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The upside to Canada’s aging population

Canada's aging population will bankrupt pension plans, overburden healthcare systems and force an ever-shrinking pool of workers to pay the bills, doomdayers have said.

They're right about Canada becoming a blue-rinse nation. By 2050, 31 per cent — nearly a third of all Canadians — will be 60 or older, the Globe AgeWatch Index reported in 2013.

But there's an upside to population aging, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.

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An international team of researchers looked at Germany as a case study. Germany's fertility rate of 1.4 and median age of 44.3 years make it the greyest nation after Japan. Nevertheless, the land of sausage and sauerkraut may not do too badly in its golden years, the researchers found. They identified five areas in which countries such as Germany could age like fine wine:

• Better health: As people live longer, they stay healthier longer. Projections suggest the average German man in 2050 will spend 80 per cent of his lifetime in good health, compared to 63 per cent today.

• Increased productivity: Aging populations tend to have higher education levels, which could help offset the decline in labour force.

• Sharing the wealth: As life expectancy increases, people will inherit at older ages and be better equipped fund their own retirement, or help adult children financially. And as families have fewer children, inheritance will be split into larger chunks.

• Good for the environment: Changes in age structure and a shrinking population size are associated with reduced consumption of energy-intensive goods and lower carbon dioxide emissions.

• Quality of life: The ratio of leisure, work and housework is expected to change in the future, with leisure time increasing on average.

The picture may sound rosy, but the new study isn't the first to giving aging populations an A-plus. Back in 2003, the Government of Canada released a document entitled Population Aging: From Problem to Opportunity. The report outlined how policies supporting greater life-course flexibility might address the labour shortages associated with retiring baby boomers, and at the same time, provide people with more choices as to how they approach activities such as work, learning, caregiving and leisure over their lifetimes. As well, it cited Health Canada research showing that longevity is not a key driver of health-care costs.

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In the meantime, Canada is dealing with its aging population surprisingly well, according to a 2013 report from the Globe AgeWatch Index. In an international ranking of quality of life of elderly people, Canada placed fifth on the list, behind Sweden, Norway, Germany and the Netherlands. Canada's best performance was on health status (in income security, however, it placed 26th due an old-age poverty rate of 4.4 per cent).

Although time will tell, aging populations may not have to mean economic disaster. As the Globe AgeWatch Index's 2013 report said, "Ageing gives us cause for celebration: longer lives throughout the world are a triumph of development."

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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