Not to be smug about it, but there's no surprise in the census numbers. We've known for decades that the baby boom, that bloated, blustering generation of which I am a member, was barging its way through life and grabbing an outsized share of jobs, opportunities and space. The demographic balance tipped a year ago in favour of more people over 65 than under 15, but we are only hearing about it now because census figures are retrospective. They trend forward, based on a backward snapshot.
A bigger factor than the number of baby boomers – the more than eight million children, an average of 3.7 per woman, who were born in Canada in the two decades between 1946 and 1965 – is our longevity. We aren't shuffling off this mortal coil as quickly as some would like. Back when the first boomers were born, life expectancy was 65. People who are that age now – the lucky ones who have survived all of life's perils, illnesses and misadventures – are likely to celebrate birthdays well into their late 80s, an increase in life expectancy of almost 25 years in one generation. What's more, the population is likely to trend even older because centenarians are the fastest-growing age group.
Is this bad or good news? That depends on your point of view. I'm inclined to fear that by evading chronic illness until now, I am destined to develop dementia or a neurodegenerative disease and fester in a semi-vegetative state, exhausting my children's caregiving patience, not to mention their putative inheritance, until they are forced to warehouse me in an Orwellian facility on the outer edges of civilization – as I once knew it. That is my nightmare scenario unless we find a cure for Alzheimer's, the 21st-century plague that is expected to afflict some 1.4 million Canadians by 2031, the year the earliest boomers turn 85.
Not so fast, suggests Nora Spinks, chief executive officer of the Vanier Institute of the Family. Those numbers also represent opportunities. The decrease in fertility from 3.7 at the peak of the baby boom to 1.6 today has inverted the demographic pyramid. Instead of hordes of children for a declining number of adults, the opposite is true. Nowadays children have a "greater likelihood" of having more elders in their lives as they get older and having them for much longer stretches. "As a kid today," Ms. Spinks says, "you may have a grandparent and even be so lucky as to have a great-grandparent in your life, who can be there for you as an advocate, caregiver, mentor, teacher, confidante." That is a joyous prospect. Imagine getting beyond diapers and treks to the park and having intellectual arguments with the grandkids over dinner about politics, novels and the economy, or living long enough to cut a rug, or whatever the equivalent might be, at their weddings, if such things still exist 30 years from now.
The flip side of having fewer children and more adults is that there is more pressure on all kids in the family to help with caregiving, instead of leaving it all to Mom or Sis. "The care relationship is more complex," says Ms. Spinks. "It may be that the grandparents or the great-grandparents are providing child care when the kids are infants and toddlers, and by the time they become teenagers they are the ones providing care, and the grandparents are the recipients of care."
The big if, in all of this, is making our lifespans correspond with our health spans, as the medical lingo suggests. For many elders, it doesn't. Sure, we are living longer, but the last 10 years tend to be a dire mix of infirmity, complex chronic diseases and dependencies. Not everybody has chronic illness and disabilities, counters Ms. Spinks, pointing out that there are a lot of 80-year-olds who play golf in summer and swim in winter, in addition to a dizzying roster of volunteer and charitable activities. Keeping mentally and physically fit is essential if remaining independent is your goal, and it certainly is mine, but we must also ditch traditional ideas of women as housekeepers and men as financial planners, and living arrangements based on familial ties. Young people either contract-out household tasks or share them, regardless of gender, and smart singles form households with friends or like-minded strangers. Advice to aging men and women: Get with the program. Gents should learn to do laundry and sling hash, ladies need to master their financials and online banking, and we should all maintain our social connections because you never know when you will need a housemate. In other words: adult retraining, or you may be headed to assisted living, earlier rather than later.
Sandra Martin's award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices, is out in paperback.