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Mechanic John Grace, 61, works on a police vehicle at the Halton region garage in Georgetown, Dec. 4, 2012.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Canadians who didn't finish high school are extending their working lives at virtually the same rate as those with a postsecondary education, even though they're likely to die sooner and have less time in retirement.

In 2009, a 50-year-old could expect to keep working for slightly more than 14 more years whether he or she had low levels of schooling or a postsecondary education, according to a new study from Statistics Canada. That's an increase of about two years since 1998 and a major shift in the life pattern of Canadians. But those with less than a high-school diploma, who often work physically demanding jobs and are often in poorer health, can expect to live only to about the age of 82 and a half, the study says. Those with a postsecondary education can expect to live to 86.

This is the first time a study has described the shift to longer working lives using education levels, along with a new measurement tool that more accurately predicts expected retirement dates, said Diane Galarneau, co-author of the study.

Lars Osberg, chair of the economics department at Dalhousie University, said the study's findings match a broader trend being seen around the world. People are living longer and also working longer. In some cases, it's because they like what they do, in other cases it's a financial necessity.

"It's a good thing for people who are enjoying their work and have the level of income at which it's a choice. For those who are doing it because they really don't have an alternative financially, it just means working till you drop, and it's kind of tough for them," Prof. Osberg said.

John Grace, 61, works a physically demanding job as a mechanic for the Region of Halton, northwest of Toronto. On Tuesday he was repairing the exhaust manifest of a police vehicle, but he handles everything from weed whackers to dump trucks. He left high school after Grade 10 and did an apprenticeship to qualify in his trade at at 19. He had been thinking of working until he turned 67, but lately has been eyeing 65 as his potential retirement date, which would still mean surpassing the current retirement average of 64.

"At that point I'll have 46 years in my trade. I'll be getting long in the tooth and it could be time to do something different," he said.

Mr. Grace is an outlier. Typically mechanics have a hard time staying on the floor through their 50s, because their work involves so much lifting, bending and twisting. Mr. Grace, though, has taken an extremely active approach to his health. He's a celebrated triathlete who cycles 350 kilometres a week in the summer on top of his running and swimming. Yesterday was a light day for Mr. Grace, who planned a mere one-hour swim after a 10-hour workday.

"Age isn't really an issue right now," he said. He expects to keep his good health well into his 80s, as both his parents have done, and hopes to enjoy retirement in a warm climate so he can cycle year-round.

Does Canada's retirement system unfairly penalize those with lower levels of education since it supports them for a shorter time? As University of British Columbia economist Kevin Milligan points out, the system also penalizes men, who die sooner than women on average but receive no additional pension payments to compensate.

And while those at the bottom of the scale may not live as long, they receive significant post-retirement benefits. The bottom 20 per cent of income earners can actually expect to have more money in retirement than they did while they were working, Prof. Milligan said.

The trend to later retirement should have a positive impact on the looming labour shortage that was expected to coincide with the baby boom generation's move toward retirement. The first of the baby boomers turned 65 this year, but if this trend continues labour force numbers may not drop as quickly as predicted.

"It's going to push us in the right direction," Prof. Milligan said. "We're going to be able to get a bit more out of the labour force we have."

It should be remembered that retirement is a relatively recent concept, Prof. Osberg said. In 1921 just under 60 per cent of all men over 65 were still in the labour force. Today it's about 16 per cent. That number is likely to climb in the coming years, Prof. Osberg said.


Expected working life at age 50 in 2009:

Less than high school: 14.3 years

Postsecondary: 14.6 years

Expected working life at 50 in 1998:12 years for all education levels

Life expectancy at 50 in 2009:Less than high school: 82.4 years

Postsecondary: 86 years

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