The 21st century Sourdough

A century ago, you made your fortune in the Yukon and then retired somewhere warm until you ran out of gold and dancehall hangers-on.

A century ago, you made your fortune in the Yukon and then retired somewhere warm until you ran out of gold and dancehall hangers-on. Even a generation ago, it was typical to spend your working years in the Yukon and then retire as soon as you could afford it to Vancouver or, if you’d done well, Hawaii.

So it is surprising to see how rapidly the Yukon’s population is aging.

Thirty years ago, according to Statistics Canada’s handy online population pyramid tool, the Yukon’s population was much younger than it is now. The most common age, or “mode” in statistics-speak, was 27 years for both men and women. As of the 2011 census, the modal Yukoner was around 50 years old.

If you were looking for a reason why there are a lot fewer bars on Main Street these days, this is probably it.

This is a surprisingly rapid change in the age structure of a population. The age structure of most populations around the world was probably quite stable for thousands of years before the industrial revolution. In the 20th century we went through rapid population growth, the baby boom and now rapid aging. But not many places are going from young to old as rapidly as the Yukon.

The Yukon still has a younger population than Canada overall. In 2011, 9.1 per cent of Yukoners were 65 or over versus 14.8 percent for the country. It used to be even younger. Way back in the 1904 census, in fact, there were no women reported in the Yukon over the age of 55.

The ratio of women to men has also changed. The Yukon Statistics Bureau says there were 127 men for every woman in 1961. In 2011 the ratio was 101 to 100. Yukon women can no longer joke that “the odds are good but the goods may be odd” like they could back in the Swinging Sixties.

There are now over 3,000 Yukoners over the age of 65. Another 5,000 will qualify for their seniors discount cards in the next decade. The decade after that will see an even bigger bulge.

Looking forward, it seems likely this will continue. In fact, there are even scenarios that would accelerate it. Suppose, for example, that the mining industry stays flat, failing to draw in thousands of young private-sector workers over the next decade. Then suppose that Ottawa throttles back growth in transfer payments by a couple of points. If transfer payments grow no faster than inflation, then annual increases in federal money will be consumed by cost-of-living raises for existing government workers; this would prevent surging government hiring as we have seen in the last decade.

In this scenario, fewer young people move to the Yukon while the existing workforce stays in place and ages.

This would have some significant implications for our economy and government.

The first is likely housing. The new 300-bed Sourdough home being planned by the government in Whistle Bend may seem big, but it isn’t when you think of those thousands of Yukoners headed for retirement I mentioned above.

Whitehorse will need a lot more housing suited to older lifestyles. The Riverdale split-level and the Copper Ridge family home will be out of fashion with all their stairs and slippery driveways to shovel. Seniors will be looking for downtown condos or apartments in facilities with easy access to shops, restaurants and health care.

You can see the real estate industry Outside already responding to these opportunities, especially in cities.

Some Yukoners have similar ideas. Ranjit Sarin and the Vimy Heritage Housing Society, for example, are working on a plan for apartments where Yukon seniors can live independently but also take advantage of prepared meals in a shared dining-room or on-site activities and programs. (Go to www.vhhs.ca to learn more about this interesting idea.)

There are also likely going to be lots of business opportunities around services for older Yukoners, including things like home care, grocery delivery, hearing aids and mobility devices.

The implications for government are also big. As people age, they consume more health-care services. The U.K. government has a statistic that forecasts the demand for health care by linking population forecasts to estimates of how people use more health care as they age. The British forecasts show an eye-popping increase coming in health-care demand. It would likely look the same here.

The Yukon also will face some choices about government services to older Yukoners. For example, daily user fees at the Yukon’s continuing care facilities were left at 1993 levels for 20 years, resulting in the Yukon having the lowest rates in Canada by 2013. The Yukon government nearly doubled rates that year, but said at the time that the new fees still only covered only 8 to 11 percent of the actual cost. The new 2013 daily rate was $35, which works out to under $1,100 per month for accommodation, meals, nursing, medical supplies and prescription drugs. The actual cost was between $310 and $470 per day, or between $9,000 and $14,000 per month.

It will be a challenge for the government to provide this level of support for the thousands of 21st century Sourdoughs heading up the demographic pyramid. Especially if there aren’t enough young Yukoners around to pay the taxes needed for it.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.