Older Canadians forgoing retirement, working through golden years: census

TORONTO — The three months of Bill VanGorder’s retirement were among the longest of his career.

Lured by the promise of relaxation and spare time, the Halifax resident thought he’d relish the opportunity to walk away from an executive position and enjoy the fruits of his labour. But restlessness and a desire to keep contributing drove him back to the job market within weeks, and he was ensconced in a different corporate office three months after relinquishing his old one.

In the four years that followed, a global economic crisis ate into VanGorder’s retirement savings, making the prospect of ongoing work both attractive and inevitable.

Eventually, he decided to go into business for himself, allowing the flexibility of both a stable work life and the perks of retirement — making VanGorder, 74, a prototype of the new brand of retiree.

The latest census data from Statistics Canada show more and more Canadians are choosing to eschew the traditional retirement age, whether for their health, their finances or just for the fun of it.

More than 53 per cent of Canadian men aged 65 were working in some form in 2015, including 22.9 per cent who worked full-time throughout the year, compared with 37.8 and 15.5 per cent, respectively, in 1995, the census numbers show.

At the age of 70, nearly three in 10 men did some sort of work in 2015, twice the proportion of 20 years earlier. Full-time work was at 8.8 per cent, up from 5.4 per cent in 1995.

The shift is even more dramatic for women, a reflection of their escalating role in the workforce. Some 38.8 per cent of senior women worked in 2015, twice the proportion of 1995, while the percentage of women working at 70 more than doubled over the same 20-year period.

The numbers show it’s high time for governments and businesses to re-evaluate the way they view Canada’s senior citizens, VanGorder said.

“One of the great problems we have … is the myth that because our population is older than the rest of the country, that’s a terrible thing and we’re a terrible draw on resources,” he said in an interview.

“What we have is a large group of seniors who are very productive, who want to contribute to the economy, who are able to offer mentorship and leadership to younger people.”

Experts agree that the large pool of baby boomers deferring retirement beyond the traditional age of 65 represent a formidable cohort for governments and employers to contend with.

Demographer David Foot said their impact is not as noticeable as it was when they first began to enter the workforce decades ago, since their ranks have slowly been thinned by health problems and even death. But mounting financial pressures and increasing life expectancy are forcing those that remain to work longer than previous generations.

The average person’s lifespan has increased two years per decade for the past 50 years, said Foot, author of the best-selling “Boom, Bust and Echo,” which anticipated the impact of the aging baby boom.

“It’s stretching out our work life so we’re no longer thinking of retiring in our early 60s any more, and it’s stretching out retirement,” he said. “Many people now have the opportunity to look forward to 20, possibly even longer, years of reasonably healthy retirement.”

That prospect, Foot said, puts a strain on people’s financial resources, particularly in an age when guaranteed pensions are no longer reliable sources of income.

Foot said the current crop of retirees are more likely to have a stable, defined-benefit pension plan, unlike future generations forced to make do with a defined-contribution plan — if any.

As a result, Foot suggested most working seniors will only defer their retirements by up to five years, and are likely to prefer part-time work — a trend already borne out by Wednesday’s numbers.

Despite its advantages, however, the aging workforce has yet to be embraced by private enterprise, said Canadian Labour Congress senior economist Angella MacEwen.

While retail operations may have part-time work to offer its aging employees, she said companies with seniors in white-collar jobs need to rethink their approach.

“We haven’t had a discussion about retaining, maybe transitioning people into roles of mentorship, having them work part-time, flexible hours,” MacEwen said.

“They have a lot of valuable skills to contribute, so it would be useful to maintain them in some capacity. But in a lot of cases it’s still a choice between full-time or nothing.”

MacEwen said efforts to accommodate older employees would have benefits for younger staff too, dismissing the notion that the prolonged presence of seniors would pose professional barriers for those hoping to rise through the ranks.

Employing older people allows them to keep participating in the economy, she said, creating more jobs that can ultimately be filled by people of all ages.

VanGorder, meanwhile, wants to see governments focus on providing training opportunities for the types of seniors who are rapidly becoming the norm.

“Some of us older business people have been brought kicking and screaming into the digital age because our businesses depend on (it),” he said.

“Older workers need that kind of retraining, they want it, and they can’t get it.”

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