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Alex Bernst, 63, works as a millwright and although he has reached his pension requirements and can retire at any time he chooses to continue to work. He is photographed on the job in Thunder Bay Dec. 20, 2012.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.

The history of Canadian wealth is written on the land here north of Lake Superior: the fur trade post that supplied Europe's beaver pelts, the forest that yielded billions in lumber, the towering grain elevators, the smoking pulp mill, the railway that opened the West.

Fortunes have been made and lost in Thunder Bay through periods of boom and bust. In 2013, another challenge looms, one that it shares with the rest of the country: Thunder Bay is aging, and it may get old before it can get rich again.

With 7 per cent of its population aged 60 to 64, Thunder Bay has a greater proportion of people nearing the traditional retirement age than almost any other Canadian city. Rebecca Johnson, a local councillor who led the push to make Thunder Bay officially Age Friendly, has seen so many retirement parties she swears she won't attend another.

But as the first wave of the baby-boom generation nears retirement, Thunder Bay is also on the cusp of a potential economic boom. There are 13 mines planned in the next six years for the region north of here, many in the area known as the Ring of Fire. Thunder Bay will be the hub for all that development, which includes building roads, camps, mines, as well as services for the influx of workers. An economic-impact study estimates that 16,000 new jobs will be created through the first nine mine projects.

With so many people poised to leave the work force, who will fill those jobs? Unemployment, slightly more than 5 per cent, is already lower than the national average. When the local economy crashed in the mid 2000s, many of those aged 25 to 45 went West; workers here tend be very experienced, mixed with a smattering of the relatively green. It's also a region that has not attracted many newcomers lately. There was a time when the mix of Finns, Ukrainians and Italians made this a multicultural, blue-collar city. But from 2000 to 2010, Thunder Bay attracted an average of just 135 immigrants a year, third lowest among Canada's 31 biggest cities. If demand for labour is high, wages should rise to attract workers. But that process unfolds slowly and even then it takes years to train an electrician or carpenter or plumber. Competition for those workers is also expected to continue to intensify as resource development accelerates in Western Canada and Northern Quebec.

Thunder Bay's demographic situation is in many ways a preview of Canada's future. The aging of our society has serious implications not only for economic development but the foundations of the welfare state. Today there are slightly more than four people of working age to support every retiree in this country. That ratio will tumble to a little more than three to one by 2020, and closer to 2 1/2 to one by 2030. In a speech earlier this year Deputy Bank of Canada governor Jean Boivin laid out the stakes: "Ultimately if we ignore the reality of aging and make no adjustments, the consequence will be a lower standard of living. An aging population implies a smaller proportion of working people relative to people not working. That means a pie growing more slowly than the number of eaters – less for everyone."

One way to reduce the strains of aging is to keep experienced workers on the job longer. John Jurcik, president of Venshore Mechanical, an industrial contractor, says the labour situation is something he and other business owners discuss all the time.

"We talk about it at every meeting. How do we support the future of work? We don't want this to happen just when we want to grow," Mr. Jurcik said. "I want to be prepared for the spike when it happens."

He's hoping the senior tradesmen he works with will choose to keep working through their mid-60s, even though most are eligible for a full pension by about 57 or 58, having worked nearly 40 years.

"These guys are super valuable because they've got the grey hair aspect – years of experience, knowledge and they can teach. These are the guys you really need with a younger work force coming in," Mr. Jurcik said.

Alex Bernst, a 63-year-old millwright, is exactly the kind of experienced hand employers want. He has short, silver hair and powerful shoulders that bulge through his sweater. He is the kind of person you call for help when the machinery of civilization breaks down. At the moment, he's keeping the massive pumps that drive the city's sewage treatment plant in operation. In his spare time, he used to lead bear-hunting groups, hauling hundreds of pounds of old doughnuts into the bush to tempt the bears into the open. He could have retired seven or eight years ago, having accumulated 40 years on the job, but he enjoys the work and the camaraderie too much to stop. He has enough energy that there are times he'll work around the clock and he's determined to keep the sedentary life at bay.

"I enjoy doing something," he said. "I'm fighting it every step of the way."

He admits he's been very lucky. The key to longevity lies in your genes, he says. Among his friends who retired in their late 50s, some were ill, some were starting to see their bodies break down. Now they spend a lot of time drinking coffee, he said. He hasn't hit that point.

"I'm one of the few guys I know who has muscles in his hands," he said with a chuckle, flexing a fist to reveal two unusual bumps popping from the back of his hand.

Whether he'll keep working another six or eight years, he's not sure. He plans to take it one year at a time. If he does continue, he could provide a valuable bridge to the next generation, something a lot of Canadian employers may need.

"It could be a problem shortly. More guys like me will be asked to stay to look after things," Mr. Bernst said.

At 72, Ms. Johnson tends to work 65-hour weeks. She is the city's leading seniors' advocate and still loves to attend meetings. "If you're meeting, that means something's going to change and I am a change maker," she said.

She's working to encourage seniors to find new ways to contribute. They're younger and healthier than previous generations, they tend to live 20 to 30 years after retirement, and many want meaningful work.

"We've got a lot of seniors who've finished what you'd call their lifetime job but still have a lot to offer," Ms. Johnson said. "How do we provide them with other jobs or opportunities? That's coming slowly."


A future in mining

"This is the next Fort McMurray, the next Estevan, Saskatchewan," says Steve Demmings, CEO of the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Council. "It's got gold, silver, palladium, nickel, chromite, pretty much everything that China and India need to develop their economies."

The mining activity planned for Northern Ontario is enormous, as is the expected demand for labour. But one of the major questions is whether the first nations who live on the land will share in the economic benefits, and there are important negotiations ahead.

"All the arguments over development in the North would be muted if they knew they were going to see the benefit," said Goyce Kakegamic, deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 northern first nations.

Many of these remote reserves have unemployment above 70 per cent and disproportionately young populations. Finding a way to bring more of these young aboriginal people into the work force is a priority, said Mr. Kakegamic, one that could contribute to solving labour shortages. At Dennis Franklin Cromarty high school, the local first nations school, education in trades is becoming a major focus. And Confederation College has formed an alliance with nine first nations to provide a full range of skills training, starting with Grade 12 equivalency, as well as apprenticeships such as carpentry and plumbing. They're also doing preparatory courses for careers in mining.

"We're hoping that this will bring a whole new kind of possibility to these communities," said Don Bernosky, vice-president at Confederation College.

Joe Friesen