Aging is a continual biological, psychological and social process from infancy to old age. Conventionally, the term narrowly refers to the transition from adulthood to old age. Population aging refers to a decline in relative numbers of young people and an increase in relative numbers of old people.


Aging is a continual biological, psychological and social process from infancy to old age. Conventionally, the term narrowly refers to the transition from adulthood to old age. Population aging refers to a decline in relative numbers of young people and an increase in relative numbers of old people. With brief interruptions, the Canadian population has been aging from its inception.

Historical Context

The social character of old age has undergone a remarkable transformation in the 20th century. In the past, the elders of the community were defined less by chronological age than by institutional seniority, particularly within the family. To be old meant to hold a particular position within a system of generations - having adult children and grandchildren - rather than to be a member of an age group defined by its date of birth. Therefore, the age at which individuals were actually recognized as being old varied.

The contemporary practice of designating all those above age 65 as old is historically unique and derives from another unique 20th-century practice of retiring elderly workers at a fixed age without regard to physical ability or mental capacity. Until well into this century, most people continued to work until death or the onset of extreme disability. Retirement was a privilege of the wealthy. In 1921, 60% of all males over the age of 65 were actively engaged in the labour force. By 1951, this figure had declined to 40% and by 1996 to under 10%.

Retirement as a general principle of labour force management was made possible through the development of a system of retirement wages, eg, Old-Age Pension, both public and private. The transition into old age is now defined primarily by the individual's relation to the economy; only in this context is it possible to understand the contemporary conventional practice of defining the elderly as all those who are above 65 years of age.

It is also worth noting that many men and women now retire well before age 65. Thirty-eight percent of women and 27 % of men now leave the labour force before age 60. Among those still employed, less than 40% say they expect to remain in the labour force until age 65.

Adaptation to Aging

Discovering the secret of a happy old age has preoccupied men and women throughout history, but it remains a secret. Popular perceptions to the contrary, considerable research has indicated that retirement does not noticeably affect the well-being of the elderly. If retirement is accompanied by sufficient income to prevent a significant decline in living standards, it is experienced by many as liberation from tedious and debilitating working conditions. Indeed, what most distinguishes the contemporary character of old age is the fact that it is no longer necessary for elderly men and women to work until they fall ill or die. As with the young, however, the morale and well-being of the elderly are jeopardized by poor health, inadequate income and the loss of loved ones through death. What makes old age distinctive is the increased risk of all 3 conditions and the absence of adequate support from the larger community when these conditions occur. And for reasons already noted, all 3 conditions are much more likely to strike elderly women than elderly men.

Social Composition of the Elderly

In 1996 there were 3 527 845 persons aged 65 and over in Canada, 58% of whom were women. Elderly women had already begun to outnumber elderly men by 1961. This trend has continued as a result of the changing number in the male-female ratio due to international migration to Canada and changes in life expectancy. In the early part of this century, more men than women immigrated to Canada, but between 1931 and 1948 more women than men arrived, many joining husbands and families. By the 1960s men and women were immigrating to Canada in approximately equal numbers. As these migrants age, females in the older age groups will become even more marked, because although increases in life expectancy have benefited both men and women, the gap in life expectancy between the sexes has widened. Today, the average life expectancy of a 65-year-old male is 16 years; for a female it is 20 years.

Sexual differences in longevity imply that the social experience of aging differs greatly for men and women. Most men live out their lives in a family, with a wife; most women become widows. In 1994, 77% of elderly men were married but only 43% of elderly women; in contrast, only 13% of elderly men were widowed, compared to 47% of elderly women. About 66% of all elderly household heads now live in their own homes. The remaining 34% is composed of renters, lodgers and those in institutions for the elderly. About 5% of the elderly population are in nursing homes, homes for the elderly and other institutional care facilities.

Over time there has been a trend among the widowed, divorced and single elderly to live on their own rather than with family or friends, a trend that is usually interpreted as the result of a rising standard of living. Both residential patterns and surveys indicate that most elderly persons wish to live close to, but not with, their children.

Economic Status of the Elderly

Following WWII, the economic position of the elderly began to decline. During the '50s and '60s the percentage of the elderly in the bottom 2 income quintiles increased while the percentage in the highest quintile declined. In large measure this was a result of rising levels of retirement without compensating increases in retirement pensions to offset the loss of labour force income. This trend was reversed in the '70s as the pension reforms of the 1960s came into effect. In 1965, prior to the reforms, 49% of the elderly were in the lowest income quintile and 5% in the highest quintile. By 1983, 35% were in the lowest quintile and 5.7% in the highest quintile. The poverty rate among elderly couples declined from 41.4% in 1969 to 11.1% in 1983 and to 9.1% in 1993. The historical reversal of this trend towards greater poverty in old age is one of the major success stories of postwar social policy.

Despite this reversal in the trend, however, the elderly remain concentrated in the bottom half of the Canadian income distribution. The economic problems of elderly women are particularly acute: 38% of widowed, single and divorced elderly women were below the poverty line in 1993.

Canada's retirement income system (see Social Security) continues to face 2 outstanding problems: providing a level of income security that allows average wage earners to maintain continuity in living standards after retirement and the high incidence of poverty among elderly women. Public pension programs were designed on the premise that government should provide a basic minimum of income security, beyond which additional income needs in retirement would be met through private pensions negotiated between employers and employees. This additional coverage was not, and is unlikely to be, forthcoming. Less than half the labour force and only 35% of employed women are covered by employer pensions. Moreover, coverage by employer pensions has been declining, particularly among younger and less educated workers. The result for future generations will be a growing division between those elderly with both public and private benefits and those who rely exclusively on public pension programs.

Health and Health Services

The elderly tend to suffer from more illnesses, both physical and mental. They also make greater use of health-care practitioners and facilities than do younger age groups. Unlike the young, however, the elderly suffer primarily from such chronic conditions as heart disease, arthritis and physical impairments of various types. Although 75% of the elderly population suffer from at least one chronic condition, 80% are functionally capable of independent living.

Traditional medical practice, which has focused on the acute, short-term conditions typically experienced by the young, cannot be applied appropriately to the health needs of the growing numbers of the elderly. While many of the elderly require temporary hospitalization, health care is primarily a matter of providing ongoing services and assistance to minimize the consequences of long-term or permanent disability. In the absence of sufficient community-based home-care services, many elderly persons are required to seek access to institutional care prematurely. Consequently, provincial governments during the last decade have emphasized the provision of homemaker, handyman and home-meal services, adult day-care centres and other services not traditionally considered part of health care.

Population Aging

In 1851, 65 000 persons in Canada were age 65 or older, comprising less than 3% of the population. In 1996, 12% of the population was old by this conventional definition, and this figure is projected to rise to 18.7% by 2025. In 1996, the median age of Canadians was 35 years, the highest level yet. Population aging began to occur as early as the 19th century in countries such as France and Sweden and since 1900 has become characteristic of all highly industrialized nations. Increased longevity has contributed to this development. The major factor that explains population aging, however, is the supply of young people. As the number of young people decline, the share of the elderly in the total population rises. The 2 principal sources of the supply of young people are migration and fertility.

International migrants tend to be young adults seeking to improve their economic situation. Any increase in immigration to Canada will considerably alter the projected size of Canada's elderly population in the next century. The exceptionally high level of fertility after WWII accounts for the relatively large numbers of old people expected in the next century. The Baby-boom generation, born in the 1950s and early 1960s, is like a bubble moving through the age pyramid. By the year 2030, the last of this generation will have reached age 65.

As a result of unusually high postwar levels of immigration and fertility, the process of population aging has advanced more slowly in Canada. In countries such as Sweden, Austria and Germany, the elderly already constitute more than 16% of the population. Within the industrialized world, only Japan has a significantly younger population than that of Canada.

The problems often imputed to an aging society are both social and economic. The increased costs of supporting an elderly population, the effects on productivity and the blocked mobility channels for younger workers, it is argued, will serve to generate new social conflicts between the old and young. The experience of European nations where this process is already quite advanced, however, does not substantiate this view. Sweden, Austria and Germany have experienced little popular resistance to rising social expenditures, even though national old-age pensions in these countries are considerably more generous than those in Canada.

One reason countries are able to adjust to a large elderly population is because the size of the youthful population below working age has been declining. As a result, the ratio of the nonworking to the working-age population has also declined and rising expenditures on the old have been partially offset by declining expenditures on the young. A similar trend is projected for Canada. In 2031 the ratio of those over age 65 and under 18 to the working-age population may reach 70%. This is somewhat higher than the 1986 figure of 61% but considerably lower than the 87% of 1961.

During the 1990s, many countries, including Canada, began to adjust their pension and health care systems to take account of the projected growth in and changing circumstances of the elderly. Popular opinion polls in the 1990s indicate such changes have led to a loss of confidence among the young in these institutions, and a fear that pensions and health care will not be available for them when they reach old age. Closer inspection suggests such fears are largely unfounded. Recent and projected legislative changes have largely been marginal adjustments designed to take account of changing circumstances among the elderly and among the young. Individuals now live longer, and healthier, than in the past; a growing number of elderly persons now have alternative sources of income; and many young families now face economic risks unlike those of earlier generations. Policy adjustment, not revolution, has been the response to these developments.

Old age has long been a source of private troubles for men and women. In the late 20th century it has also become a public issue. National and social institutions, generally designed to serve a youthful population, will continue to adjust to the needs of an aging population. But history has not come to an end and it would be presumptuous to assume that the character and experience of old age will mean the same thing in the next century as it does in this one. The social, legal and political constituency we now call the elderly was created by social, political and economic forces, and it can be dramatically altered by these same forces.

Further Reading

  • Victor Marshall, Aging in Canada: Social Perspectives, 2nd ed (1987); Grant Schellenberg, The Road to Retirement: Economic and Demographic Changes in the 90s (1994).