No wolf in aging report

There are so many countervailing factors in a study of Canada's aging population that pundits are having trouble deciding how to cry wolf.

The demographic study of the last federal census should have been titled: On the Other Hand…

There are so many countervailing factors in the study of Canada’s aging population that pundits are having trouble deciding how to cry wolf.

Canada remains the youngest of the G8 countries, but the aging curve is steeper here than in the rest of the world. Is this good, or bad news?

Our national birthrate has been well below replacement levels for decades, but has seen a “baby bump” in the past four years, and we are now only slightly below a stable population birthrate. Are we in, or out, of trouble in the years to come?

Strong economies attract people in their child-bearing years and encourage families to have children. Will Canada’s relative economic strength translate into a more stable demographic position, meaning we will avoid the worst economic and social problems associated with having a high proportion of seniors, relative to youngsters?

It depends on which hand you’re looking at.

In the West, it seems the future will look a lot like the present. Burgeoning job opportunities continue to attract young families, and we’ll continue to need to build schools and recreation infrastructure as youngsters grow. Our soon-to-be-seniors will remain healthy and without physical disability far longer into retirement, but we appear set to maintain a tax base that will support infrastructure designed for three generations of users.

In the East, the future looks like the present — only more so. When young people look at their career opportunities, many will be looking to leave. So boomers in Eastern Canada will still see their grandchildren — when they come here to visit.

The Canadian demographic now entering retirement years is part of the wealthiest cohort the world has ever seen; older Canadians own a higher portion of the nation’s wealth than Canada has ever known. Never in history has a generation retired so rich, so early — and yet is acquiring debt at three times the national average.

In Red Deer, at last measure, the rate for seniors living below the low income cutoff level was 4.1 per cent, and dropping fast. The national poverty rate for seniors, by the same measure, was 12.9 per cent.

For children, that rate was 20.9 per cent in Red Deer (these figures from the Vital Signs report), compared to a national average of 23.2 per cent. Poverty rates for this (finally) growing demographic are rising slightly — a factor partly attributed to Red Deer having good support infrastructure for families that small towns do not have.

What do we make of this? Maybe we simply need more hands.

In retrospect, one can see why Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has proposed delaying payment of Old Age Security benefits ($6,100 a year, on average) for two years, to age 67. Presumably, the government saw the census figures before we did.

We may need to revisit the federal/provincial agreement on health-care funding one more time. So soon after Alberta finally started receiving per capita funding equal to the other provinces, we may have to write this again, with a formula based on demographics.

Expect arguments over equalization payments to get more pointed as time progresses; the have-not provinces will probably be having less in the next decades. That and more hand-wringing over immigration policy.

But on the other hand. . . nothing lasts forever.

As long as Canada can provide economic hope to young Canadians (and immigrants), we’ll fare better than most countries going through the long-expected demographic shift. Seniors learning to live in large numbers on fixed incomes can provide leadership for a society learning to consume less and still be happy.

Maybe there’s no wolf out there, after all.

Greg Neiman writes for the Red Deer Advocate.