Why rethinking retirement might help solve Canada’s demographic crunch

8 min read

Cross Country Checkups1:53:00FULL EPISODE: What did you do when you were being pushed into retirement?

Aveleigh Kyle retired as an intensive care (ICU) nurse nine years ago. It was a difficult job and the night shifts were taking their toll.

She stayed in the field part time, but now in her 60s — and having spent most of the COVID-19 pandemic helping administer vaccines — she’s back in the ICU at the Kingston Health Sciences Centre.

Her arrangement with the department means no more nights and flexible shifts, but Kyle’s there with her experience when new grads at the teaching hospital go through some of the profession’s most intense moments for the first time.

She recently found herself supporting a nursing grad through the process of removing a ventilator from a patient who was nearing death.

“Not only do you have to do the physical part of it, but you’re also surrounded, often by 10 family members who are having the worst day of their life.”

“The next time it’s going to be — not easier — but now she knows a little bit of what to give at what time so the patient’s not struggling. If the patient is struggling, the family struggles worse.”

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Nursing is among the professions most impacted by Canada’s aging workforce and a spate of recent retirements that are difficult to replace. It’s emblematic of a demographic crisis impacting Canada that is sometimes called “the gray waves.

Part of the solution, according to labor market experts, lies in finding ways to change the culture around aging in the workforce and making it easier for older workers to find fulfilling work and flexible hours.

Aging workforce shouldn’t be a surprise

“We knew this was coming. This was not surprising,” said Gillian Leithman, an adjunct professor of management at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University. Leithman also consults with companies on personnel training.

Woman in gray shirt smiling at camera
Gillian Leithman is a consultant and adjunct professor at Concordia University. She thinks it’s important Canada starts rethinking how it views aging workers and the value they bring to employers and the workforce. (Submitted by Gillian Leithman)

“We’re definitely seeing a shift in the market because it’s a pain point now for [employers] that really don’t have the luxury to not think about it.”

In 2022, Canada’s economy was grappling with surging inflation and was struggling to fill nearly a million job vacancies. that coincided with a record number of retirements among workers aged 55-64.

Canada’s economy added jobs in Aprilas the country’s population growth hit record levels due to the federal government’s plan to increase international migration. That said, a recent economic report from TD said, immigration alone, “doesn’t necessarily completely solve for the matching and integration of people desired by businesses.”

The sense from some of the people I’ve spoken to is it’s not so much about the income as it is still feeling valued– Marnin Heisel, professor of psychiatry at Western University

“When you’re talking about replacing somebody who is experienced, knowledgeable and good at their job and replacing them with a novice, somebody who’s at the beginning of their career [that’s] going to have a very different effect than replacing them with someone who has experience,” Leithman said.

What’s driving older workers from the workforce

Employment lawyer Camille Dunbar points out that while mandatory retirement has largely been phased out in most of Canadacapping pension contributions at 65 or expensive health insurance rates in that age bracket might be driving people from the workforce.

“It would be great to see some of those age limits changed, eliminated or somehow tied to something concrete as opposed to just an arbitrary age.”

Woman in black blazer smiles at camera.
Employment lawyer Camille Dunbar thinks retirement can be a complicated process requiring a fair bit of preparation. She says there are a number of considerations recently retired workers should take into account when negotiating the terms of a return on a short-term or consulting basis. (Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP)

Leithman thinks the discourse in Canada about retirement and older workers is outmoded and “needs to change.”

“Age-diverse work teams are brilliant, if you use it to your advantage, you will see increased innovation and better emotional stability in the team.”

She points to research backing the positive impact of older workers. She says older employees have fewer absences from work related to work-life balance issues because, for example, they don’t have young kids who need to stay home from daycare if they spike a fever.

“They’re [also] not job hopping. So, you know, the chances are they’ll stay with you. So when you factor in all these variables, they’re actually not more expensive,” Leithman adds.

Reinventing yourself around your strengths

After a long career in the delivery business, Ben Chabot thought he had found a role that would take him to retirement, restocking and doing minor repairs on vending machines. Then COVID-19 hit and he found himself looking for work.

Chabot, 60, stressed he was in a fortunate position because his wife had a well paying job, but like many Canadians, he wasn’t in a financial position to just stop working.

Online applications weren’t working at first, but he broadened his search and started going to businesses in person to offer his experience and his flexibility.

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It clicked at BDP Traffic Management Ltd. in Grande Prairie. He works on-call shifts, telling his supervisor to give hours to younger workers first if they want them.

“I mean, I’ve told my boss, this is something that I really want to do for at least another ten years.”

Chabot is the first to admit he’s not a tech wizard, but he is offered to get the job done on paper while he learns how to use the company’s computer systems, and his younger colleagues are happy to assist him with a little tech support.

Man in construction uniform stands by truck.
Ben Chabot works with a transportation management company in Grand Prairie, Alta. He says he works with ‘roughly a dozen young people who are the hardest working young people I’ve ever met.’ (Submitted by Ben Chabot)

He thinks ageist stereotypes can go both ways, but working with people is the best way to dispel them.

“A lot of people say, ‘oh, young people, they don’t want to work anymore.’ Well, I work with, roughly a dozen young people that are the hardest working young people I’ve ever met.”

Chabot says he’s ready to come in when needed and won’t get “overly excited if something seems to go off the rails…. I’m maybe more of a, for lack of a better word, maybe a steadying influence.”

Leithman says companies are starting to take retaining older workers more seriously. She says companies like the pharmaceutical company Merck Canada have adopted job-rotation programs so workers stay engaged and “work on new and challenging projects as opposed to remaining in the same position over time.”

Mentorship opportunities are also a way of keeping experienced employees invested.

“The mentorship component is a significant part of retention because the employees … at that stage of life want to groom the next generation, want to share their knowledge.”

Longer lifespans impact view of retirement

There’s also the potential for a lot of social and economic benefits because fulfilling work for older people has been shown to improve cognitionpotentially staving off conditions like dementia, for which care is demanding and expensive.

“I think from a social perspective, we haven’t caught up to lifespan development. We’re still thinking old school,” said Leithman.

Marnin Heisel, an associate professor of psychiatry at Western University, runs support groups for men, particularly veterans and first responders, who are recently retired or nearing retirement.

“Older people are still one of the last groups that, socially, people feel comfortable making fun of, making jokes about,” says Heisel.

Heisel also says, statistically, men in their 90s have become the highest risk demographic for death by suicide. He stresses people often lose a vital social connection when they disappear from the workplace.

There’s also a negative “carryover effect” for people who end their careers feeling forced out.

“The sense from some of the people I’ve spoken to is it’s not so much about the income as it is still feeling valued, still feeling connected, still doing something.”

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