Section 2: Age and sex

Warning View the most recent version.

Archived Content

Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please "contact us" to request a format other than those available.

One of the major changes related to Canada's age and sex structure in the last several decades is population aging. This phenomenon is directly or indirectly linked to a number of significant social and economic issues such as renewal of the working age population, financing of public health care and retirement programs and intergenerational relations.

The age pyramid below (Figure 2.1) clearly shows the aging of Canada's population by comparing the structure of the Canadian population by age and sex on July 1, 1971 and on July 1, 2011. A population pyramid provides an immediate snapshot of the age and sex structure of a population as well as a visual comparison of several populations or a single population at different times. The population pyramid shows, in particular, the impact of the large cohort of baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1965, on Canada's age structure. The progression of baby boomers through the age structure is particularly evident when comparing the July 1, 2011 pyramid to that of July 1, 1971. Forty years ago, baby boomers were children and young adults aged 6 to 25 years, whereas now they are in the 46-to-65 range. This large cohort will continue to shift upward and will eventually age out of the population pyramid, resulting in a more rectangular-shaped age structure at the end.

Figure 2.1: Age pyramid of population estimates as of July 1, 1971 and 2011, Canada

The pyramid also clearly shows the impact of low fertility rate at the base of the pyramid and increasing life expectancy at the oldest ages. Also apparent in the pyramid of July 1, 2011 is the recent increase in the population aged 3 years and under. This increase is due to the growing population of women in their prime childbearing years of the 20s to early 30s, and the rise in the total fertility rate in the majority of provinces and territories. As a result, the number of births has risen recently, making the base of the pyramid slightly broader.

Population aging is a complex phenomenon that can be measured by several statistical indicators. Median age and the proportion of the population aged 65 years and over are the two most widely used indicators of aging and serve to make international comparisons. Median age is the age that divides the population into two equal groups, one composed of individuals older than the median age and the other of individuals younger than the median age. The third indicator, the proportion of children aged 15 years and under in the population, can also provide an indication of the aging of the population to the extent that this proportion is dependent on the increase in the proportion of the older population.

On July 1, 2011, the estimated median age of the Canadian population was 39.9 years, up 0.2 years from the previous year. In 1971, the beginning of the period covered by the current system of demographic accounts, the median age was 26.2 years. The rise in the median age is the result of below replacement fertility rates for the last several decades, combined with an increasing life expectancy and the aging of the large baby boom cohort. According to the medium growth scenario of the most recent demographic projections, the median age could reach 44.0 years by 2040.

Senior population continues to grow

As of July 1, 2011, 4,973,400 persons aged 65 and over accounted for 14.4% of the Canadian population, up 0.3 percentage point from one year earlier (14.1%). In 1971, 8.0% of the population were seniors and there has been a steady increase over the last 40 years. Population aging in Canada is expected to accelerate between 2011 and 2031 as all people in the large cohort of baby boomers reach their senior years. The first baby boomers reached 65 years in 2011. The most recent projections show that seniors could account for more than one-fifth of the population as soon as 2026 and could exceed one-quarter of the population by 2056.

Recent international data 1  from several other countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that the proportion of Canadian seniors remains below levels in Japan (23%), Germany (21%), France (17%) and the United Kingdom (16%), but slightly higher than in the United States (13%). Given the sizeable demographic weight of the baby boom cohort in Canada, the share of the senior population in this country could surpass that of other nations in the coming years.

As of July 1, 2011, there were 1,378,100 people aged 80 years and over in Canada, representing 4.0% of the total population. The number of people aged 80 years and over could double by the year 2031 and, by 2061—the end of the period of the most recent projections—there could be 5.1 million people in this age range, more than the actual number of people aged 65 years and over. The nation also had an estimated 7,600 people aged 100 years and over on July 1, 2011. This was the fastest growing age group in 2010/2011 (Chart 2.1). In 2001, they numbered 3,400. It is projected that there could be 17,600 centenarians in 2031 and 78,300 by 2061.

In addition to the centenarians, the other age groups that experienced the strongest growth in 2010/2011 were those 90-94 years (8.0%), 95-99 years (5.0%) and 65-69 years (4.3%). Growth of the 65-69 age group is due largely to the arrival of the first cohort of baby boomers in this group.

There were roughly equal proportions of men and women in each age group under 65 years. However, these proportions change beyond that age. For the total population 65 years and over, 55.5% were women on July 1, 2011, increasing to 62.5% for those aged 80 years and over and to 79.3% for centenarians. Much of this sex difference is due to a higher life expectancy for women compared to men. In recent years, however, gains in life expectancy have been more rapid for men than for women, resulting in a gradual narrowing of the gap between the sexes.

Older working-age population increases

As of July 1, 2011, the working-age population aged 15 to 64 years accounted for 69.2% of the total Canadian population. Although there has been some fluctuation over the years, this proportion is higher than it was in 1971 (62.7%). Despite a larger share of the total population than in past decades, this group has also grown older. Specifically, the proportion of 55 to 64 year olds in the working-age population has increased, particularly in recent years, while the share of 15 to 24 year olds has decreased. On July 1, 2011, 55 to 64 year olds accounted for 18.4% of Canada's working-age population, up from a range of 12.5% to 13.3% throughout the 1970s to 1990s. In contrast, the youngest group of the working-age population, those 15 to 24 years, has decreased fairly steadily from 30.1% in 1971 to 19.3% in 2011.

The ratio of 15 to 24 year olds to 55 to 64 year olds was just over 1.0 on July 1, 2011, meaning that for every person at the age of leaving the labour force, there was just over one person of age to enter the labour force. In 1971, this ratio was 2.4. As a result of the baby boom cohort gradually leaving the labour force, the share of the working-age population in the total population is expected to decrease in the coming years. Most recent projections show that the ratio of the younger working-age population to the older working-age population will be less than one by 2015.

Proportion of children decreases

Since the proportions of adults and seniors have grown over time, the proportion of children under 15 has steadily decreased. On July 1, 2011, there were an estimated 5,644,800 children in this age group, representing 16.4% of the population, down slightly from 16.5% a year earlier. In 1971, close to three in 10 persons in Canada were children in this age group (29.3%). Most recent projections 2  show that the proportion of people aged 65 years and over will exceed the proportion of children under the age of 15 for the first time between 2015 and 2021 (Chart 2.2). Based on these projections, a little over one in five persons could be aged 65 years and over in 2031.

Provincial and territorial variation

Population aging does not affect all regions of Canada in the same way. Overall, the country's youngest populations are found in the territories and the oldest are in the Atlantic provinces. This trend has remained steady for several years and is the result of regional differences in demographic behaviour.

As of July 1, 2011, Newfoundland and Labrador had the highest median age in the country (43.8 years). This province also recorded the most significant increase in median age in the country over the previous year at 0.5 year. Median age in the other Atlantic provinces was systematically higher than the national average, with 42.2 in Prince Edward Island, 43.1 in Nova Scotia and 43.0 in New Brunswick. Nova Scotia (16.5%) and New Brunswick (16.2%) also have the highest proportions of their populations aged 65 and over.

Newfoundland and Labrador (14.8%) and Nova Scotia (14.7%) were the two provinces with the lowest proportion of children under the age of 15. With the exception of Prince Edward Island, the proportion of seniors aged 65 years and over continued to exceed the proportion of children under 15, something not projected to happen at the national level for five to ten years. The higher population aging in the Atlantic provinces is mainly due to an evolution in fertility, initially higher and then lower than the national average and, more recently, steady losses through interprovincial migration.

On July 1, 2011, Quebec had a population slightly older than the national average, with a median age of 41.4 years and a proportion of persons aged 65 and over of 15.7%. For the first time since the introduction of the current system of demographic accounts, the population aged 65 and over, numbering 1,253,600, exceeded the under 15 population, estimated at 1,241,700. For the last few decades, Quebec has had a life expectancy higher than the national average, steady interprovincial migration losses since 1971 and, until recently, a fertility rate lower than the national average, all factors contributing to the aging of its population.

Ontario's population was slightly younger than the national average on July 1, 2011. The median age of Ontarians was 39.6 years, while the proportion of the population aged 65 years and over was 14.2%; these figures were 39.9 years and 14.4% respectively for the country as a whole.

On July 1, 2011, Manitoba and Saskatchewan had populations significantly younger than the national average. The median ages for these provinces were 37.6 years for Manitoba and 37.3 years for Saskatchewan. This represents a decrease of 0.1 year for Manitoba and 0.2 year for Saskatchewan compared to the previous year. Both provinces are also the only places in the country where the median age is falling. In addition, with the exception of the territories, these provinces posted the highest proportions of persons under 15 years in the nation (18.8% for Manitoba and 19.0% for Saskatchewan).

This demographic situation is the result of several population components, notably, higher fertility rates in these provinces, a higher number of immigrants than in previous years, positive net interprovincial migration in Saskatchewan, and increasingly smaller losses in Manitoba. Moreover, interprovincial and international migrants with lower median ages than the total population, and the births associated with those migrants, combined to reduce the median age. However, the most recent demographic projections show that the population of these provinces is still expected to age in the coming years.

Alberta had the youngest population of all provinces on July 1, 2011. Its median age was 36.0 years and the proportion of persons aged 65 years and over was 10.8%. In both cases, these are the lowest values among all provinces. Alberta's demographics can be attributed to a higher fertility rate than the national average and constantly positive and often significant net interprovincial migration since 1995/1996, with the exception of 2009/2010.

British Columbia was the only province west of Quebec with a median age above the national average. On July 1, 2011, this province's median age was 41.1 years. The proportion of persons 65 years of age and over was 15.3%. British Columbia was also the only province west of Quebec where the number of people 65 years and over (estimated at 700,500) surpassed the number of children under the age of 15 (684,900). This situation is the result of a lower fertility rate than elsewhere and a higher life expectancy.

Although they continue to age, the youngest populations are found in the territories. On July 1, 2011, the youngest population was in Nunavut, where the median age was 24.8 years and the proportion of children under the age of 15 was 31.5%. The Northwest Territories also reported a population that was significantly younger than the national average, with a median age of 31.8 years and the proportion of children under 15 at 21.2%.

Of the three territories, Yukon was the one with the oldest population (median age of 39.2 years). However, despite a median age quite close to the national average, Yukon had a proportion of persons aged 65 years and over that was substantially lower than the national average (8.8%). This proportion was considerably higher than for the other two territories, where the numbers were 5.6% for the Northwest Territories and 3.2% for Nunavut. The territories, especially Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, have a high fertility rate and the lowest life expectancy in the country, two factors associated with younger populations.