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David Gratzer

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Postponing Retirement Can Be a Good Thing

Posted: 10/26/11 04:28 PM ET

We work longer. Our retirement is about as long as before.

So says a new StatsCan study that considers an older workforce. The study, released today, finds that a 50-year-old worker stayed in the labour force three and a half years longer in 2008 than in the mid-1990s.

But what's also interesting is that -- because we live longer -- delaying retirement doesn't actually mean that we spend less time in retirement. "As a percentage of total life expectancy," the study authors write, "the expected length of retirement from the age of 50 was about the same in 2008 as it was in 1977."

This isn't necessarily good news. For too many Canadians with limited savings and ongoing financial obligations, retirement is postponed because they can't afford it.

But many people are delaying retirement by choice -- and good health. In part because of the "high-tech, high-expense" medical revolution, our expectations of life have been transformed.

Star quarterbacks throw touchdowns into their 40s. Seniors populate the country club's greens -- and also the House of Commons and the Supreme Court. Retirement, once seen as a brief interlude between work and death, spans decades for some. Old age has been redefined. Just 40 years ago, any British citizen who reached his or her 100th birthday was personally congratulated by the Queen. Today, there are so many people joining the centenarians' club in the United Kingdom that civil servants draft the congratulatory notes.

A similar trend exists in Canada and across the Western world. Aging is largely a modern phenomenon. When Hamlet opened at the Globe in the early days of the 17th century, only one in 40 people were age 65 or older. Today, about one in seven people in the Western world are 65 or older.

We spend much time in our country worrying about our health-care system, and with good reason. Health care eats up more and more money from our provincial budgets; it is unsustainable with an aging population.

But we should never forget that this is -- in the overall scheme of things -- a good problem to have. And that's something to consider, for those of us in our working years, and those of us in our long retirement years.