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Growing Grey: Five Key Takeaways from the 2016 Census of Population

By Kristine St-Laurent

The 2016 Census revealed three major population trends in Canada: we are having fewer babies, more and more baby boomers are transitioning into retirement, and everyone is living longer.  Taken together, these trends point towards a population that is greying at a faster rate than in any other census period.  Overall, it’s a good news story as it signals Canadians are generally living longer and healthier lives. However, the data also confirm that our natural population will soon have difficulty supporting the rising needs of older generations. And, in the absence of significant policy changes, it also indicates that government revenues will soon come under downward pressure.

Here are our main takeaways from the 2016 Census Age and Population data, and how they may affect the future:

  1. For the first time in Census history, seniors outnumber youth. There are now 5.9 million Canadians 65 years and older, compared to 5.8 million aged 14 and under.  
  2. Life expectancy rates are higher. For women, average life expectancy is approaching 84 years, while men are just under 80 years.[1]  In BC, men and women are expected to live slightly longer.[2]  The expansion of this age group shows few signs of slowing down. Between 2011 and 2016, the >85-year-old cohort grew 19.4% —nearly four times the growth rate of the total Canadian population, which in comparison increased by just 5%.
  3. BC is an attractive destination to retire. Seven of the top ten municipalities in Canada with the largest proportions of people aged 85 and older are found in BC.

    Top 10 Municipalities* with Highest Proportion of People >85, Canada, 2016
    Rank Municipality Total population People aged 85 and older Proportion
    1 Sidney, BC 11,670 1130 9.7%
    2 Qualicum Beach, BC 8945 725 8.1%
    3 Côte-Saint-Luc, QC 32,450 2345 7.2%
    4 Saint-Charles-Borromée, QC 13,790 895 6.5%
    5 Oak Bay, BC 18,095 1130 6.2%
    6 Parksville, BC 12,515 775 6.2%
    7 White Rock, BC 19,950 1205 6.0%
    8 Westlock, AB 5100 305 6.0%
    9 Osoyoos, BC 5085 300 5.9%
    10 Creston, BC 5350 315 5.9%
    * census subdivisions; 5000 residents or more
  4. The annual growth rate of Canada’s working age population (15 to 64 years) decreased over the last five years, falling from 68.5% in 2011 to 66.5% in 2016.
  5. Within the working age population (15 to 64 years), the proportion between 55 and 64 years of age reached a record high of 21% in 2016.  At the same time, there were fewer Canadians aged 15 to 24 (4.3 million) than people aged 55 to 64 (4.9 million). This marks the second census in a row where the number of people edging closer to retirement outnumber those about to join the workforce.  Unless births increase (which is unlikely, given decreasing fertility rates), an aging population will turn ever greyer.  

The results of the 2016 Census of Population point to challenges ahead, notably around labour productivity, knowledge transfer, succession planning, and the renewal of the labour force. These trends point to a future of slower economic growth and downward pressure on government revenues to fund public services.  With fewer workers to fill the positions left by the older generation—one that is living longer and requiring more in terms of health care and other forms of social assistance—governments will face mounting demands on the treasury.  Of concern, average spending on health care is nearly nine times more for someone age 80 and older than for someone aged 1 to 64.[3] 

To add to the complexity of this issue, these trends converge at a time when many younger workers are struggling to find well-paid, full-time employment. The less income workers generate, the less tax revenue will be available to fund public services.   

British Columbia needs to be especially alert to the results of the 2016 Census of Population, as the province is home to a significant share of older Canadians. Governments will need to make important public policy decisions and find innovative ways to support an aging population, such as how to extend working lives, encourage higher productivity, and more efficiently deliver public programs and services. Some suggestions on where to start:

And, lastly:

 


[1] CANSIM Table 053-0003. Life expectancy Canada: females 83.8 years; males 79.6 years.

[2] Ibid. Life expectancy British Columbia: females 84.4 years; males 80.4 years.

[3] On average, BC spends $3694 per person on health care. CIHI data, 2014.