Older workers here to stay

If employers can get past biases, myths they can take advantage of this labour source

There are more seniors in Canada now than ever and they are working longer, living longer and better educated, according to new data from Statistics Canada. And that’s good news for employers facing a labour crunch, if they can figure out how to best manage this workforce, says Statistics Canada senior analyst Grant Schellenberg.

“The question isn’t how to retain older workers,” said Schellenberg, co-author of the report A Portrait of Seniors in Canada. “The question is more aptly proposed as how does one manage an older workforce.”

The number of seniors in Canada increased from 2.4 million to 4.2 million between 1981 and 2005. That number is expected to reach 9.8 million by 2026 and seniors will make up 21.2 per cent of the overall population, up from 9.6 per cent in 1981.

Labour force participation rates among men over the age of 60 hit a low point in the 1990s, but that trend is reversing, said Schellenberg. In 2005, 53.9 per cent of men 60 to 64 were in the labour force, up from a low of 43.4 per cent in 1995. For men 65 to 69, participation rates hit 23 per cent, up from 16.5 per cent in the same time frame.

Provincial differences

Provincially the differences are even more striking. In Ontario, one in four men over the age of 65 participated in the labour force in 2005. This is the highest proportion since 1976. The participation rate of men over 65 in Alberta has been at about one in three since 2003, the highest rate since 1976 and up from a low of 23.9 per cent in 1994.

Saskatchewan is also experiencing high labour force participation among seniors, with 40.1 per cent of them working in 2005, up from 30.5 per cent the year before.

“The reversal around the steady decline in participation rates that we saw through the 1970s, 1980s and the first part of the 1990s has really reversed in quite a striking fashion, particularly in the last four or five years,” said Schellenberg. “The magnitude of that increase is really quite staggering. Whether that continues or not will have to be seen.”

He attributed the change not to any employer initiatives, but rather the changing demographics of older Canadians.

One of the most significant changes is the educational makeup of older Canadians. In 1990, less than one-fifth of people over the age of 65 had a post-secondary certificate, diploma or degree. In 2005, that proportion jumped to 31 per cent and is expected to continue to increase as one-half of Canadians turning 65 in the next 10 years will have one of these credentials.

“Prospects of staying in the workforce are greater for people with higher levels of education. They have more human capital that they can offer the labour market,” said Schellenberg.

A ‘relatively healthy’ group

This group of Canadians is also relatively healthy, with 77 per cent of those aged 65 to 74 reporting that they are in excellent, very good or good health. That percentage drops slightly to 68 per cent in the 75 and older category.

This is reflected in the increase in life expectancy. At the turn of the 20th century, the average 65-year-old Canadian could expect to live another 13.3 years. This increased to 19.2 years in 2003. Between 1991 and 2003, life expectancy at the age of 65 increased by 1.2 years.

Unfortunately, older Canadians still face several barriers to employment. A discussion paper, Older Workers: Challenges and Policy Issues, released by a federally appointed expert panel on older workers last month, showed issues of ageism and employer bias still exist.

It stated that, in some cases, employers may “perceive older workers as less adaptable, less learning-oriented or less amenable to adopting and utilizing technologies.”

These biases make it less likely employers will move an older worker to a new position or location, or provide training.

“The myths that older workers can’t learn new things, that they get sick, is so untrue. They bring with them expertise and maturity and commitment. Just because you turn a certain age doesn’t mean you suddenly fall apart,” said Judy Cutler, the director of government relations for CARP, Canada’s Association for the 50 Plus. “We need to start honouring age and experience.”

Older workers can act as coaches, mentors

Employers should institute mentoring and coaching positions for older workers so they can share their expertise, she said. Flexible work hours and work arrangements are also important for older workers who may need to care for a loved one or who may require accommodations of their own. And training, or retraining, for older workers is just as important as it is for younger workers, said Cutler.

In terms of public policy, mandatory retirement needs to be abolished where it still exists, most notably in the federally regulated sector, said Cutler. There also needs to be changes made to the Canada Pension Plan (CPP). Currently individuals have to retire before they can apply for CPP benefits, even though they can then return to work.

“If you’re allowed to go back to work, why would you have to have stopped working in order to apply?” said Cutler.

Seniors receiving Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) benefits should be given clawback protection for a certain amount of employment income to encourage them to work, she said. Currently for every dollar of employment income, one dollar in GIS is taken back by the government.

“These people are the poorest of seniors, they’re not getting that much even with GIS. If we could allow them a band of even $5,000 so they can go back to work if they choose to…it would contribute to their quality of life,” said Cutler.

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