06/29/2012 08:47 EDT | Updated 08/29/2012 05:12 EDT

Are Bankrupt Seniors Harbingers Of Things To Come?

Canadians over the age of 65 now have the highest insolvency and bankruptcy rates in the country, according to the latest family finances report by the Vanier Institute for the Family.

The non-profit charity's 2011/2012 report found that seniors were 17 times more likely to become insolvent in 2010 than they were just 20 years before.

In that same period, the insolvency rate for people over 65 ballooned by 1,747 per cent.

“It’s an extreme, but we can see it as the tip of the iceberg,” said Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute, who added that a larger contingent of older baby boomers might soon be in the same financial position.

As David Cork, the Director of ScotiaMcLeod, has pointed out, a very important group of seniors is now entering the 65 and over category.

“Among the many important events that will take place in 2012, there is one in particular that will recast the social and economic fabric of our country,” he wrote in the forward to the family finances report. “This year, the first of Canada’s Baby Boomers celebrate turning 65.”

Statistics Canada data, CBC graphic

Cork is referring to the more than 372,000 Canadian babies who were born in 1947. They on the thin end of their generational wedge, outnumbered as they are by the roughly 479,000 Canadians born at the 1959 peak of the boom.

Although they are not the biggest cohort of boomers, Cork argues the 65 year olds “deserve our full attention as the harbingers of things to come.”

Statistics Canada's 2011 census data shows Canada now has a higher proportion of seniors than ever before, a demographic reality that will have far-reaching implications for health, finance, policy and everyday family relationships. Although many of the boomers and their parents are well-positioned financially, those who are struggling will soon run an unprecedented test on the system.

“If you think there’s pressure on things today, wait 12 years,” said Cork.

A far cry from freedom 55

The reality of aging and its far-reaching implications are only just starting to sink in, said Verena Menec, director of the Centre on Aging at the University of Manitoba.

"We're still not ready," said Menec. "This is interesting, because we've been talking about this for decades."

The insolvency rates of older Canadians that are starting to show up now may be indicative of the financial stress that some seniors and near-seniors are shouldering as they face the prospect of less-than-golden years.

Yes, there is an irresponsible contingent among those who are bankrupt, but plenty find themselves in desperate financial straits due to an uncertain economic climate and myriad personal challenges — such as a divorce, the death of a spouse, or a severe illness or disability. Many seniors put aside money during their earning years, but have seen their retirement plans undermined by unexpectedly low investment returns, or eroded by outright losses in the markets over the past decade.

“There was an image of retirement, and it was everywhere,” said Spinks, referencing the popular Freedom 55 campaign, which depicted retirement as a relaxed time filled with laughter and leisure, golf and sandy beaches.

“The message was if you follow the rules, that will be you,” she said. “But there are people who followed the rules and that’s not them.”

One of the complicating factors is the rise in life expectancy. According to Statistics Canada, life expectancy in 1942 was 63 for men and 66 for women. By 2009, it was 79 for men and 83 for women – an increase that is changing the nature of end-of-life planning.

In 2011, there were 4,870 Canadian women and 955 men aged 100 or more — the second fastest growing age group in Canada, with a 25.7 per cent rate of expansion.

By 2031, Statscan projects the number of centenarians will reach 17,000. That will rise to close to 80,000 by 2061 as the bulk of the remaining baby boomers move into the triple digits.

Given the increase, Canadians who grew up saving for a rainy day may now find themselves rationing for a rainy season as their lifespan outstrips their finances.

“Nest eggs are not worth as much, all of a sudden,” said Spinks, adding that those who are already retired have more trouble recovering from economic turbulence.

“The situation is serious for those whose income is fixed or fluctuating.”

Time to turn it around

Cork is less convinced that higher insolvency rates are cause for concern, especially if the increase is not a dramatic one. He notes that bankruptcy isn't always the result of tragedy. Spirited entrepreneurial ventures, for instance, could always end in bankruptcy.

“I don’t think the statistical data tells the story,” he said, adding that many older Canadians actually choose to keep working past the traditional signpost for early retirement. "55 seems very young to me."

Joe Wasylyk, who runs, also thinks more older Canadians are ready to take risks and launch their own projects later in life.

"We want to go away from low-energy kind of activities," he said in an interview with CBC Radio, adding that senior entrepreneurs have realistic expectations.

“They don’t want to make a million dollars when they’re 65 or 70 years old,” he said. “They would like to make a few dollars and become more active, creative, productive and prosperous.”

Still, Cork acknowledges that it isn't an entirely rosy picture.

“I think it’s a wake-up call for a lot of people,” he said. “If you want to become a ward of the state, you’re taking your chances.”

Financial advisors commonly say that the planning process should begin as early as possible, and that it requires a realistic assessment of the challenges ahead.

“One of the things Canadians have to wrap their heads around is what’s not covered,” said Spinks, adding that nursing homes, assisted living and senior care mostly comes out of pocket.

As boomers look ahead, she said, it may be time to forget slogans directed at their generation — like “don’t pay a dime until 1999” — and heed the advice of their elders.

“A penny saved is a penny earned.”

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