New pool of cheap labour — seniors

Originally published in the Toronto Star on July 30th, 2010. To go to the Toronto Star please click here

The change crept up on us. Ten years ago, it was unusual to see a senior serving coffee at Tim Hortons or working as a grocery cashier. Now its commonplace. People over 65 are moving into low-paying jobs in the retail, hospitality, health-services and transportation sectors in large numbers.

According to a Statistics Canada study released last week, one out of every 10 seniors was employed or seeking work in 2006, the year the last census was taken.

The federal agency tracked seniors labour market activity for the last 25 years and found three distinct phases: Between 1981 and 1986 the percentage of working pensioners dropped; for the next decade it remained relatively stable and between 1996 and 2006 it climbed. By all appearances, it is still increasing.

Unfortunately, the study doesnt reflect the two largest drivers of change in seniors lives. The first is the 2008-2009 recession, which devastated retirement savings and sapped many workplace pensions. The second is the abolition of mandatory retirement in seven provinces, including Ontario.

But Statistics Canada is not to blame. Neither development had occurred when the census was taken.

Well probably never get updated figures. If Prime Minister Stephen Harper proceeds with his plan to scrap the mandatory long-form census, Labour Market Activity among Seniors ; along with many other StatsCan studies ; will have to be cancelled.

But even without statistical evidence, it is clear to anyone who looks that seniors have moved from traditional post-retirement jobs (crossing guard, caregiver, consultant) into a wide range of entry-level positions.

The higher proportion of low-income seniors who have to keep working full time shows that not enough Canadians have adequate public or private pensions, says Paul Moist, national president of CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees). Nobody wants to be part of a Freedom 95 retirement plan.

Financial need isnt the only reason seniors work. Some like the comradeship. Some seek mental stimulation. Some need a purpose to get up in the morning and a daily routine to follow.

But many seniors have no option. They have large debts, modest savings and no workplace pension.

Susan Eng, vice-president of advocacy for CARP (Canadian Association of Retired Persons) ; the closest thing Canada has to a grey power movement ; says her organization has been struggling to get a grip on this issue for some time. We absolutely assume its happening, but most of the evidence is anecdotal.

She does not consider last weeks StatsCan study a useful guide to todays reality.

But despite its shortcomings, the 16-page analysis ; which cross-references seniors employment status with their age, gender, income, education, health and debts ; provides valuable insights:

The highest incidence of employment is among seniors in the top income quintile (the richest fifth) and the bottom quintile (the poorest fifth).

Affluent seniors are motivated primarily by a desire to use their knowledge, skills and experience. Low-income seniors need a paycheque to make ends meet.

Seniors with mortgages and other big financial obligations work at a much higher rate than those who have whittled down their debts.

There is a large, but shrinking, gender gap. Fifteen per cent of men over 65 work, compared with 6 per cent of women.

The nature of seniors work is changing. Farming was once the dominant occupation for both sexes. It is receding as retail and consumer services jobs rise.

After the age of 70, employment falls off sharply for health reasons.

The study is purely descriptive. Its not Statistics Canadas job to make policy recommendations. But the findings strongly suggest we need to rethink the notion that Canada has won the war on poverty among seniors.

It was true for 30 years. It is a comforting illusion now.

Carol Goar’s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.