The 2021 census tells us Canada’s population has aged. Here’s what we must NOT do to adapt.

John Ibbitson recently asked how Canada should adapt now that Canadians aged 65+ number 7 million given repercussions for medical care, long term care, etc.  This is an important question. Generation Squeeze has been asking political leaders to consider the implications of an aging population for generational fairness for over a decade. But while Mr. Ibbitson deserves credit for raising the question, some of his solutions will lead today’s seniors towards a harmful legacy.

Most damning is his recommendation that paying for seniors’ medical care requires cutting back spending on child care, education, and employment supports. That’s an extraordinarily bad idea that doesn’t respect Canadian norms of fairness or reciprocity. Here are 5 reasons why.

  1. Seniors haven’t paid enough to cover the cost of their medical care – never mind the expanded long-term care, home care or pharmacare now on the table. Yes, they dutifully paid taxes according to the rules of the day, but these tax rates were designed to support a far smaller group of retirees than we now have.  As a result, today’s seniors did not pay in proportion to the benefits they expect to use, leaving younger and future generations to pick up the slack.  This lopsided burden should be acknowledged by Mr. Ibbitson – and younger Canadians should be credited for shouldering it. It’s also time to invite our aging generations to consider their personal responsibility not to pass unpaid bills to their kids’ generations.

  2. Seniors age 65+ are the wealthiest age group in Canada. Thanks to the good fortune of having purchased homes decades ago, many senior home owners have benefitted immensely from rising home prices. One result is wealth windfalls often far in excess of what can be earned from paid work.  Since these same seniors now expect more services than they’ve paid for, it seems reasonable to at least consider how a portion of this real estate largesse could help bridge the gap. Proposing to sacrifice other important investments to ramp up medical care for seniors without any consideration of the wealth gained by seniors with which to pay for their rising costs is imprudent, and generationally unfair.

  3. Seniors are already getting the lion’s share of public funds. Research shows that older Canadians receive a larger share of the public purse than younger, and that we’ve grown spending on the aging population far faster than spending on younger residents over the last 40 years. New federal spending on child care doesn’t disrupt this pattern.

    Spending needn’t be equal across the life course – it’s a biological fact that we require more care and support as we age. But what our spending patterns by age fail to account for is that younger people are far more likely to be economically vulnerable today than are seniors.  Seniors have the lowest rates of poverty across all age groups, while younger generations are squeezed by high and rising costs for things like housing and child care, as well as a deteriorating climate.  In the face of these risks, elevating seniors spending and cutting spending on younger people violates generational fairness.

  4. Younger people already pay more to support older cohorts. The tax bill now paid from younger to older Canadians (via contributions to medical care and old age security) is up to 62% higher than it was four decades ago. Younger folks are paying more to support their aging relatives than did their parents – even while windfalls from rising home prices have disproportionately made many older citizens wealthier. Mr. Ibbitson proposes that in addition to already paying more to cover the rising cost of seniors care, younger Canadians should get even less to help meet their own needs.

  5. Health doesn’t start with medical care. Mr. Ibbitson doesn’t engage with the reams of evidence confirming that our health is shaped less by the medical care we receive, and more by the conditions into which we are born, grow, live, work and age. Our medical care system was never supposed to go it alone. It’s meant to be part of a wider system supporting people with decent jobs, pay, homes and education.  Cutting the latter compromises the very factors we need to create health – and maintain it into older ages.

 

Ensuring the seniors we love enjoy a healthy and secure retirement is a priority for anyone with aging family and friends. But advancing this priority shouldn’t come at the cost of the wellbeing of younger and future generations – and most wouldn’t want it to.

The principles of generational fairness call on all Canadians to:

Be good stewards.  Each generation has a responsibility to take care of our collective resources, so that we preserve what is sacred for those who follow – like a stable climate, a healthy childhood and a good home.  Good stewards act on the wisdom that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound cure. This means anticipating and preventing problems before they take root, and become more costly to fix.

Foster generational reciprocity. We should all abide by the intergenerational golden rule: treat other generations as you want to be treated.  A generation demonstrates reciprocity when it pays for what it uses, contributing in proportion to the needs, opportunities and wealth it inherits.  A generation violates reciprocity when it leaves its bills unpaid, creating large debts for those who follow. 

Plan for all ages. Our needs are different as we age. We need to plan wisely how we use public investments to meet them. We have a duty to care for older generations as health needs and frailty increase. We currently fulfil this duty by investing the largest share of available resources in services used mostly by this age group, such as medical care and old age security.

But we also know that the conditions into which we are born, grow, live, work and age are especially important at early ages. Improving these conditions can prevent problems down the road.  Since we only have one chance to get people off to a good start, we have a responsibility to plan and invest in young people’s wellbeing, just as much as the aging population. 

These principles are important guideposts as we consider how to adapt to meet the needs of our aging population, while preserving the wellbeing of younger and future generations.

Paul Kershaw
About
Dr. Paul Kershaw is a Professor in the University of British Columbia's School of Population and Public Health, and the Founder of Generation Squeeze.
The 2021 census tells us Canada’s population has aged. Here’s what we must NOT do to adapt.
The 2021 census tells us Canada’s population has aged. Here’s what we must NOT do to adapt.
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