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Defining the Canadian baby boom as being parallel to that in the United States is both wrong and dangerous

A version of this commentary appeared in the Huffington Post and the Victoria Times Colonist

The Canadian baby boom years are different from the U.S. As a retired demographer, I do indeed tire of the endless articles in the Canadian press that either just quote U.S.-based stories about the baby boom or make the incorrect assumption that the Canadian baby boom mirrored that south of the border (see, for example, a recent news item in the Globe and Mail).

Defining the Canadian baby boom as being parallel to that in the United States is both wrong and dangerous.

While it is fairly accurate to define the U.S. baby boom as having taken place in the period between 1946 and 1964, that is definitely not true for Canada. When one graphs the number of live births in Canada, it is quite clear that the “boom” years went from 1952 to 1965 (inclusive). Those are also the only years in Canadian history when live births in Canada exceeded 400,000. Interestingly, the number of live births in Canada has not exceeded 400,000 since 1965 despite our rapidly growing base population.

Our baby boom births peaked in 1959 versus 1957 for the U.S.  The number of live births in Canada in 1946 was 343,504 — well below our 400,000 criterion.

Why does this matter?

I was born in Canada in 1949, which means I am not a member of the baby boom.  I did not experience overcrowding when I went to school. Getting into university (in 1967) was pretty easy and getting a job in 1971 was not a problem at all.

I bought my first house in 1975 just before prices sky rocketed and before mortgage rates exploded. And I started to receive my Old Age Security cheque when I turned 65, exactly as promised.

But those born several years later (1952-65– Canada’s actual baby boom) did face a lot of problems because of their birth year.  They went to school in shifts or in portables.  The marks required to get into university rose rapidly.  When they graduated from university, youth unemployment rates exceeded 25 percent.  By the time they bought their first homes, prices were already up and mortgage rates were 18 percent or more.  And, if you were born in 1958 or later, you will have to wait as much as two more years for your Old Age Security benefits.

So assuming Canada’s baby boom years mirrored the U.S. in this important statistical demographic is wrong.  But why is it dangerous?

First, assuming that the baby boom is a post-war phenomenon means we jump to the wrong conclusion when guessing the cause.  The baby boom was not the result of frisky soldiers returning to Canada.  It was, instead, the result of the very good economic times in the period 1952 to 1965 allowing for at-home moms and large familie

Second, it leads to other erroneous conclusions.  If you use as a single age the birth cohort of 1946 to define the baby boom, you will picture this demographic as turning 69 in 2015.  That is, ‘old.’  But if you correctly anchor the baby boom around its peak and mid-point in 1959, then the baby boom will, in fact, turn 56 in 2015.  That means the bulk of the baby boom is still in the labour force and the explosion in our dependency ratio will not peak until 2024 — a decade from now.  Further, the average age of exit from the labour force has been steadily increasing since 2001 and many Canadians now retire after age 65, which means this major shift in our labour market may actually happen post-2024.

So, the tidal wave is not upon us — yet.  We still have time to plan for its impact on the economy in terms of both lower GDP growth and in terms of rapidly rising costs for health care and social security.

And the ski hills can still look forward to a few more good years before heading downhill.

Robert Brown is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, a Retired Professor of Actuarial Science, University of Waterloo and Immediate Past President of the International Actuarial Association. 

January 2015

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