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Census shows spike in seniors, increasing East-West labour gap

Jane Northey, 76, dances at Mapleridge Recreation Centre in Peterborough, Ontario on Monday May 7, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Frank Gunn/Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada's latest census numbers underscore the growing obsession of federal and provincial governments with demographics, as the retiring baby boom generation is starting to have major policy implications for labour markets, taxation and the quality of key social programs like health care.

Nationwide, the number of seniors aged 65 and over increased 14.1 per cent between 2006 and 2011, a rate that was more than double the 5.9 per cent increase for the Canadian population as a whole.

Growing Western provinces need more workers to fill labour shortages for both skilled and unskilled labour, but if those jobs are filled by Easterners, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces will be left with dwindling revenues to cover the higher costs of an aging population.

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This will add to the inter-provincial tension over issues like equalization, given that Canadians are supposed to receive comparable levels of social services regardless of where they live in the country.

The 2011 census numbers on age and sex, released Tuesday, reveal two very different Canadian realities: an increasingly older population in the East with fewer taxpayers to support provincial social programs, while booming Western provinces enjoy a much younger tax base.

The numbers confirm the share of the working-age population has increased in Ontario and the Western provinces and decreased in the Atlantic provinces and Quebec, where the population is aging faster.

The demographic changes – which will not come as a surprise to federal and provincial leaders – are already driving efforts by provinces to curtail the growth of health costs. At the federal level, concern over labour shortages and Ottawa's long-term bottom line are behind plans to raise the eligibility age for Old Age Security from 65 to 67 and to nudge recipients of Employment Insurance back into the workforce more quickly.

But the numbers show there is more to the demographic shift than East and West. The age shift in Canada is also a move from rural to urban, and some Atlantic Canadian cities are among the highest when it comes to growing percentages of working age residents.

Calgary tops the list in this category, with over 70 per cent of its population aged 15 to 64. Yet Halifax and St. John's round out the top three.

One of the major factors driving government concerns over demographics has been Canada's low fertility rates. Canadians are simply not having enough babies – nor bringing in enough immigrants – to replace all the current taxpayers who will be retiring in the coming years.

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Yet Statistics Canada's census-takers did find more toddlers than they have in more than 50 years.

The population of children aged four and under increased 11 per cent between 2006 and 2011. This was the highest growth rate for this age group since the period of 1956 to 1961, during the baby boom.

The largest increases in young children occurred in Alberta, up 20.9 per cent, Saskatchewan, up 19.6 per cent, and Quebec, up 17.5 per cent.

Another fast-growing age group is the over 100 crowd. The 2011 census found 5,825 centenarians, up from 4,635 in 2006. Of those, only 955 were men. Statistics Canada projects there will be 78,300 centenarians by 2061, most of whom will be women.

More women than men reach the age of 100 because women have lower probabilities of dying at all ages than men. In 2008, life expectancy at birth was 78.5 years for men and 83.1 years for women.

Internationally, Canada's rate of centenarians per 100,000 persons (17.4) ranks fifth in the G8, behind Japan (36.8), Italy (26.6), France (25.8) and the United Kingdom (20.3).

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Editor's note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of centenarians. This version has been corrected.

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