Feature Article – Work-Life Balance in an Aging Population

Terrance Hunsley
Policy Research Initiative Government of Canada

Terrance Hunsley is senior project director with the Government of Canada’s
Policy Research Initiative.1


Many Canadians have problems with conflicting demands on their time. Variously identified as “work-life balance,” “work-family balance,” “work-family and family-work interference,” “time crunch,” “time stress,” or “role overload,” too many time demands on daily life can drain our energy, affect our health, and undermine our productivity.

The PRI has been working collaboratively with other federal departments and with the research community involved in the Population Work and Family Collaboration (PWFC)2 to assess this problem and place it into a policy context. Consistent with the PRI mandate, we take a “whole of government approach,” considering the issue from a broad policy perspective.

There is much still to be known about this subject, although central factors, such as the increase in total working time of women over the past few decades, have become clear. Work-life imbalance is often identified with full-time employed women in families with young children, and those caught with both young children and demands for care of older relatives. However, the evidence suggests it is a broader issue that, increasingly, affects men as well. It can interfere with life roles and objectives at various stages of our diverse life courses.

In this article, we summarize current knowledge of the issue as well as recent policy developments in other countries. We then place it into a Canadian policy perspective, and suggest a flexible approach for policy makers to consider, even while some areas remain to be informed by further research.

Work-Life Balance

Some major life spheres in which we play roles are work, family, and community. Social Development Canada (2004) suggested that work-life balance is achieved when the participation in each of the domains of our lives does not impinge on the others to the point of causing “grief, stress or negative impact.”

Those who have balance are satisfied with their work and home lives, are able to fulfill their multiple responsibilities at home, work and in the community without guilt or regret, are healthy physically, emotionally, and socially, have a sense of control over their life, and feel that the decisions they make are informed choices as opposed to forced sacrifices (SDC, 2004).

However, there is evidence that worklife balance has deteriorated for many Canadians. According to the General Social Survey of 1992, 23 percent of women aged 25-44 and 16 percent of men aged 25-44 felt severely stressed due to time pressures. By 1998, those percentages had increased to 29 and 25 percent, respectively. Research by the Conference Board of Canada (MacBride-King, 1999), and Duxbury and Higgins (2001) suggested that 30 to 50 percent of workers could be stressed by work-life imbalance.

The costs of work-life imbalance touch both employees and employers. From the employers’ perspective, they may include lower productivity, higher absenteeism, and higher workers’ compensation claims. The research data in this area are still limited, but a number of studies have been identified by Social Development Canada (2004) as well as Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC).


Figure 1
Work-Life Balance and Employee Health

Work-Life Balance and Employee Health

Source: Duxbury and Higgins (2003).


Those who experience work-life imbalance, according to Social Development Canada (2004) are three times more likely to suffer from heart problems, infections, injuries, mental health problems, and back pain and five times more likely to suffer from certain cancers. Duxbury and Higgins (2003)3 found that 77 percent of those claiming to experience high work-to-family interference also had high perceived stress, compared to only 35 percent of those with low work-to-family interference (see Figure 1). Those who experienced high work-to-family interference were also six times more likely to suffer from “burnout” than those who experienced low interference, and more than twice as likely to be depressed. Figure 1 illustrates, in the firms covered by the Duxbury-Higgins study (2003), the close relationship of work-life imbalance and health factors.

Causes of Work-Life Imbalance

A dramatic social change of the past half century, which paralleled the trajectory of the baby boom in their labour-force years, was the transformation of the normative working family from a one-earner to a two-earner model. The massive increase in the participation of women pushed up the number of total hours each family now supplies to the labour market. This, in turn, makes it more difficult, and often stressful, for people and families to fulfill their other roles. It may also be a factor in the decline in fertility rates.

Although this change has been dramatic, it has taken place against a background of economic developments that also shape and contour the demand from the work side.

Restructuring the Economy

The nature of work has been changing, due in large part to globalization and the revolution in information and communications technology. Market liberalization, global supply systems, and technological advances are transforming the arena in which Canadian firms compete. The pace of work is quicker. The place and time of work is becoming more ubiquitous as cell phones, the Internet, the Blackberry, and the 24-hour economy take hold. The type of work is changing to reflect a more information and serviceoriented economy.

As industries increasingly specialize to vie for market share, they are requiring their work force to become more highly skilled. In 2003, according to HRSDC, 55.8 percent of all occupations required a high-skilled worker. The only two types of skills forecast to experience increased demand between 2003 and 2013 are occupations requiring a university degree or managerial capabilities.4

Research by PRI and Statistics Canada indicates that people with higher levels of education devote a greater percentage of their time to work over their life course. As shown in Figure 2, working-age Canadians born in 1970 with at least a BA degree will work 23.6 percent of their total (life) time5 while those with only some high school will work 19.7 percent of their total time. The difference decreases as education differentials decrease.

While the total proportion of time spent working is a factor in work-life balance, the intensity, responsibility, independence, and timing of work are also important. A major characteristic of the changing economy is a rise in non-standard work. Part-time, temporary, multiple-job, contract, and self-employment work arrangements have been increasing. Because of overlaps among these categories, the trends are difficult to measure in a precise way. According to Saunders (2006), about 37 percent of the labour force was employed in non-standard work6 in 2001, up from about 33 percent in 1989 which, in turn, was substantially higher than a decade earlier.

Not all non-standard work is unattractive or unwanted. Nor is all low-paying work included in the non-standard category. While nonstandard jobs are more likely to be characterized by poor pay and lack of security, these jobs can also, in some instances, relieve work-family imbalance. Marshall (2000) found that 73 percent of all part-time workers held part-time jobs by choice. Only one part-time worker in ten claimed that work caused stress compared to four in ten full-time workers. As well, part-time workers were more likely to be satisfied with their workfamily balance.

So not surprisingly, the most commonly cited reason for working part time for women was family responsibilities, as they cut back on working time to balance their home life. As 70 percent of all part-time workers have been women over the past three decades (Statistics Canada, 2001) it appears they often do so to balance work and family. Whether the women working part time would prefer to work full time had they fewer family responsibilities, is not clear.

Another contribution to stress is the precariousness of work as more firms hire on a contract or temporary basis. Tremblay (2004) stated that concern for becoming unemployed, and having insecure ties to the labour market are also sources of stress. Rarely do workers in non-standard jobs receive company benefits in the form of pensions or health coverage. Often, there are also limited means for advancement or training.

Given that more highly educated individuals work more while those with fewer skills have more unstable jobs and less health and income security, it is difficult to discern which group would be at higher risk for work-life imbalance. Both groups are at risk, and as their share of the work force increases in response to the changing economy, the work-life imbalance could intensify.

Transformation of Female Work Patterns

While the changing nature of paid work has a substantial impact on work-life balance, the largest effect appears to have come from the rebalancing of paid and domestic labour. A major change that has blurred the lines between home and work responsibilities is the migration of women into the labour market. As shown in Figure 3, women born in 1940 will work for pay for about 48,000 hours over their lifetime on average compared to 86,000 hours for men. For the 1970 cohort, the difference in paid hours worked between women and men is forecast to decrease by about 50 percent with women working 74,000 hours compared to 93,000 for men. The difference then will remain relatively stable if current patterns continue.

The increase in women’s labour market participation has transformed the “breadwinner-homemaker” family model, where the man usually worked full time for pay while the woman worked unpaid in domestic tasks, at least during the child-raising period. Dual-earner families now outnumber the more traditional model. In 1976, 36 percent of all women in two-parent families with children under 16 were employed. This almost doubled to 62 percent by 1997.


Figure 2
Share of Paid Work in Total Time Between Ages of 25 to 54, by Education  and Birth Cohort

Share of Paid Work in Total Time Between Ages of 25 to 54, by Education  and Birth Cohort

Source: LifePaths Model, Statistics Canada.


Figure 3
Total Lifetime Hours of Paid Work per Capita (including travel time) by Birth Cohort and Sex

Total Lifetime Hours of Paid Work per Capita (including travel time) by Birth Cohort and Sex

Source: LifePaths Model, Statistics Canada.


Despite the increase in total family time devoted to paid work, and the consequent pressure on families to fulfill their other responsibilities in the fewer hours available, many workplaces still assume that the worker, whether woman or man, will work free of interference from domestic responsibilities. According to Appelbaum et al. (2002): “This model of organizing paid and unpaid work has left most…working families anxious about their ability to care adequately for their children and aging relatives, stressed by the demands of work, and starved for time.”

Working age women have dramatically increased the proportion of their total time spent in paid work and domestic work, while men have actually seen a slight reduction (See Figure 4). According to results from LifePaths, the share of paid and unpaid work for working age women is expected to equal that for working age men for individuals born in 1955. The share of total work for women is actually forecast to surpass slightly that for men in cohorts born after 1955. So while women increased their time in the labour force, men did not increase proportionally their time in domestic work. As Gornick and Meyers (2005) stated: “The ongoing struggle of many families to find a manageable and equitable balance between work life and family life is rooted in a long history of gendered divisions of labour.”

In total working time, families tend to divide labour relatively equally between genders. However, women spend more of their non-paid work time with family and domestic activities. In 1998, employed mothers who had children under 5, spent double the amount of time on personal child care activities than men – 91 minutes per day for mothers compared to 47 minutes for fathers. The GeneralSocial Survey found that women also spend more time on elder care than men; five hours per week compared to three for men. According to Phipps and Macdonald (2005), women still take on the management role of domestic work even when there is more gender equity in the home, which may also add to their stress load. Women therefore experience more conflict between their paid and family roles (see also Beaujot and Liu, 2005; Goldscheider and Waite, 1991; Kempeneers, 1992).


Figure 4
Share of Work Time (paid and unpaid) in Total Time Between Ages of 25 to 54, by Birth Cohort and Sex

Share of Work Time (paid and unpaid) in Total Time Between Ages of 25 to 54, by Birth Cohort and Sex

Source: LifePaths Model, Statistics Canada.


Another problem becomes evident when the issue is viewed from a life course perspective. When women work part time to provide a better balance, they trade off current income in return for lower stress and happier family lives. However, they are also incurring potential lifetime disadvantages in having their human and social capital decrease at a crucial point in their career. Their lifetime earnings and retirement situation may be affected. With current evidence indicating that marriages and unions frequently end in separation, the lifetime price may also not be shared equitably.


Figure 5
Share of Paid and Unpaid Work in Total Life Time Between Ages 25 to 54, by Birth Cohort and by Presense of Children

Share of Paid and Unpaid Work in Total Life Time Between Ages 25 to 54, by Birth Cohort and by Presense of Children

Source: LifePaths Model, Statistics Canada.


Not surprisingly, the problem grows with the presence of children. As Figure 5 illustrates, individuals with children have a higher share of paid and unpaid work in total time than those who do not have children. Of individuals born in 1970, those with children will work 36 percent of their total (life) time in paid and unpaid tasks while those without children will work 33 percent of their time.

As Figure 5 illustrates, the percentage of time spent in work between the ages of 25 and 54 does not fully reflect the percentage of total work done at different ages of children. The time demands on parents are higher for younger children. However, as shown in Figure 6, while hours of weekly work are greatest when children are less than a year old, the level of stress is actually the highest when children are between the ages of 6 and 12. Studies done by Guérin et al. (1997) and Tremblay (2004) found that the age of children is a bigger factor in work-life balance than the number of children.

An area in need of more clarification is the impact of family relations on work-life stress. Separation and divorce rates have increased over the same time period as the increase in women’s participation rates. Do relationship difficulties play a role in work-life imbalance? Barnett (2003), in a number of qualitative studies, suggests that the quality of relationships in the home can have a significant influence on perceptions of work-life balance.

An Aging Society

It is becoming clear how the social and economic changes during the labour force years of the baby boom have changed the balance of work and other responsibilities within families.


Figure 6
Work and Stress According to Presence and Age of Children

Work and Stress According to Presence and Age of Children

Source: General Social Survey, 1998, Statistics Canada.


Figure 7
Labour Supply Relative to Total Population 1971-2051

Labour Supply Relative to Total Population 1971-2051

Source: LifePaths (Statistics Canada) using assumptions developed by the Interdepartmental Working Group on Population Aging and Life-Course Flexibility.


But what of the future?

Like many societies, the Canadian population is aging. In 1981, the share of the total population aged 65 and over was eight percent. By 2011, that share will almost double to 14 percent and will near 20 percent by 2021. The aging of the population is rooted in three big changes: increasing life expectancy, the long-term decrease in fertility which took place over the late 19th and 20th centuries, and the baby boom following World War II, when there was a substantial, though temporary, increase in fertility rates. Between 1950 and 1960, the average number of births per woman was 3.7. The number of births fell to 1.8 in the 1970s, and has decreased a bit more since.

As the baby boom cohort moves into retirement, the proportion of the population in the labour force age range will change and decrease, although the actual supply of workers could continue to grow slowly for several years. In a recent publication (2005), Encouraging Choice in Work and Retirement, the PRI and Statistics Canada developed a sophisticated projection of future labour supply (Figure 7). The data suggest that even with the mitigating factors of increased female participation, and an increase in total number of working hours over individual lives, which results from increased levels of education, the total labour supply relative to the size of the population will be in gradual decline between 2013 and 2031.

This projection suggests that we are now in the “golden years” in the ratio of working time to population. As the ratio begins to decline, it will resemble that of previous times with the exception that the non-working population will increasingly be elderly, rather than children. This will bring its own set of challenges to fiscal balance as well as to the capacity of the economy to continue growing. Economic growth will become more dependent on increasing productivity.

The decreasing relative labour supply will likely stimulate measures and incentives for increased work effort, as well as for increased productivity. If people increase their working hours, it could possibly exacerbate current problems of work-life balance, stress, and conflicting role demands. This could perpetuate and even further reduce the current low fertility rates. It will be a public policy challenge to respond to the need to maintain labour supply while also trying to improve individual and family well-being.

Increasing Need for Elder Care

Demand for elder care will also be a concern for work-life balance. In 1980, there were 7.6 individuals aged 40 to 64 for every individual aged 75 and over. By 2010, there will be only 5.6 individuals aged 40 to 64 for every individual aged 75 and over and this number will decrease to 3.2 by 2030.

Again, women provide more elder care than do men. As illustrated in Figure 8, employed caregiving women are twice as likely as employed male caregivers to have changed their work patterns or to have reduced their work hours. Women are also more likely to have declined a promotion or quit a job because of their caregiving responsibilities.

However, while the demand for elder care will increase, the impact of the increase is not as clear, since the “release” of the baby boom into retirement will also provide an important source of caregiving potential. Moreover, a healthier older population may be able to provide substantial amounts of mutual care for many years.

Policy Perspectives on the Issue

While we have only limited knowledge of the broad range of problems associated with work-life imbalance, the dilemma for families with young children is clearer. Work-life balance is a problem. Women have increased their overall working time, and are bearing the larger share of the stress that comes from managing the adjustment in relation to the family. Their life experience has changed in a revolutionary way; for men, the change has been evolutionary, at least in respect of family matters. Nonetheless, it is significant that stress levels reported by men, while still lower than those of women, did increase by a larger factor than for women between the General Social Surveys of 1992 and 1998, as reported earlier. In fact their levels of severe stress reported in 1998 surpassed the measure for women in 1992. So it may be that some of the stress-causing responsibilities are being shifted in the context of an overall increasing incidence. Men may be gradually taking on more domestic responsibility and showing some of the associated stress.

Private and Public Risk?

There was a time when a matter, such as work-life balance, would have been considered a private concern for families to work out. But when the economy, as well as families’ ability to live at prevailing community standards, depends on the supply of two workers per family, and when the fertility rate continues to drop, private risks tend to be redefined as public risks. The policy questions are important.

  • In seeking to keep labour supply up, what is the appropriate goal? Two full-time workers per family? One and a half?
  • Given that current domestic/caring work is still weighted on the side of women, a policy that supports parttime work for one spouse would also tend to support the status quo in relation to the gendered division of labour.
  • On the other hand, a policy leaning toward greater provision of public services, such as child care, accompanied by flexible leave time provisions with incentives for leave directed to men, would tend to lead toward more equality in domestic labour and greater overall labour supply.
  • If we maximize labour supply, will it be possible to increase fertility rates? Can work be made more family friendly?
  • Could we find a way to relieve the pressure on workers during their child-raising portion of the life course, and recuperate it through more efficient transitions from school to work, or from longer working careers, especially given the increasing number of years spent in healthy retirement?

And finally, to make it just a bit more difficult, we should add that it will be increasingly important for workers at all ages to be enabled constantly to increase their skills and competencies, which tends to require some time as well.


Figure 8
Prevalence of Workplace Adjustments Due to Caregiving Requirements

Prevalence of Workplace Adjustments Due to Caregiving Requirements

Source: Facts (2005).


Governments in Canada and in other countries are becoming more aware of these questions. They are keen to keep employment participation levels as high as possible, while also seeking to foster healthy families and cohesive societies. Of course, consideration of future policy measures must take account of the potential for the issue to correct itself. Can families solve part of the issue by a more appropriate distribution of overall paid and unpaid work responsibility? When some portion of potential income is sacrificed in favour of healthier family life, do the rewards offset the costs? Will employers adapt their workplaces to provide more flexibility and familyrelated benefits?

There are also many ways in which the market can influence work-life balance. As the baby boom retires, a tightening labour market should increase the bargaining power of employees. Firms will be more willing to take the demands of workers into consideration, and will offer more work-life balance options. In addition, if work opportunities become more widespread and attractive, individuals who were not working, or working part time, will increase their work levels.

As higher wages increase the returns to education, individuals have a greater incentive to upgrade their skills. It is not clear though, how increasing education will affect the work-life balance. Professional and managerial groups often have access to more enlightened employer policies and to more independence and flexibility. Lero et al. (1993) found that 43 percent of senior and middle managers had access to flexible work schedules while only 23 percent of unskilled workers did. Tremblay (2004) suggested that these workers often don’t take advantage of those policies, because their workload and responsibility are too great. Despite access to work-life policies, they are the ones who say they work too much.

Another aspect to take into consideration is the change in the composition of aggregate consumption as the population ages. We do not know enough about the impact of technology, or of purchased services and products, on the stress or ease associated with different family roles. Clearly, one option being chosen by Canadian couples currently is for one, usually the woman, to work part time and forego increased consumption in return for more family time. For those who choose for both partners to be fulltime employed, will they use their increased buying power to alleviate their family-related stress?


When women work part time to provide a better balance, they trade off current income in return for lower stress and happier family lives.


With the prospect of earning higher wages, workers may increase their work effort. If they do not use the extra income to alleviate their domestic workload, they could increase existing work-life imbalances. According to Benjamin et al. (2002), overall labour supply elasticities are positive (about 0.25 on average) meaning that a wage increase will tend to lead Canadians to work more rather than take more leisure. As Adam Smith put it: “Workmen, on the contrary, when they are liberally paid by the piece, are very apt to over-work themselves, and to ruin their health and constitution in a few years” (Smith, 1776: 83).

According to Drolet and Morisette (1997), workers who desire fewer work hours with proportionately lower pay are precisely those with higher education – professionals and managers – individuals who tend to already work longer hours. Those who would like more hours and more pay are more likely to have lower education levels and to be working less than full time. However, the 1998 General Social Survey reported that 94 percent of all workers said they were either satisfied with their work hours or wanted more while only six percent said they wanted fewer hours. So it seems that Adam Smith may still have it right.

In years past, unions have played a major role in the development of workplace provisions, including those favouring work-life balance. However, their presence and impact in the present economy has decreased. Fewer than 30 percent of workers belong to a union, and in the private sector, it is even more limited. Nonetheless, collective agreements do contain long lists of work-life balance policies and practices. It may be that some practices adopted in agreements will become references for other employers as they seek to recruit workers in future tight labour markets. Changes to labour codes may also arise due to pressures from workers through political action.

Recent Policy Developments in OECD Countries

Canada is not alone in facing these challenges. Many developed nations also realize that their breadwinner/homemaker models of work have changed. Other countries are also feeling the effects of globalization and the changing workplace. In response to these changes, many governments have introduced new provisions to improve work-life balance. Some have developed public policy systems for family, workplace, and even life-course flexibility.

One of the most developed policy areas pertains to the care of children. There are varying degrees of coverage for parental leave and child care. Sweden, Denmark, France, Finland, and Belgium have some form of public day-care available to all parents, some of which are integrated within the broader educational system. For example, Swedish law enforces that municipal governments make preschool and after-school care available for children from one year of age and up. Although the parental share of child-care costs used to be between 20 and 25 percent, it was reduced to 11 percent in 2002. In Finland, the maximum monthly amount parents pay for the first child is set at €200 and €180 Euros for the second child. The Finnish system even allows for night spaces. France and Belgium go further in subsidizing child care by providing schooling in the public educational system for children from 30 to 36 months of age.

Austria, Belgium, Norway, Iceland, France, and Germany allow parental leave to be taken over and above the first year of the child’s life, to about three years of age. Swedish parents can take 450 days of parental leave within the first eight years of their children’s lives while working part time. Finland, Norway, Iceland, and the Netherlands encourage fathers to take parental leave by increasing the threshold of insurable income or allotting specific leave just for males. Finland, for example, found that by reserving generous paid leave for fathers, the uptake by fathers increased from 11 to 17 percent from 1994 to 2003.

The Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Austria all have some kind of allowance for parents to work part time while on parental leave. In the Netherlands, for example, parents can work part time beginning the 17th month after the child’s birth. In Iceland and Denmark, parents who are full-time students are covered. Norway has a provision for stay-athome parents, and the Netherlands and Denmark cover self-employed mothers. In Denmark, for example, maternity benefits are calculated based on their self-employed income up to €450 per week.

Outside the realm of the immediate family, work-life friendly policies are much fewer and far between. The Netherlands and the United States both have stipulations for permitting workers to care for ill family members while guaranteeing job security. For example, the Netherlands allows for part-time work while caring for a dying child, = partner, or parent for a period of 12 weeks at 70 percent of the minimum wage.

Other variations of leave include sabbaticals in the Netherlands and Sweden, the restriction of hours of work to the equivalent of four working days per week in France, and legislative requirements for holidays. Legislated duration of paid annual leave can vary greatly from country to country, but are generally in the four to five week range in Europe, while in Canada it is generally two weeks. The United States does not legislate duration of paid leave; it is up to the discretion of individual employers.

Canadian policies in these areas are less generous than European policies, but somewhat more so than US policies. According to the OECD (2005a), only 20 percent of all children aged 0 to 6 years old had access to regulated day-care. This compares with levels as high as 78 percent for children in Denmark, 60 percent in the United Kingdom, and 40 percent in Portugal.

While Canada has recently provided a year of combined maternity and parental leave,7 the conditions are still quite stringent. Only mothers who worked at least 600 hours over the previous year can qualify, and there is a two-week waiting period before benefits are received. In 2003, more than 25 percent of mothers did not receive maternity or parental benefits either, because they had not previously worked long enough to qualify or they were self-employed. In addition, low replacement income tends to perpetuate the unequal take-up of the benefit. Eighty-five percent of all Canadian parental leave claims were made by women in 2003.

The Canadian policy leader in this area is the Province of Quebec. In 2006, Quebec introduced policies to extend coverage to self-employed individuals, and also offered exclusive coverage for fathers, while extending the leave periods. For example, the maximum insurable income covered by the new Parental Insurance Plan has been increased from $39,000 to $57,000 and now covers 75 percent of employment or business income. Quebec has also instituted a public day-care system accessible to all residents. According to Baker et al. (2005), while expensive, it appears to have stimulated higher labour force participation among women.


It will be a public policy challenge to respond to the need to maintain labour supply while also trying to improve individual and family well-being.


Like the Netherlands and the United States, Canada also has stipulations permitting workers to care for ill family members while guaranteeing job security. The restrictions in Canada are such that a total limit of six weeks is permitted to care for immediate relatives who are expected to die. A death certificate must be submitted as a prerequisite for income replacement.

In addition to the many social policies mentioned thus far, a discussion on policies to improve work-life balance would not be complete without also mentioning Canada’s federal and provincial labour codes. Some of the legislated areas include hours of work, minimum wage, equal wages, annual vacations, general holidays, multiemployer employment, reassignment, maternity leave, parental leave, and compassionate care leave, bereavement leave, termination of employment, severance pay, garnishment, sick leave, work-related illness and injury, unjust dismissal, payment of wages, sexual harassment, and administration and general information. All of these can influence the overall picture in respect of work-family balance, and should be reviewed in that context.

A Flexible Approach?

In the early 1990s, OECD countries became concerned that the fastchanging global economy would require rapid responses by businesses and institutions to market signals, and a flexible and adaptable work force. However, it is now becoming evident that market forces do not solve all problems, and that rigid policy structures can work against the best interests of people and economies. The PRI (2005) pointed this out in its report on population aging and older workers (PRI, 2005). It suggested the removal of several policy barriers to allow older workers to remain employed longer and with more personal flexibility.

More and more, countries are making their policies as flexible and responsive as possible to the needs and desires of their workers as well as employers. Not only is the economy changing, but social and demographic change is taking place at the same time. Employers need to adapt quickly, but individuals and families need supportive policies for their own adaptation to the changing world. As the OECD (2005b) recently stated: “Under these circumstances, the OECD concludes, ’ensuring that labour markets are dynamic and that people of workingage have opportunities and incentives to work is more important than ever.’ The alternative, it warns, could be a damaging opposition to change.”

Some governments are now attempting to bring flexibility into their systems by permitting individuals to accumulate credits – of time and money – to be used at their discretion for certain defined purposes. For example, in 2006, the Dutch enacted a life-cycle savings scheme where employees can save earnings or leave to be exchanged for future periods of unpaid work. In this way, workers can decide for themselves when to take time off for caring, training, or sabbatical leave. Leave-saving policies also exist at both the government and firm level of various countries. For example, the French have a scheme, Reduction in Working Time, which was enacted in 2000. With this policy, employees can save up time in order to work part time or retrain in the future.

Should Canada Consider New Policy Options?

The working lives of Canadians are changing. We start our careers later, because we are in school longer and until recently, it was tough to get any job without extensive credentials. We postpone having children until our careers are established, so we will have some benefits, some choice in relation to care, and a decent salary when we return to work. We have also been retiring early, even though we live longer. This may change as our retirement savings need to stretch over a longer period and as more flexible policies are introduced.

Nonetheless, the policy challenge to provide incentives for labour force participation, while also encouraging fertility and work-life balance, requires a flexible approach. Moreover, we need to achieve this in an equitable yet flexible way across the country, given the variety of regional economies, and the mix of federal and provincial policy jurisdictions.

In such a context, it may be useful to explore a form of leave-saving account that would enable workers to take time off for family needs or for other purposes, such as retraining, in flexible ways and at the times when they feel it would be most useful. Ideally, such accounts could receive contributions of financial or time credits from several sources – governments, family, employers, and ndividuals.

The PRI is exploring the possible application of individual accounts and policies to support life-course flexibility, and will be producing a paper on the subject in the near future.



  1. I would like to acknowledge and thank the Population Aging and Life-Course Flexibility project team at PRI, and especially Carolyn MacLeod for her research in support of this article, as well as Sylvain Côté for having co-ordinated the collection of material for this issue of Horizons.
  2. For more information on the PWFC, please see the PRI web site.
  3. This survey only covered workers employed in corporations where there were 500+ employees.
  4. A high skilled worker is someone with at least a college degree or apprenticeship, university education, or managerial skills.
  5. Total time for the population aged 25-54 is equal to the sum of the time spent between those ages in market, domestic, volunteer, and school work, socializing, active and passive leisure, and personal care.
  6. In his study, non-standard work includes permanent part-time, full-time temporary workers, part-time temporary, own-account self-employed, self-employed employers.
  7. As of December 31, 2000, Employment Insurance benefits went from covering 12 to 35 weeks of parental leave.


Freshwater for the Future: Policies for Sustainable Water Management in Canada

May 8-10, 2006 Gatineau, Quebec

Freshwater is no longer taken for granted in Canada. In the wake of the evacuation of Kashechewan and the tragedies at Walkerton and North Battleford, the safety of our drinking water has become an issue. In the face of recurring droughts in the prairies and protracted legal battles for access to water in eastern Ontario, water supplies for agriculture and industry are no longer a given. Add to these flooding in the Red River, possible crossborder contamination from the Devil’s Lake diversion, the spectre of bulk water exports to the United States, and a wide array of other freshwater issues capturing the public’s imagination and policy makers’ attention, and the time is clearly right for new thinking on freshwater policies for Canada.

The PRI and its partners invite you to Freshwater for the Future, a conference on water policy for Canada. At the Lac Leamy Hilton in the National Capital region from May 8-10, this conference will tackle a variety of freshwater policy issues through concurrent workshops and symposia. For further information, please visit the PRI web site at <www.policyresearch.gc.ca> or contact Ian Campbell at 613 992.3704.



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