Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Older, wiser and still working

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Canada now has about 6,900 people -- mostly women -- aged 100 years or more, Statistics Canada announced Monday. You cannot yet call centenarians the new normal, but 100th birthdays are far less rare than they were in 1917, when British monarchs started sending a royal birthday card to each subject who celebrated one.

The centenarians are just the tip of the iceberg in Canada. Every age cohort behind them down to the 25-year-olds was greater in 2013 than the corresponding group was in 1983, the federal statisticians found. Steadily improving nutrition, sanitation and health care allow Canadians to live longer, as most of them want to do.

But along with longer lives, Canadians for a while were choosing to have fewer children. As a result, the age cohorts between 10 and 25 are all smaller than the corresponding cohorts were 30 years ago. The age cohorts under 10 years of age are slightly larger than before.

Economists and actuaries have been worrying for years about the effects Canada will suffer from having more old people and fewer young ones in its population. If more people are drawing pensions and fewer people are generating the wealth to pay the pensions, something has to give.

Just last week, in presenting the latest Bank of Canada monetary report to Parliament, governor Stephen Poloz said the aging of the Canadian population will impair the growth of the labour force so that even with growing investment, the potential output of Canadian industry will grow at only about two per cent per year.

But the aging population is no longer a looming possibility. It is the life Canada is living now -- and as disasters go, it turns out it's not so bad. Employers and workers have adjusted and somehow the work gets done. Healthy retired people who are bored with ocean cruises and shuffleboard find part-time work or volunteer positions. Employers who can't get the work done with the younger workers call retirees back into service on a mutually agreeable basis.

There was an ancient prophecy about this, when the prophet Isaiah was describing an ideal society of the future:

No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,

or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;

for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,

and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

Little by little, this long-cherished goal of humanity is being achieved around us. Economists and actuaries have to worry about this because that is their job. The rest of us can celebrate.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 26, 2013 A8

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