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Aging baby boomers’ health crisis avoidable, expert says

July 2009

Is a socio-demographic “apocalypse” at hand in Quebec because of greater demand likely to be placed on health and social services in the coming years by the aging “baby boom” generation?

Or are boomers destined to live out the promise of “Freedom 55,” as the healthiest and most economically privileged retirees ever? The truth, according to a McGill University sociologist, is probably somewhere in between.

Ever since the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2005 decision overruling the province’s prohibition of private medical insurance (Chaoulli vs Quebec), Amélie Quesnel-Vallée, an assistant professor of sociology and epidemiology, has been questioning a prediction made decades ago that the sheer numbers of baby boomers would precipitate a social crisis when they reached retirement age.

One of the corollary arguments put forth leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision was that Quebec’s public health care system would be straining under the burden of the aging population and that privatization would be needed to fix that.

From a demographic perspective, the baby boom (roughly 1945 to 1964) has been described as a “shockwave” or “the pig in the python,” because of the conspicuous bulge that stands out in population charts.

While acknowledging that the demographics speak for themselves, Quesnel-Vallée adds that “There is a portrayal of this aging of the population as a catastrophe. And what I’m trying to say is that this portrayal is in fact an interpretation of a situation that we know very little about, because historically we’ve never experienced it in Quebec.

“We could also see this demographic shift as an opportunity for much needed change. I’m not saying that we can all sit on our hands and everything will be fine. What I’m saying is it may not be a catastrophe, but we need to implement some means of dealing with this. We actually have time to react to it. If we don’t react there might be a problem.”

Freedom 55 was a retirement fund concept devised decades ago by the London Life Insurance Company. While Freedom 55 has become a catchphrase for early retirement, in recent years the idea has taken a bit of a beating because of unstable global financial conditions and more people discovering they haven’t enough money to retire.

One of Quesnel-Vallée’s principal arguments against the catastrophe scenario is that quantitative evidence indicates the health and overall well being of baby boomers is relatively high, so their impact on the health and social services is likely to be less pronounced.

This augurs well for those wishing to continue working past retirement and could result in a decreased burden on pension funds.

But she also bases some of her reasoning on an essay called The Compression of Morbidity, which was written during the early 1980s by James Fries, a professor of medicine at Stanford University.

Fries theorized that health care costs and patient health overall can be improved if the age of onset of a first chronic infirmity can be postponed before the age of death.

Sociologist Amélie Quesnel-Vallée hopes to dispel the notion that a catastrophe is at hand because of the coming of age of the Baby Boomer generation. Photo: Martin C. Barry

“There should be no mandatory retirement age,” he said in his essay. “Studies of plasticity suggest strongly the health and vitality benefits of continuing challenge, problem solving, perception of productivity, continued activity, and more money; for some, these features will be best obtained by continued employment.”



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