General

If demographics is destiny, the future looks relaxing

Canada's population may be aging, but it's also less stressed

If demographics is destiny, the future looks...relaxing

David J. Green/Alamy/Getstock

There may be a silver lining to Canada’s looming grey wave.

An aging population, we’ve been warned repeatedly, threatens to put unprecedented pressure on our health care and pension systems. This tidal wave of baby boomers will inevitably swamp existing social programs, steal funding away from education and child care and dominate all levels of politics for decades to come, say the doomsters.

Now for the good news: whatever impact demographic destiny may have on public policy, it seems set to produce a country that’s as cool and calm as a cucumber, and with plenty of time for fun. Suddenly the future is looking…relaxed.

Last week Statistics Canada released an intriguing, if under-reported, study on how Canadians spend their time. The report is part of StatsCan’s General Social Survey, an ambitious undertaking that involves 15,000 Canadians filling out daily diaries. Evidence from last year was compared with similar answers from 1998; the results suggest a dramatic decline in the amount of tension in our lives.

The proportion of Canadians who reported feeling trapped by their daily routine dropped from 39 per cent to 34 per cent between 1998 and 2010. More significantly, the time set aside for fun seems to be on the rise—the percentage of Canadians who said they had no time for fun fell from 38 per cent to 29 per cent.

In fact, every indicator measuring the amount of stress in Canadians’ lives appears to have improved over the 12 years of this study. The percentage of Canadians who worry they’re not spending enough time with family has dropped. Fewer Canadians describe themselves as workaholics. Fewer feel the need to slow down the pace of their life. Fewer report being under constant stress.

Other aspects of the survey reveal similarly encouraging trends. Of particular relevance to this week’s cover story on snoring and a good night’s sleep (“The war on snoring heats up,” page 70), StatsCan reports that we’re now spending more time in bed. The average time spent sleeping has risen 13 minutes over the past 12 years—for a total sleep routine of eight hours and 18 minutes per night.

What explains this bliss? According to StatsCan, our trend to tranquility may be a result of that same demographic time bomb that is supposed to have the entire country on edge. “These declines may be due to the fact that the 55-plus age group has become a larger part of the Canadian population over the years and in general people of this age tend to feel less stressed by time pressures than their younger counterparts.”

As the study observes, the most highly stressed years of adulthood are between 35 and 44 years old. This is when young children, a mortgage, work pressure and chores dominate the daily routine; it often seems impossible to plan beyond the next day’s trip to the grocery store. On the other hand, Canadians aged 55 to 64 are far less likely to report a stressful life, in large part because they no longer have to worry about the diaper supply in the house or the teenagers who have ventured outside it.

And yet it’s not only mature boomers who are displaying a grounded approach to life. The study also shows Canadian parents are spending more time with their youngsters. The amount of time spent on primary child care has risen 21 minutes per day since 1998, to a total of two hours and 31 minutes, which suggests a greater interest in direct parenting and less outsourcing of child care.

And for young couples without children, equality reigns. Housework is now being shared far more equally than in the past. The gap between male and female housework for Gen Y couples (born between 1981 and 1990) has fallen to just 24 minutes a day. At a similar point in their lives, female baby boomers born between 1957 and 1966 performed a daily average of 80 minutes more housework than their male partners.

So how should we interpret all this evidence? As Maclean’s recent Canada Day issue trumpeted, now is “the best time ever to be a Canadian.” From an economic perspective, we avoided the worst of the Great Recession because our government policy tended to follow the golden mean: that ideal midpoint between excessive regulation and utter inattention. It appears Canadians are doing the same thing in their private lives: finding the appropriate balance between work and pleasure that minimizes stress and enhances fun. It’s a good place to be.

And while demographic changes will undoubtedly create new pressures and demands down the road, older Canadians are clearly less-stressed Canadians. And that’s a future we can all look forward to.