End of B.C. ferry deal for ‘price sensitive’ senior citizens part of growing trend across Canada

In what may be a harbinger for a greying Canada, a ferry service operating in one of the country’s most senior-saturated regions announced Monday it was dramatically slashing its senior discounts.

For almost four decades, British Columbians over age 65 — 1.5 million of them per year — have been allowed to ride free on B.C. Ferries, the Crown corporation serving the islands of the West Coast.

Now, seniors will need to pay 50% of the regular fare, which ranges as high as $15 for the Vancouver-Victoria sailing.

B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone was diplomatic about the change, announcing on Monday that the $6-million generated from the seniors would be put toward reducing the “pressure for fare increases” paid by everybody else.

The ferry corporation thus joined a small cohort of organizations willing to tinker with the once-untouchable custom of the Canadian senior’s discount.

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Last year, TD Bank ended its longstanding policy of offering free banking to new over-60 customers. “As with any business, I would say we have to look at the evolving Boomer demographic,” a TD spokeswoman explained to CBC at the time.

In the perpetually troubled airline sector, the once-ubiquitous senior’s discount has become increasingly elusive after major carriers started phasing out the practice in the 1990s.

Even at the municipal level, where council meetings must face the coordinated wrath of angry retirees, senior’s discounts are hitting the chopping block. Last week, city councillors in Oakville, Ont., introduced a slate of reductions to municipal senior’s discounts.

In 2012, the prospect of a shrinking market for senior’s discounts prompted the senior-advocacy group CARP to poll its members for a reaction.

Unsurprisingly, a whopping 92% of those polled wanted to continue receiving discounts. As to why, 57% cited the fact that many seniors are on a “fixed income.”

Nineteen per cent simply felt seniors were owed the discount as “fair reward for years of contribution.”

In reality, most companies implement senior’s discounts as a savvy way to lure in price-conscious retirees during slow sales periods.

“This is why some retailers have special seniors day (such as Senior Tuesdays)  … that way you attract seniors who are more price sensitive at times when it is hard to attract full-fare customers,” wrote University of Victoria economist Brock Smith in an email to the National Post.

He noted the discounts also carry a heavy “social justification,” because seniors are often seen to have lower incomes.

That was certainly the case in 1976, when the B.C. Social Credit government of Bill Bennett inaugurated the free-ferries-for-seniors policy as a hand-up to fixed-income seniors seen to be suffering from the inflationary effects of a B.C. resource boom.

But times have changed, and after four decades of rapidly diminishing senior poverty, the discounts intended for a population of poor war veterans are now increasingly being accessed by well-off Baby Boomers.

In a 2007 study, the federally funded National Seniors Council found that, between 1980 and 2006, the number of low-income seniors in Canada had decreased to 5.4% from 21.3%.

In addition, seniors were increasingly closing the income gap with mortgage-burdened Canadians with young families. In 1980, for every $1 received by a senior in 1980, a 35- to 44-year-old would receive $1.58.

“By 2003,” noted a Statistics Canada report, “this differential had decreased to $1.29.”

The disparity is even starker in the United States, where pensioned seniors have proved to be one of the few groups to have prospered during the recession.

A Pew Research report crunched the numbers in 2011 and found that U.S. seniors had become 42% richer than their 1984 counterparts, while the under-35 crowd had become 68% poorer.

In a much-circulated economic critique of U.S. senior’s discounts, blogger Alex Mayyasi in May instructed his 20-something readers that “the next time you see an adorable old lady paying less bus fare with her senior discount, demand that you receive the discount instead of her.”

B.C. Ferries, in particular, is uniquely positioned to chafe at giving free rides to an increasingly wealthy population of seniors.

Notably, four out of five of Canada’s most elderly communities are within easy reach of a B.C. Ferries dock, and the number is increasing with each year. As the introduction to the most recent edition of the B.C. Seniors Guide noted, “in the coming years, for the first time in B.C. history, seniors will outnumber children in the province.”

While he said he is interested to see the “public backlash”, Mr. Smith speculates that the end of the free-seniors rule was ultimately motivated by the “government sentiment that those who can afford services should be paying their fair share of the cost of providing them.”

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