With the economy fluctuating and jobs being shed from one industry to another, students heading into the workforce in the next few years face some uncertain career paths. One thing that won’t change is the fact that Canada now has a record number of people age 65 and over and that number is rising.
According to the 2006 census, there are more than four million seniors living in Canada, and, they are living longer. A longer life expectancy, low fertility rates and the aging baby boom generation are all contributing to Canada’s greying population. By 2026, the number of senior citizens is expected to reach eight million, more than 20 per cent of the population.
The demographic trend is playing out at universities across the country and prompting a trend within the academic world - growing interest among students in gerontology, and the expansion of programs related to the discipline.
“With the aging of the baby boomers, I think it’s clear that this is a growth area,” said Andrew Wister, chair of the gerontology department at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. “It’s going to build rather rapidly, the need that is, for this kind of training across Canada.”
Gerontology has developed into a discipline in its own right over the last few years, mostly at the graduate level, said Wister. At the undergraduate level, there are college diploma programs related to aging and at universities there are courses in many departments that could give a student a minor in gerontology within their discipline, but it’s not until the post-graduate level where students can really specialize in the area.
There are about a dozen universities where students can get a master’s degree and now several of them have PhD programs. Some fall within broader disciplines such as health studies, or psychology, but PhD programs specifically in gerontology are developing.
Simon Fraser is currently accepting applications for its new PhD program, that will begin next fall.
“I think these degrees are being more and more recognized and that’s really making them very attractive now so I think it’s a new age with respect to training in gerontology,” said Wister.
The University of Waterloo also has a PhD program and one student currently enrolled in it, Norma Jutan, said she’s seen the size of her still-small program at least triple since she began it two years ago with only four other graduate students.
Jutan, 30, said the job prospects in gerontology were a big factor in her decision to pursue her PhD.
“In this economic situation, a lot of areas aren’t hiring at all whereas when you’re going to have 25 per cent of the population over the age of 65, you’re going to have job opportunities. It’s a guarantee,” she said. “Someone has to take care of seniors, someone has to make the policy decisions at the community level to support a quarter of the population that is going to need our support.”
Jutan is a teaching assistant in undergraduate courses at Waterloo and she said younger students are starting to realize that gerontology is a multi-disciplinary field where they can apply their interests in other areas such as health, psychology, social work, recreation, management and policy-making.
There’s a demand for workers on the frontlines, running programs for seniors at community centres, for example, or nurses in long-term care facilities, but according to Thomas Hadjistavropoulos, director of the Centre on Aging and Health at the University of Regina, Canada also needs more experts doing research on the effects of aging.
“Things have been moving in the right direction in many areas,” he said, “but there’s still a tremendous shortage.”
Hadjistavropoulos, a psychology professor, said many research grant organizations are identifying aging issues as priorities, a positive sign for graduate students and other academics in the field.
“Research on aging is expanding tremendously and the growth of research-oriented graduate programs is part of that trend,” he said.
As people realize gerontology is a career choice, programs may become more competitive to get into, said Hadjistavropoulos, but he also expects more schools in Canada to expand their offerings of age-related courses.