The 2021 census reveals that more than four in 10 Canadians are now old or getting old, a trend that will accelerate over the next two decades and beyond. We are no longer an aging society. Our society is now aged. And we’re not ready.
According to census data released Wednesday by Statistics Canada, 19 per cent of us are 65 or older. Twenty-two per cent are between the age of 55 and 64, the time when people are getting ready to retire.
In 2016, there were 96,000 more seniors (65 and older) than children (under 15). Only five years later, that gap has grown to more than a million. That’s a demographic freight train.
Like most developed countries, Canada has a very low fertility rate: 1.4 children per woman, far below the replacement rate of 2.1 needed to keep a population stable. Immigration can help to compensate for that baby gap, and the societal aging that results from it, but it can’t reverse it. We have to adapt.
How do we adapt? Here are six ways.
First, people over 65 should be encouraged to keep working. Governments and employers can increase incentives for staying on the job and deferring retirement income.
Second, governments should bolster existing retirement-savings programs and offer new ones, such as long-term-care insurance, so that today’s workers are able to finance their own retirement without asking younger generations to do it for them.
Third, we need to talk honestly about how the boomer generation will end their lives. According to the census, the number of people over 85 will triple in the next three decades. They will need home care, long-term care and palliative care. Where will the money come from?
The answer is obvious: from people who are still working and from the companies they work for. So fourth – and this is the big one – governments will need to ease their tax burden by cutting back on spending elsewhere.
That means spending less on child care, because there will be fewer children and more seniors available to babysit. The Liberal child care program helps keep women in the workforce, which is great, but the demographic pressure is at the other end.
It means spending less on education, because there will be fewer students. It means spending less on welfare and unemployment insurance; as labour shortages worsen, there will few good reasons not to be working.
It means spending less on services in rural areas, which are aging more rapidly than urban areas because of outmigration by the young. Unless a town or village can find a way to generate economic and population growth, then spending on health care or education or infrastructure is unproductive. People should be encouraged to move.
Rural decline everywhere isn’t inevitable. The pandemic revealed the potential of working remotely. Smaller communities can benefit from the housing crisis in larger communities. In some rural areas, improving bandwidth and other investments might pay off. But governments need to be careful they aren’t throwing good money after bad.
There are going to have to be tradeoffs. Spending on defence versus spending on health care. Spending on the environment versus spending on health care. Spending on anything versus spending on health care.
Fifth, immigration levels should be kept high, with an annual intake above 1 per cent of population or higher, and skewed heavily in favour of younger workers. International students, temporary foreign workers – anyone young and willing to fill a vacant job should be offered permanent residence. Family-class immigration should be restricted to bringing in the people needed to keep economic-class immigrants from returning home.
Sixth, because those immigrants need somewhere to live, we need to increase the housing supply. The number of high-rise apartments grew faster than other forms of housing over the past five years. Since the census also slows strong population growth in city centres, this suggests densification efforts are working.
Those efforts should continue, as should efforts to expand the stock of low-rise apartments and of suburban houses, many with granny flats. As our immigration intake increases, we will need more of everything.
Mostly, we should be honest with each other. We’re old and getting older. Let’s admit it and deal with it, now.
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