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Census 2016: Canada's seniors outnumber its children for first time in survey history

Max the cat lays on the bed as Sharon Murphy puts away laundry that was just delivered to her assisted-living apartment in Halifax on Wednesday, May 3, 2017.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Canada's population is not only growing older – but the pace of change is accelerating, as new census numbers show seniors now outnumber children for the first time in the survey's history.

The 2016 census from Statistics Canada, released Wednesday, shows the largest increase in the share of seniors since the first census after Confederation. The proportion of those aged 65 and older climbed to 16.9 per cent of Canada's population, exceeding the share of those under 15 at 16.6 per cent.

Meantime, the portion of the working-age population – those between the ages of 15 and 64 – declined to 66.5 per cent from 68.5 per cent in the 2011 census.

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Read more: Census 2016: The growing age gap, gender ratios and other key takeaways

Read more: Why you can thank multiculturalism for Canada's strong population growth

That rapid pace of aging carries profound implications for everything from pension plans to health care, the labour market and social services. It will affect future housing needs, public-transportation demands and consumer trends, while a shrinking tax base will squeeze government coffers.

"We are at a historic moment – it's a generational shift," said Laurent Martel, director of Statscan's demography division, in an interview. The 2016 census shows "that this is it – basically the population aging has just accelerated, and the pace of aging will continue to be quite rapid in the coming years because these very large cohorts of boomers will continue to hit age 65 up until 2031."

Across Canada, the increase in the share of seniors since the 2011 census "was the largest observed since 1871 – a clear sign that Canada's population is aging at a faster pace," Statscan said.

Population projections show the gap between the two age groups will widen. By 2031, almost one in four Canadians could be 65 or older, while the share of children would remain similar to 2016 levels, at 16 per cent, the agency said. The share of the working-age population – responsible for Canada's income-tax base – will likely "continue to decrease," Statscan said.

That aging in the coming decades means Canada will start to look like Germany, Italy or, in terms of the share of seniors, "could eventually equal the level now seen in Japan."

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For governments, "there's going to be further pressure on the public purse, especially the provinces, which will have to contend with the services that the elderly are using," said Robert Fairholm, Toronto-based partner at the Centre for Spatial Economics, a consulting and economic research firm. "And there's going to be relatively fewer people to pay for it."

The new data add urgency to public discussions on issues such as family-friendly policies, which could lift fertility rates, and whether Canada should seek to admit younger immigrants or more newcomers with children, he said.

Canada has seen three decades of sustained immigration, which has boosted population levels. But that has had little effect on aging population trends, the agency noted, because immigration flows have been quite stable since the 1980s. Most immigrants come to Canada in their 30s and grow older in the country.

Despite the acceleration in the aging population, Canada still has a lower share of seniors than in any other G7 country except the United States, Statscan noted.

The latest batch of census data – on age, sex and dwelling type – also shows rapid increases in Canadians who are over the age of 100, particularly women. Centenarians were the fastest growing population, with this age group jumping 41.3 per cent amid rising life expectancies. Canada had 8,230 centenarians last year. By 2051, the number of centenarians could nearly quintuple, the agency projects.

The data also show the territories and the Prairies have the youngest populations, while the Atlantic provinces have the highest share of seniors in the country.

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In Nova Scotia, that has sparked new businesses and services that cater to the demands of an aging population.

While already retired, Michael and Judy Korzyniowski decided to open a store that sells Canadian-made accessible bathtubs in Bedford, N.S., after seeing how a friend was struggling to find one.

"Certainly I wouldn't have gone into business unless I'd checked out the demographics," said Mr. Korzyniowski, a 68-year-old retired real estate agent and Navy storeman. "One of the main reasons people have to leave their home is because they're unable to take a bath and this generation takes a bath more than a shower."

Ocean View's Neighbourhood Program in Halifax is a non-profit that provides seniors with access to discounted services for home repairs, snow removal, IT support, and health and wellness services and activities. Most subscribers are in their 80s. Seniors join for $30 a year and the goal is to help them stay more comfortably in their homes.

"We saw that gap where people don't necessarily need homecare [and] they don't need to be in a nursing home, but maybe they just need that little bit of extra assistance to maintain their independence," spokeswoman Melissa MacLeod said.

At the other edge of the country, British Columbia is increasingly a retirement haven. Seven of the top 10 municipalities with the largest share of people over the age of 85 are in B.C. Four of those are on Vancouver Island, "a region well-known for attracting many seniors, partly because of its climate," Statscan said.

Canada "will still benefit from what's called the demographic dividend," said Gloria Gutman, professor emerita at Simon Fraser University and the author of 22 books related to gerontology. "Relative to other OECD countries, we have more in that [working-age] labour market group."

She sees opportunities in the population shifts – young people will find jobs working for older people. Plus, "those older people are in better shape in terms of their health than their grannies or great-grandparents. And they're more educated, and they're more tech-savvy."

She hopes to see perceptions change. "The stereotype is that only those between 15 and 64 are economically productive, which simply is not true. … There are more older people staying in the labour force. And you're not any dumber on your 65th birthday than you were the day before."

Back in Halifax, Sharon Murphy, 71, and her cat Max moved from an apartment into an assisted-living complex downtown three months ago on the advice of her gerontologist. "I had a lot of falls and I was finding it harder and harder to open the door. … It just got harder," Ms. Murphy said.

She said the transition wasn't easy. But now home-care staff bake her muffins, help her shower, mop the floor and change the bed sheets in her bachelor apartment.

She's been able to keep up with her usual packed agenda of volunteer outreach activities, most recently talking to a group of medical students about ageism and performing a rap song about it. "This has been really positive for me. … It's everything I need," Ms. Murphy said.

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The changing face of Canadian housing

Most Canadians still live in detached homes – although that share is declining, data from the 2016 census shows. Single, detached homes accounted for 53.6 per cent of all housing types last year, down from 55 per cent in the previous census.

This share has been declining over the past three decades, Statistics Canada said, most notably in British Columbia.

Meantime, apartments represent a growing share of dwellings in Canada, rising to 33.5 per cent from 32.6 per cent in 2011. More people are opting for smaller living quarters as they grow older, their kids move out – and amid affordability concerns.

Canada's housing market has gotten pricier in the past five years, and rapid gains in Toronto in particular over this past year have sparked concern about a possible correction. Average house prices rose 35.3 per cent in the five-year period, to $489,777, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association.

Trends in building permits show the pace of construction of condominium units, in particular, has quickened since the early 2000s, Statscan noted, surpassing the number of single detached homes built since 2012.

Urban intensification is most pronounced in Canada's largest cities. In Toronto, nearly three in 10 dwellings are now in high-rise buildings, making it the city with the largest proportion of high-rises in the country. In Montreal, four in 10 dwellings were in low-rise apartment buildings, or those with fewer than five stories.

The census also looked at collective dwellings, such as nursing homes. Last year, 1.2 per cent of Canadians lived in nursing homes or senior residences, with the highest share in Quebec. Given the aging population, this type of living arrangement will grow in the future, the agency said.

Tavia Grant

Lindsay Jones is Special to The Globe and Mail

Video: This senior has a rap about respect for the aged for you to hear
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About the Author

Tavia Grant has worked at The Globe and Mail since early 2005, covering topics from employment and currency markets to trade, microfinance and Latin American economies. She previously worked for Bloomberg News in Toronto and Zurich, writing on mining, stocks, currencies and secret Swiss bank accounts. More

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