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Redefining skills training for an ageing demographic: higher education policy and vocational guidance

“I think there’s a world market for maybe five computers.” –  Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943

“Status Quo. Latin for the mess we’re in.” – Jeve Moorman

I confess that I never paid much attention to those retirement commercials. You know the ones with a distinguished silver-haired white male effortlessly swinging his golf club, or sitting on his yacht in some exotic location? Nor did I pay much attention to those AARP ads. After all, I was not “old” and I was never going to get old, if I could help it. And I’m a Canadian so why would AARP matter. I’ve played a decent and even competitive game of tennis for most of my natural life. And my wife and I are both conservative lawyers with carefully conceived tax and estate plans. We’re doing just fine.

Then I turned 50 and the doctor (who I’ll refer to as Dr. Smart E. Pants) said “I’ve got some bad news Harris. You might live another 50 years. If you do, you are going to be a taxpayer for at least another 50. Your life insurance premiums are going to go sky high, because the bean counters are involved and someone’s got to pay for the upside down pyramid.” “What pyramid?”, I asked. And the doctor replied “the pyramid of increasingly older people with health issues to support, and fewer younger people to support them.” The doctor mentioned in passing that I’d also have some nutritional challenges too, and that I might need considerably more medication to ensure that I live to a ripe old age—oh yes, and some home care—assuming I could find someone available?

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Adler, the Founder of GEN4. Mr. Adler had the distinction of being a Federal Member of Parliament under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, wherein he served on the Prime Minister’s Finance Committee. This, before consulting on issues of age demographics. Just as I have dedicated my legal career to private post-secondary education (referred to as higher education in the United States), Mr. Adler has seemingly dedicated his consulting career to the demographics and policies relating to ageing. “Ageing and longevity are the biggest issues of our time”, he told me. “Canadians are ageing and thanks to advancements in medicine, live longer”, he added. “Funny you say that Mark, because Dr. Smart E. Pants told me the same thing”. I realized that not only he could really make a difference in shaping this country, but that his was the flip side of the same demographic “coin” as the one I was looking at every day. He realized what many Canadian leaders currently do not: those who do not respond to changing demographics will do so to their own detriment.

Age demographics affect every aspect of our lives, from the suitability of jobs or careers, to how products are made and sold. And of course, the already strained health care system on both sides of the border remains the single largest concern when talking about age demographics.

As I began to think about it, everything made perfect sense. Thinking back to my own experience growing up and the world my own children will face, gave me pause. When I was in grade school, parents always asked “what do you want to be when you grow up”? Today, that is the wrong question to ask, and I am in no way derogating from the proposition that people should follow their passions. However, I suggest that the right question for people of all ages is “where is the labour market demand for my expertise?”.

Reading, writing, and math were and are important from the earliest stages of learning. Then along came coding. More than two dozen countries made this a mandatory part of their curriculum long before it appeared on my child’s radar screen in my home town of Toronto—North America’s fourth largest city, and a wealthy city at that. I linked our provincial government in Ontario, Canada to Hubris: we are all supposedly real estate “rich” and everyone wants to live here, so why should we care about coding and demographic change? “Really, Ontario? Stop building outdated, protectionist, regulatory walls around the vocational training sector. Focus on demographics and innovation. Or we will languish (housing bubble or no housing bubble).


By 2021, 17.8 percent of Canadians, or about 7 million people, will be over 65. By 2041, that number is expected to jump to 9.7 million, or 22.6 per cent. This fact was highlighted by Michael Gazer in an excellent article in the Huffington Post at http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/michael-gazer/aging-population-canada_b_11680292.html. More recent, government backed statistics reinforce this. The Gazer article highlighted the profound changes we will have to make to accommodate health and mobility issues, and the need for home care. My focus is on the re-training, and re-skilling of those once considered “disposable” or past their prime– and the dynamic versus static labour market.

Back to Dr. Smart E. Pants. “It’s a good thing that we don’t have a health care problem the way the US struggles with Obama Care versus whatever the 45th President of the United States decides to now do”, I proclaimed.”Sit down Mr. Rosen, maybe you need another kind of doctor after making that kind of statement!”, he said. He ran a series of tests and noted that the professional I was about to see would be charging me a premium above our government sponsored Ontario Hospital Insurance Plan. “You see Harris, the Ontario government spends more than 60% of your provincial tax dollars on health care, and there are not enough little Harris’ around to support big Harris. “But I already pay very high taxes here in Ontario, and I’m supposed to get free health care”, I exclaimed. Dr. Smart E. Pants simply said this in response: “you obviously haven’t studied Milton Friedman, look him up.”


As of January 2016, the number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to more than double from 46 million today to over 98 million by 2060, and the 65-and-older age group’s share of the total population will rise to nearly 24 percent from 15 percent, according to Population Reference Bureau: http://www.prb.org/Publications/Media-Guides/2016/aging-unitedstates-fact-sheet.aspx

The same source cited the following points, in brief:

  1. An ageingpopulation is becoming moreracially and ethnically diverse and non-Hispanic whites are projected to drop by 24 percentage points, from 78.3 percent to 54.6% between now and2060;
  2. The changing racial/ethnic composition of the population under age 18, relative to those aged65 and older, has created a “diversity gap” between generations.
  3. Older adults are working longer.By 2014, 23 percent of men and about 15 percent of women ages 65 and older were in the labor force, and these levels are projected to rise further by 2022, to 27 percent for men and 20 percent for women.
  4. Many parts of the country—especially counties in the rural Midwest—are “ageing in place” because disproportionate shares of young people have moved elsewhere.

The same source notes that life expectancy is now almost 80 years old, on average, up from 68 years of age in 1950.

This is all reinforced by the AARP which states that

“From 2010 to 2060, the age 85-plus population will more than triple (+260%), the fastest growth of any age group over that time period. This demographic phenomenon will have a significant impact on every aspect of our society, ranging from our health care system to the economy. People age 85-plus are the group most likely to need long-term services and supports to help them with everyday tasks.” : http://blog.aarp.org/tag/demographics/

Changing demographics relating to ethnicity and race also demonstrate the need for education programs which bridge language and cultural barriers: in an emergency room setting, for example, the ability to communicate can literally mean life or death.


It has been said that a nation is only as strong as its able-bodied workforce. While it is true that both Canada and the United States should strive to have an able bodied workforce and that immigration policies are highly germane to this reality, we must also strive to do the following:

  1. Rethink retirement and especially “retirement age”. We should replace the antiquated notion of putting people out to pasture, with that of “dynamicre-skilling”.
  2. Socially innovate to maximize the potential of all age demographics, including those who are 50 or older: I can teach you very little about innovation. But Andrew Hargadon can: http://andrewhargadon.com/ He was one of the pioneers at Apple and is the Charles J. Soderquist Chair in Entrepreneurship at University of California, Davis. It was a treat to hear him talk recently about innovation. I urge you to visit his website to understand what “innovation” really is, but his biography says it all:

“Some people are called creatures of habit; I am and I suspect always have been a creature of change.”

My point about innovation is that we must think of ageing and labour market demographics as we think of climate change: understand where we will be in five years, ten years, and twenty-five years, and create new products and services for those changing markets. Do so by building on high quality existing innovations: a bicycle is a mere extension of the wheel; a car is an extension of a bicycle. And so on. This is why I’ve made reference to Mr. Hargadon. He is remarkably pointed about how innovation happens. And he is right.

  1. Create a relevant workforce that spans all ages.If the 45th President of the United States honours his commitment to build out the vocational training sector as I suspect and hope that he and his administration will, a number of positive things should come out of this. First, the United States will have a much more relevant work force, equipped for the jobs of today and tomorrow. Secondly, there will be a restoration of dignity in the American workforce if the US is also focused on reskilling and retraining those who are 50 plus.Thirdly, there will be consumer confidence which flows from America’s ability to export American made goods (although the strength of the US dollar is a challenge, does compromise its ability to do so, and is something expressly recognized by President Trump recently). Finally, innovation does flow from consumer and industrial confidence.

As for Canada, we have dangerous levels of consumer debt, and which are frankly much higher per capita than our neighbours south of the border. The United States had record consumer debt pre-2009, before “NINJA” mortgages were made scarce. A fund manager at a large Canadian bank recently explained to me that the Canadian problem is a little different than the fraud and NINJA mortgage issues we saw in the United States not long ago. Interest rates in Canada are dangerously low, such that a modest increase of less than 50 basis points would put a home out of the reach of many Canadians. We too need to furiously focus on relevant job skills which are consistent with our ageing demographic, and which by definition evolve the way an iPhone does. Pharmacy Technician 7.0 might look very different from Pharmacy Technician 2.0, because of the degree of automation at each step in one’s training, as well as the medical advancements themselves. So might transport training, denturism, nursing, and most other vocations, look very different “tomorrow”.

I have always been a proud Canadian but we as Canadians are failing because we are ignoring our own reality.

I’m no Andrew Hargadon and likely will never be. However, there are two words that Canada and the United States should be focused on which to me are tantamount to social innovation, and which both countries are failing miserably at: vocational guidance. 

(I am indebted to Alan Wolfish Q.C. my long-time colleague and co-author of the Annotated Private Career Colleges Act, 2005, as well as to Mark Adler, for their careful and thoughtful input into this piece).