Census: As Canada ages, 65 no longer gateway to the golden years

This article was published by The Province on May 29th 2012.  To see this article and other related articles on TheProvince website, please click here

For generations of Canadians, its been the milestone age that marks the end of ones working life and the moment when pension payouts and, symbolically, the golden years begin. Retirement, senior citizenship and discount prices for bus tickets, movie passes and countless other goods and services have all traditionally kicked in at 65.

And for the national number crunchers at Statistics Canada, which released new census data Tuesday that highlights the swelling ranks of seniors in the countrys population, the age of 65 has been a key demographic boundary separating the labour force everyone between age 15 and 64 from older Canadians, who have (at least theoretically) purchased a new set of golf clubs and, perhaps, joined a snowbirds book club in Florida.

But with ever-increasing life expectancy, mandatory retirement being repealed in many places and the federal government moving toward 67 as the new Old Age Security benchmark, the significance of 65 rooted in reforms championed by 19th-century German chancellor Otto Von Bismarck appears to be waning at a time when more Canadians than ever are joining the 65-plus population.

Last year, when Canadians were filling out their 2011 census forms, the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation those born in 1946 crossed the age-65 threshold. And as the rest of that huge, 20-year population bulge follows, membership in Canadas 65-and-over set will grow from todays 4.9 million seniors about 15 per cent of all Canadians to 10 million, or about 23 per cent of the countrys projected population of 44 million by 2031.

While 65 appears likely to remain a convenient statistical yardstick and cultural touchstone, its use in distinguishing retirees and pensioners from the rest of the Canadian population is clearly in flux.

Were not born with date stamps saying our fitness for work expires at 65, David Langtry, acting head of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, said in December in applauding the Conservative governments elimination of mandatory retirement in all federally regulated employment sectors. Age discrimination is discrimination, pure and simple.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives controversial plan to delay OAS payments to age 67 shows how the age-65 milestone is viewed more as a millstone by a government faced with crushing income-security obligations in the coming decades.

Weve been conditioned for several generations now to consider 65 as a turning point for retirement, a shift in lifestyle and thats why its difficult for governments to move it to 67, or eventually to 70, said Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies. Its a psychological benchmark, even if it isnt logical in terms of the number of years we live beyond 65 today, which has shifted considerably because of improvements in health care.

History reveals a certain degree of chance at play in 65s emergence as a watershed age. The Bismarck-led reforms in Germany in the 1880s, aimed at curbing emigration to the U.S. and thwarting the rise of socialism, initially set 70 as the age at which German workers could retire with a state pension.

Germanys retirement age was lowered to 65 in the early 20th century, providing a template for the old-age pensions later introduced by several American states and the U.S. government.

Canada initially set 70 as the cut-off for its first old-age pension in 1927, which was capped at $20 per month and made available only to British subjects with at least 20 years of residency in Canada.

It wasnt until the mid-1960s, during the Lester B. Pearson era, when 65 became the countrys standard age for retirement and receiving old-age benefits.

In some cases, age may be a useful proxy for making public policy decisions, such as Canada Pension Plan collection and drug-benefit eligibility. But an overreliance on the arbitrariness of age has consequences, says Michael Nicin, director of policy with Toronto-based CARP, the Canadian Association of Retired Persons.

While CARP cheered last years elimination of mandatory retirement, it denounced the Conservative governments proposed OAS reforms.

When the federal government decided unilaterally to change the eligibility age for OAS from 65 to 67, they seemingly ignored the vulnerabilities that many older Canadians may face in the years leading up to age 65 or ultimately, age 67, said Nicin. If you were struggling to make ends meet at 55 or 60, you may still be struggling at 65. Redefining eligibility ages doesnt suddenly extinguish the real needs of lower-income Canadians. This is the crucial difference between demographics and individuals.

Human reality transcends the arbitrariness of age 65, added Nicin. In cases where a specific age is at issue, we would caution against a simplistic approach that assumes age 67, or 70, or 75 is the new 65. There is too much complexity to allow policymakers to redefine hastily what it means to be an older Canadian.

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