New Canada Research Chair Examines Impact of Age and Income Inequalities, Population Change
New Canada Research Chair Examines Impact of Age and Income Inequalities, Population Change

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October 19, 2011

New Canada Research Chair at Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy Examines Impact of Age and Income Inequalities, Age and Population Changes, and Life-long Wellbeing.

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Dr. Susan McDaniel, a University of Lethbridge Sociology Professor and Director of the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy, has been named a Tier I Canada Research Chair in Global Population and Economy, the first Tier 1 CRC in social sciences at the University.

The seven-year, renewable appointment comes with more than $1.4 million, which will support the Prentice Institute’s ever-increasing research capacity.

The funding helps McDaniel and her research colleagues look beyond numbers, and dig deeper into the complex issues that face people over the course of their lives, such as aging, income inequalities, access to health care, how global issues affect people and policies that take aging and population shifts into consideration.

“This is an outstanding announcement for the University and for Dr. McDaniel and her research teams,” said Dr. Dan Weeks, the U of L’s Vice-President, Research.

In total, 253 newly awarded or renewed Canada Research Chairs at 56 Canadian degree-granting post-secondary institutions are being awarded $203.9 million to undertake new research. This federal investment allows Canadian institutions to strengthen their position as global leaders in research and development, bringing greater economic opportunities for Canadians.

“Susan has done an excellent job of putting the Prentice Institute on a trajectory that will make it a world-recognized centre. She has attracted a significant number of researchers to the Institute as research associates, which in turn has built up our graduate student component. With this new funding, Dr. McDaniel and her colleagues will be able to significantly expand on the Prentice Institute’s mandate to look into population issues world-wide.”

There are three areas McDaniel – and her expanding world-wide group of researchers -- is examining through what she describes as ‘life-course research’: comparisons between Canadian and other population groups, initially in the United States; the government-supported policy steps countries such as Japan and Korea have taken to manage the challenges of an aging population; and the concept of age itself, and how factors such as economic conditions, lack of healthcare or being a refugee from a war-torn country can have on your life expectancy.

“The life course research concept has several principles, among them that you need to follow a person through their life to get a solid picture of how they are affected by a variety of influences,” McDaniel said.

People don’t travel through their lives alone, or even in a straight line, as they progress through school, careers and are influenced by a host of social and economic conditions, McDaniel said.

“We are following individuals across time because at each point in your life course, you are existing in a context in a society. For example, if a person graduates from high school or university at a time when the economy is not healthy, they might have trouble finding a job. A whole group of people may be disadvantaged over a long period of time because of that one moment in time.” By comparison, McDaniel said that a person who benefits from a strong economy may land a better job, have better educational opportunities and also have a longer life expectancy.

McDaniel added that some people may be disadvantaged at the beginning of their lives, and may be continually disadvantaged as they age, compounding the disadvantages they face as they grow older.

“We are expanding on research where we looked at Americans age 45- 64 over a 14-year period and a similar group of Canadians over a 16-year period, and found that income inequalities make a huge difference for their prospects in their later years, ” McDaniel said.

The key difference between the Canadian and Americans was that Canadians have lesser inequality, primarily because of social policies such as public health insurance, but also better risk insurance such as employment insurance.

“We have less of a threshold for people falling into poverty and we try to protect them a bit more, so that means that everything else being equal, Canadians do better, have longer life expectancies, and at a cheaper (public) cost than the US.”

McDaniel said that because the economies of the US and Canada are diverging, Canada is doing better -- whereas in the US, the economic crisis is a continuous challenge, unemployment is quite entrenched in a number of areas, and the real concern is that since health insurance is linked to employment, it affects a huge population.

People generally understand the differences between the two countries, but McDaniel said the implications of those differences go far beyond a simple comparison of Canada and American numbers.

“We are taking this issue right down to a family unit level, where we show what families are doing when faced with these economic constraints,” McDaniel said.

“We know from previous research that that families are ‘huddling’ together because they are not able to afford housing. We also know that there are many examples where only one person is employed in a family, and sometimes that person is a child or young adult working at a convenience store.”

This concept is what McDaniel calls being in a ‘linked life’ -- connected to a variety of related or unrelated people who help and support each other.

“We found among lower income families that there was a greater extent of surrogate families and support systems – people who might not be related but have found a solid support system in friends,”

McDaniel said. “A lot of family literature focuses on households, but that is not necessarily the best way to learn how people live.”

A new way to learn more about how people live is to look at how government policy has changed the way people live in countries where aging and significant population change is normal, such as in Japan and Korea, two countries with very different challenges,

“Japan is the ‘oldest’ country in the world while Korea has a relatively young population now but it will age very quickly,” McDaniel said. “What we are finding is that innovations are unexpected. Both Korea and Japan have instituted publicly-funded long term care insurance, for example. When speaking to the Koreans about why they implemented it at this time, the response was that they could afford it now while the population is young, as opposed to being unable to afford it later.”

McDaniel said that what Japan did to respond to its aging population was to encourage more women to enter the workforce, and made it easier by instituting public daycare. “This is a completely different approach than in some western countries, where the focus is on pensions and aging issues and an older segment of the population, rather than looking at the bigger picture."

The ability of a country to look ahead by a generation is rare, but when it does happen, the results can have wide ranging implications which could be applicable to other countries world-wide.

McDaniel hopes to develop a grid of countries with similar challenges and overlay that with innovations that could be applied to a specific country to solve a specific challenge. “The long term view would be taking a creative approach to solve a problem, which could have impact on a country’s economy.”

The other issue McDaniel hopes to tackle as part of her research is to change the fundamental notion of ‘age’ from a number to a concept that takes a whole host of lifestyle experiences into consideration, among them health, education, economic circumstances, and other factors.

“A lot of research has looked at people age 65 and older. The group is actually not that useful to study, because the people really needing sustained healthcare are those 85 and above, with the further challenge that those who have lived that long have usually had some type of advantage to extend their life span – such as a good education, income, or other factors. If you base your policies only on those people, then you are not able to help those who might not have been able to survive to that age,” McDaniel said.

“You need to look at age differently based on what happens to a person during their life. A person in a risky or blue-collar occupation might age differently than someone in a less dangerous or physically demanding job. We need to have a flexible definition of what is ‘old’, because this research, while not yet fully completed, is important in policy development.”

McDaniel said the results of a rapidly-changing society can be dramatic and startling. “In the former Soviet Union, at the end of communist rule and the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, the rapid change in the economy and other factors has caused the average life expectancy for men to drop by 20 years, which is almost unprecedented in that short time. Generally life expectancies are an average of a huge population, so for it to drop is astonishing.”

Keeping a finger on the pulse of these world-wide indicators is keeping McDaniel and her teams constantly busy. The new and ongoing research projects will ultimately wind up as journal articles or become part of four books currently in process.

To date, the effort involves researchers from Canada, the United States, Japan, Korea, Italy and Africa, in addition to the regular complement of faculty members currently at the U of L or who are being recruited to join the Prentice Institute as research associates, guest lecturers, or visiting professors.

Learn more about the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy at this website: http://www.uleth.ca/prenticeinstitute/


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