe and Mail, estimates that the share of Canada’s working-age population in the 45-64 year group has hit a record high. This suggests that a significant number of mature workers could retire from the labour force in the next 20 years – the latest sign of a demographic shift as the population ages.

The Statscan presentation, from late December, 2011, shows the agency expects census data will continue a broad trend that’s leaving the Atlantic provinces and Quebec with an above-average proportion of seniors aged 65 and up. Many provinces further west, however, have a lower-than-average share of the retirement-age population.

“Since 2006 the share of the working-age population has decreased in most eastern provinces; it has remained the same or increased in Ontario and western provinces,” the Statscan document says.

There are variations: One Statscan slide notes that the proportion of people aged 65 years and up is two times lower in Calgary than in Peterborough, Ont.

The document – which does not contain 2011 census data but instead draws on Statscan’s ongoing population estimates to anticipate the findings – also expects that Canada will soon reach, or has already reached, the point where the number of younger people of age to enter the labour force equals the number of Canadians old enough to leave it. Immigration and delayed retirement, however, could ease this looming pressure on the work force.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has signalled that he is ready to tackle long-term questions about the sustainability of Canada’s social programs as the ratio of seniors to workers climbs. Mr. Harper has portrayed the reforms as a fix for a generation: Confronting an aging population now will create the conditions for prosperity down the road.

However, he has not outlined what the reforms may entail, forcing the government to reassure Canadians that their current pension benefits are not in jeopardy.

The paper is a late-2011 version of a slide presentation by Laurent Martel and France-Pascale Ménard of Statistics Canada’s demography division that details plans for presenting the “age and sex” portion of census results. One slide ranks more than 30 census metropolitan areas – populations of 100,000 or more – by the proportion of their population aged 65 years and over. The lineup shows Peterborough with the highest proportion of people aged 65 or older and, at the other end, Calgary, with the lowest.

Statscan is also forecasting that Canada is not far from the day when the proportion of the population that is 65 years and older surpasses the share that’s 14 years and under. On the agency’s website, it has anticipated this will first occur between 2015 and 2021.

Statscan estimates that in 2011 the share of Canada’s population under 14 years old is 16.4 per cent, and the proportion 65 years and over is 14.4 per cent. In 1971, by comparison, 29.3 per cent of the population was 14 years and younger, while only 8 per cent was 65 years and older.

Nevertheless, the Statscan document shows Canada is still in better shape relative to most of its Group of Eight peers when it comes to the balance between its working-age population and those aged 65 years and over.

As of 2011, the proportion of people aged 65 and over in Canada’s population is the third lowest in the G8 countries, with only the United States and Russia lower. At the same time, the proportion of the population that is working-age – 15 to 64 – is higher in Canada than in all other G8 countries except Russia.

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