Much of public policy in Canada has come to be concerned with the implications of the aging of the population. The baby boom generation is moving slowly but certainly through the working years, and on toward retirement. Given the strong trend toward "early retirement" that has been evident for many years, the first of the boomers can be expected to exit from the work force within a decade, with many more to follow over the ensuing quarter of a century and beyond. The bulge that population pyramids exhibit at present in the middle-age range will then have moved into old age. Even now the proportion of older people is rising from year to year, and the average age of the population is drifting upwards.
The implications for health care, pension plans, government expenditures and deficits, and the economy at large are at the forefront of public awareness and policy debate. Population aging and its effects are clearly societal concerns of the first rank (witness the popularity of David Foot's 1996 book), and yet the resources devoted to their study within Canadian universities are meagre. In contrast, in the US nine centres have recently been established, seven at universities and two at "think tanks", by the National Institutes on Aging "to provide innovative and policy-relevant research on health, social factors, economics, and other issues that affect the US older population". The situation in Canada differs from that in the US in various ways, both demographically and institutionally, but we do have in common the need to gain a better understanding of population aging and its impacts on individuals and society. It is against that background that our program of research has been conceived.
The overall purpose of the program is to provide a comprehensive, scholarly investigation of issues related to the social and economic aspects of population aging. The research will be centred at McMaster but will involve a multidisciplinary team of 28 academics from five Canadian universities, 25 to 30 of their graduate students on fellowships, 30 to 35 other postgraduate students employed part-time, and four postdoctoral fellows (each for two years). Beyond that, there will be a widespread network connecting 37 other researchers and several organizations that share our interest in the socio-economic effects of population aging. An important aspect of the program is its emphasis on the communication of results to the academic research community, persons or agencies concerned with policy design and implementation, and the public at large.
The work is to be organized around four major areas of study: (1) Population Aging and the Economy, (2) Aging and Health, (3) Aging and Family Life, and (4) Retirement and Financial Security. The issues that are suggested by these titles cut across disciplines in fundamental ways, and interdisciplinary collaboration is central to the research program. The first area looks at the "big picture" while the other three address concerns about the implications of aging as they relate to the more specialized aspects of health, family life, and retirement.