Not your grandparent’s retirement

Here are projected population pyramids for Canada (2016 – 2036). (Source: ). The triangles have been added by me to illustrate those of retirement age among the population projections.






Notwithstanding the advances in medical science, we understand that people do not live forever –yet they do live longer so while the population itself is increasing, the proportion of the population that is technically retired (i.e. past the age of 65) is increasing as well; this proportion of retirees can be seen in a stylized fashion by the ever expanding triangles above.

Then there was this article in this morning’s Globe and Mail (click on link to go to the full article): Still working in retirement: Three people tell their stories

Working in retirement is the new reality for many. Some struggle financially and can’t afford to retire, while others simply don’t want to stop working. Often it’s a combination of factors that determine whether you can choose your retirement date.

We asked three people to share their experiences.

Linda Hawkins, 67, registered nurse, Toronto

Ms. Hawkins is a registered nurse in the cardiac catheterization lab at Toronto Western Hospital. She loves her job but she would have liked to retire last year and travel. The sudden loss of her partner of 10 years altered her situation financially and emotionally, however.

“When you have two incomes and you move to one, it’s difficult,” says Ms. Hawkins. “Two people can live in a house for the same cost as one person. The only difference is the cost of food, which isn’t a lot for people at our age.”

She says she’s still working because, first of all, she needs a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Also, despite making a statutory declaration of the common-law union with her partner, she hasn’t been able to provide sufficient documentation, such as a shared mortgage or joint bank account, to claim survivor benefits for his pensions. Although they shared expenses, each kept their own bank account and Ms. Hawkins had already paid for the house in her name.

Even though she has worked as a nurse for 45 years, Ms. Hawkins says she doesn’t have enough pension income to retire, even factoring in Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Old Age Security (OAS) benefits. When her boys were growing up, she worked part-time and, back then, part-time workers weren’t eligible to contribute to a pension plan, although that’s changed now.

Another concern is that she might not be able to care for herself someday and would need to go into a nursing or seniors’ home. “That changes everything,” says Ms. Hawkins. It costs at least $3,500 to $4,000 a month just for a single person at a no-frills facility in Toronto. I don’t want to be a burden on my children.

(Italics and underlined text above added by me)


The nurse in the case above still has recourse to claim survivor benefits; while each case is unique –and perhaps the article doesn’t delve deeply into the minutiae of her particular case– there appears to be enough of reason to argue against the pension administrators original decision and fight further for funds that would make a material difference in this person’s standard of living.

It is also interesting that in using the words “she needs a reason to get out of bed in the morning” the nurse shows that the idea of retirement as a concept has changed and will continue to change — by necessity for most and by choice for some. From the point of view of dependency ratio, Statistics Canada shows that there will be fewer working age people compared to retirees going forward. (Source: Dependency ratio by Statistics Canada)


I suspect that a future Federal Government will make the unpopular decision to raise Old Age Security (OAS) eligibility further (it will go from 65 to 67 in 2023). Lest we forget, retirement is a relatively new concept in modern societies and Canada is no different. Our concept of retirement came to fruition in the 1930s when the Prime Minister Mackenzie King introduced the Old Age Pensions Act in Canada in 1927. The starting age for benefit payments at that time was 70 and the pensionable age for government benefits remained 70 until 1953.

In addition to the challenges of  the dependency ratio, this past generation has seen a crumbling away of the social contract between employers and employees. The move to shift market risk onto employees and at the same time cut the cost of employee benefits has seen the shift of retirement pension plans from a defined benefit to a defined contribution template. People cannot invest well; most cannot fathom what market risk means and almost all who do not have the comfort of a gold plated pension, wholly misunderstand the need to match future cash flows with future liabilities in one’s so called golden years. It isn’t just a game of growing one’s assets. Everyone’s balance sheets and income statements are different with a unique set of constraints.
The paucity of long-term guaranteed income will drive many retirees back to the
workplace. It remains to be seen what effect technology will have on making current jobs redundant. For the moment, industries such as health care are facing the prospect of losing many of their workers to retirement in the coming decade. Will they come back and if they want to come back will there be a job waiting for them?

Asset price collapses, banking crises and recessions (Werner 2005)

Instances of asset inflation are not welfare optimal. For one thing, it cannot be considered efficient nor equitable when new claims on finite resources are created by banks and then granted to a specific group of individuals who use them purely for speculative gain, without adding to productivity or output. Moreover, the extension of speculative loans and asset-collateralizing loans creates negative externalities in the economy and thus directly affects others. If house prices are driven so high that they are beyond the reach of first-time buyers, this can affect the quality of life of entire communities. In England, many cities are unable to attract sufficient numbers of welfare workers, teachers or firemen, as they cannot afford to live in them on their salaries. High real estate prices in city centres may increase commuting times and hence shorten the time available for family or leisure.

The externalities in the banking system are also significant: as banks become overextended to borrowers who have not invested the newly created money productively, our theory of productive credit creation tells us that, in aggregate, such loans cannot be paid back (only ‘productive’ loans will be non-inflationary and only ‘productive’ loans will produce goods and services of value, thus producing income to service the loans). As a result, systemic risk increases.

Bank lending for speculative purposes CF is only viable as long as banks continue to increase such lending. It seems a reasonable assumption that banks will not continue to increase their speculative lending CF into eternity. We thus consider what happens when at some stage (perhaps again induced by a regulatory shock, such as a change in the monetary policy of the central bank) CF  falls. According to equation (5), asset prices will fall. This will then reduce collateral values and bankrupt the first group of speculative borrowers who were seeking merely capital gains. Their default will create bad debts in the banking system. This in turn will raise banks’ risk aversion and reduce the amount of credit newly extended. This further reduces asset prices (equation 5), which increases bankruptcies. The process can easily make banks so risk averse that they also reduce lending to firms for productive purposes, in which case GDP growth will also fall (equation 4). Such credit crunches have been observed in many cases, including the US.[2] This exacerbates the vicious cycle, since with less economic growth, corporate sales and profits decline. As more firms become unstable, bad debts increase further (see Figure 16.1). [emphasis added] (Werner 2005)



Richard A. Werner, New Paradigm in Macroeconomics: Solving the Riddle of Japanese Macroeconomic Performance, (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 229-230.


[2] For empirical evidence of the credit crunch problem in Japan see, for instance, Matsui (1996). On the US see, for instance, Gertler and Gilchrist (1994).

George Cooper on the market for assets versus the market for goods and services

1.3 A Slight Of Hand

Now re-read Samuelson’s passage, only this time look out for the slight of hand in the final sentence:

 What is true of the markets for consumers’ goods is also true of markets for factors of production such as labor, land, and capital inputs.

The passage provides a convincing explanation of how equilibrium is established in the marketplace for goods, but when it comes to the markets for labour, land and capital inputs, there is no explanation of the mechanisms through which equilibrium is established. For these markets we are offered nothing better than proof by assertion. This logical trick is pervasive in economic teaching: we are first persuaded that the markets for goods are efficient, and then beguiled into believing this to be a general principle applicable to all markets. As the failure of Northern Rock and Bear Stearns show it is unsafe to assume that all markets are inherently stable.

1.4 The Market For Bling

We can easily find a counter example to Samuelson’s well-behaved supply-and-demand driven markets. In the marketplace for fine art and luxury goods, demand is frequently stimulated precisely because supply cannot be increased in the manner required for market efficiency: Who would pay $140,000,000 for a Jackson Pollock painting if supply could be increased in proportion to demand? The phrase “conspicuous consumption” was coined by the economist Thorstein Veblen to describe markets where demand rose rather than declined with price. Veblen’s theory was that in these markets it was the high price, the publically high price, of the object that generated the demand for it. Veblen argued that the wealthy used the purchase of high-priced goods to signal their economic status. (Footnote: “The Theory of the Leisure Class” Thorstein Veblen, first published 1899.) Veblen was the original economist of bling – if you’ve got it you want to flaunt it.

Fortunately for the high priests of market efficiency, Veblen’s observations can be dismissed as minor distortions within an overall economic environment that responds in a rational manner to higher prices. That is to say, even at a price of $140,000,000, the market for Jackson Pollock paintings is irrelevant to the wider economy.

1.5 When The Absence Of Supply Drives Demand

While the markets for bling can be dismissed as economically irrelevant, there are other much more important markets which also defy the laws of supply and demand, as described by Samuelson. While Veblen identified the rare conditions in which high prices promoted high demand, we can also consider the much more common situation in which low or falling supply promotes high demand.

Today’s oil markets are a case in point, where constrained supply is prompting higher speculative demand. While consumers of oil are reducing their oil purchases in response to supply constraints and higher prices, speculators (investors) in oil are moving in the opposite direction and increasing their purchases.

This simple observation of how consumers and speculators respond in different ways to supply constraints gives us the first hint that a fundamentally different market mechanism operates in the markets for assets to that which dominates the markets for goods and services. This effect is not confined just to today’s unusual oil market: Who would invest in the shares of a company if that company were in the habit of issuing more stock whenever its share price rose above a certain level?

As a rule, when we invest we are looking for an asset with a degree of scarcity value, one for which supply cannot be increased to meet demand. Whenever we invest in the hope of achieving capital gains we are seeking scarcity value, in defiance of the core principle that supply can move in response to demand.

To the extent that asset price changes can be seen as a signal of an asset becoming more or less scarce, we can see how asset markets may behave in a manner similar to those of Veblen’s market for conspicuous consumption goods. In Veblen’s case it is simply high prices that generate high demand, but in asset markets it is the rate of change of prices that stimulates shifting demand.

Frequently in asset markets demand does not stimulate supply, rather a lack of supply stimulates demand. Equally price rises can signal a lack of supply thereby generating additional demand, or, conversely, price falls can signal a glut of supply triggering reduced demand.

George Cooper, The Origin of Financial Crises: Central banks, credit bubbles and the efficient market fallacy, (Petersfield: Harriman House Ltd., 2008), 6-8.