The norms of retirement are undergoing a Canada-wide shift. A recent survey released by HBSC shows that Canadians are increasingly delaying full retirement by continuing to work. The survey drew from a pool of 16,000 working and retired people in 15 countries and regions, including 1,000 Canadians.

Over half of Canadians stated that they intend to transition into full retirement by working for a diminished number of hours, or to only retire once their health renders them unfit to continue work. 45% of working-age Canadians stated they anticipated a transitional phase of “semi-retirement” before embracing full retirement. These findings point to a shift in the norms of retirement primarily attributable to the growing records of debt among Canadian seniors, and the values and lifestyles of the aging baby boomer generation, boasting record highs of health and well-being levels. These baby boomers are ushering in a new age of retirement, reinventing the leading image and assumptions about the lifestyles and capabilities of seniors.

Today’s seniors live in an age of improved health care, nutrition, exercise and awareness, helping them live longer and collectively re-frame retirement as a time of mental and physical productivity. Speaking to the leaps in Canadian life expectancy, the 2011 census identified 5,825 Canadians who had reached their 100th birthday. This number is projected to rise to a grand total of 78,300 in the upcoming 50 years. Further attesting to the momentum of health-related improvements, the median age in Canada in 1961 was 26.3, a statistic that rose to 40.6 in the 2011 census. Marc Freedman, author of Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America, now describes modern day retirement as a second stage of adulthood, marked by “purpose, contribution and commitment, particularly to the well-being of the future...” Freedman’s statement summarizes the emerging collective sentiment that retirement is being reinvigorated of its old connotations.

In Quebec, it is projected that the total population of people aged 65 or older will increase from 16% of the provincial population to 26% by 2013. This means there will be an additional one million seniors, shifting the age pyramid in significant proportions. Quebec was the first jurisdiction in Canada to implement progressive measures for phased retirement with the Supplemental Pensions Plans Act of 1997. The Act permitted workers to diminish their working hours, while continuing to reap pension benefits to add to their income. This gave rise to a general sense of flexibility for retirement options in Quebec.

Limited finances have significantly figured in the rising number of the semi-retired who increasingly struggle to fund a full retirement. 12% of respondents in HBSC’s survey disclosed that they simply could not afford to retire full time. This corresponds with findings in a March 2015 Statistics Canada survey, revealing that the ratio of household debt to disposable income had reached an alarming high by 2014: households were found to owe roughly $1.63 in consumer credit, mortgage, and non-mortgage loans per dollar of their disposable income. These record levels of debt have been attributed to prolonged periods of low interest rates that have lured people to engage in borrowing, while driving up home prices – both to which many seniors are subjected.

However, decisions to semi-retire can also be determined by the sheer desire to stay active throughout retirement. 38% of respondents decided to semi-retire because they simply did not want immediate retirement, while 37% stated they wanted to remain physically and mentally fit. Of further importance to semi-retirees and senior workers is the social interaction and sense of purpose that they can access through the workplace. Many respondents stated that they derived a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction from work. In response, many employers now actively call upon baby boomers for their experience and expertise in the workforce as concerns about labor shortages arise from slowdowns in population growth.

Despite these national statistics, it has been found that Quebeckers tend to proceed more quickly into full retirement than Canadians. Between 1991 and 2001, studies found that 81% of Quebec’s new retirees left the workplace immediately, while 19% pursued a transition phase. Furthermore, in Quebec, people between the age of 55 and 64 engaged in the labor force constitute 52%, while the national average stands at 61%. However, this is not to say that Quebec’s senior demographic does not stay active by other means. Active adult homes are an increasingly popular option, designed to cater to the healthful stamina of the baby boomers. These homes include fitness centres, sports complexes and lounges that create a community feeling. Furthermore, 88% of seniors have chosen to stay in their home after retiring. This indicates that seniors continue to value autonomy and a commitment to their community in their retirement.

While statistics reveal the financial precariousness of seniors as they struggle to support themselves, they might also usher in a welcome shift in understandings of what retirement means. Retiring, or semi-retiring, is increasingly allowing people to review and re-purpose the connotations of retirement, conceptually re-framing it as a time to develop one’s passion, or meaningfully participate in a broader community as in the workplace. Debt aside, the latest findings about the desire to semi-retire are forging a re-conceptualization of retirement as a time of stimulation, purpose and discovery.