Eyewitness Report - A Life-Course Approach to Social Policy

Queen’s International Institute on Social Policy

August 23, 2004

Ali Béjaoui, Policy Research Initiative

Ali Béjaoui is a Senior Policy Research Officer with the Policy Research Initiative.

Starting in 2011, when significant numbers of baby boomers begin to leave the labour market, we will see a decrease in the total number of hours worked and, commensurately, in economic growth. Will keeping elderly workers in the labour market longer be enough to counteract this trend? That was the issue on people’s minds following Jean-Pierre Voyer’s (Policy Research Initiative) presentation, A Life-Course Approach to Social Policy Analysis. The presentation renewed the debate on this topic at a conference organized by the Queen’s University International Institute on Social Policy, held August 23, 2004.

While the economic impacts of aging were only one aspect of the analytical framework presented by Voyer, they were a focal point for speakers at the conference. This was expected given the emphasis that most OECD countries place on the tax repercussions of aging, and the consequent need to reform the pension system.

Although they are significant, the life-course analytical framework looks at more than tax repercussions. The framework is based on the premise that the classic vision of a linear, three-stage life course (education-workretirement) is no longer the societal norm. Increasingly, the three stages are overlapping, which affects how we allocate time to each one. While we have less time during our lives to combine work, education, and family responsibilities (caring for children and parents), we will have more time at retirement (given the increase in life expectancy). Thus, people need more flexibility so they can better allocate time throughout their life course. Giving more flexibility to senior citizens, so they can work longer and enjoy a progressive retirement is only one aspect of a life-course analytical framework. Various surveys have already shown that Canadians want to work longer.

The benefits of the life-course framework were emphasized in Michael Wolfson’s (Statistics Canada) presentation on the need for accurate simulation models to support the analytical framework, and in the presentation by Peter Hicks (Social Development Canada). Hicks used the analytical framework to highlight the periods in which people experience time crunches and how those periods affect their well-being throughout their lives. Empirical data show that these time crunches, are associated with marital status and caring for children. Hicks advocated an approach that links the under-used pool of time during the retirement years to the high demand periods of time during the active periods of a person’s life.

While no direct link has been established, there seems to be a relationship between high demand time periods, personal well-being, and low income over the life course. Garnett Picot (Statistics Canada) presented the results of an analysis measuring low income over the life course in which family characteristics (marital status and children) play an important role. This relationship is one more argument in favour of a life-course approach to social policy.

Although there is a consensus on the need for a life-course approach, opinion is still divided on how to operationalize the analytical framework.

In this regard, John Myles (University of Toronto) warned conference participants against any social policy aimed solely at senior citizens. He maintained that this type of policy only increases intergenerational conflict. Unlike their counterparts in the 1960s and 1970s, recent retirees have accumulated enough wealth to enjoy a comfortable retirement. However, the outlook for future generations is not as rosy. Because of increased educational requirements and family responsibilities, the generation made up of the children and grandchildren of the baby boomers will begin working and accumulating wealth later in life. Social policy needs to focus on this generation. It requires more assistance in terms of access to continuous learning, post-secondary studies, and training. Myles added that, as the population ages, future generations will have to support the growing cost of pension systems.

In her presentation, Cynthia Williams (CPRN) echoed the warning about social policies that discriminate based on age. She stated that, of the five groups identified as being at greater risk of experiencing persistent poverty, only one is defined in terms of age: unattached persons aged 45 and older. The other groups are defined in terms of socio-cultural status (single mothers, Aboriginal people, those with a disability and recent immigrants). A policy that discriminates on the basis of age could increase intragenerational inequities (inequities within a single age group). Williams recognized the importance of a life-course approach since these groups are affected by poverty throughout their lives.

However, the importance of a lifecourse approach that does not discriminate on the basis of age and reflects the characteristics of various sociocultural groups did not help much to advance the debate on operationalizing the analytical framework. Anne-Marie Guillemard (Sorbonne) gave the proceedings a push in this direction in her presentation on how European countries have managed to counteract decreased employment among senior citizens (in Sweden and Finland). These countries underwent a cultural change as they moved from a management style based on segmentation by age group to one based on diversity. At the same time, they introduced a new social policy that is age neutral and encourages people to remain active as they age. This cultural change was sparked by the creation of quality jobs to increase the flexibility and mobility that people need to work at any age. These policies bring together current employment programs, continuous learning programs, and a reformed pension system, with the goal of increasing flexibility. It is worth noting that this cultural change came about through the concerted effort and close collaboration of various stakeholders (different levels of government, communities, businesses and unions).

Guillemard’s presentation brought the discussion to a more concrete level concerning the life-course approach to social policy: how to identify and overcome barriers to flexibility.

David Foot addressed the first issue in this regard: the current pension system does not give people the flexibility to work while receiving retirement income. In addition, contribution limits encourage employers to demand more from older employees rather than hire other workers. While pension reform is recognized as being essential to increased flexibility, another important factor is the availability of jobs that are flexible enough to interest not only senior citizens, but the population in general. The issues of flexibility and the availability of quality employment have not been explored in the Canadian context, but they relate back to the need for concerted and collaborative action among institutions (government and employers), as mentioned by Guillemard.

Aside from availability and flexibility, areas in which employers play a major part, progress has been made in realizing a life-course approach. Andrew Treusch added to the debate by presenting labour-force-based policies that affect continuous learning, which is an integral part of a lifecourse approach to policy. In his analysis, Michael Mendelson (Caledon Institute) pointed out the relationship between savings vehicles and provincial social assistance programs (usually people’s savings must be exhausted before they can access the programs). Once again, the discussion came back to concerted action and dialogue among organizations (levels of government). To conclude the evaluation of these policies, Mendelson recommended that the objectives of labourforce- based policies be determined before their results are evaluated.

As with any federal initiative, as soon as we begin to translate policies into programs, we run up against funding problems and the perennial stumbling block of jurisdiction. Tom Kent (School of Policy Studies) reiterated the importance of considering and respecting provincial jurisdictions when developing programs. Hugh Segal (IRPP) supported Kent’s call for caution, and advocated the use of tax credits to leverage action in sensitive areas, such as day care and social housing, which greatly influence the lifecourse of Canadians.

We can conclude that a consensus emerged on the life-course approach to social policy at the conference. In addition, reforming the pension system to create greater flexibility seems essential. This reform must be accompanied by the creation of quality jobs that offer increased flexibility, not only for seniors, but for all Canadians. While the creation of these jobs is outside the area of social policy, the federal government can still act as a catalyst. Launching a national debate on aging from a life-course perspective could help to introduce pension reform and bring the various socioeconomic stakeholders together around such thorny issues as poverty, continuous learning, and work-family balance. The overall economic impact of aging, and the tax repercussions in particular, offer an opportunity to introduce this debate and strive for a social consensus.

Roundtable - Canada – United States Regulatory Cooperation

There is considerable evidence that NAFTA has generated substantial economic benefits for Canada. However, many argue that more regulatory cooperation with the United States can deliver greater economic benefits, all the while safeguarding, and even improving, the integrity of Canada’s regulatory system.

This issue was addressed at a joint PRI-SSHRC symposium on Canada-US Regulatory Cooperation, held on October 29, 2004 in Ottawa. The purpose of the symposium was to discuss key research issues arising from the PRI’s Interim Report, Canada-US Regulatory Cooperation: Charting a Path Forward.

By the end of the day, the discussions focused on how to move forward on this policy agenda with a clear, practical, and above all, politically achievable strategy. On balance, the discussions set out the following themes:

  • There is a need to accelerate Canada-US regulatory cooperation.

  • Political commitment and a practical plan are required.

  • There is a need to develop a central or unifying theme to engage the Canadian public and US partners.

  • Any strategy must be supported by a sound internal organizational framework, and provide a role for Parliament.

A report from the symposium is available on the PRI web site at <www.policyresearch.gc.ca>. For more information on the work of the PRI on Canada-US regulatory cooperation issues, please contact Doug Blair, Project Director, at 613 947.3912 or at d.blair@prs-srp.gc.ca.