Like the paradigm shift 100 years earlier that ushered out the agricultural age, the last decade of the 20th century moved much of the world's population from an industrial existence into the era of knowledge and high-speed technology.
Increasing reliance on satellite communications, electronic mail, cable television and the internet brought Marshall McLuhan's "global village" into reality. Such a major shift in business, lifestyles and thinking also carried great risks, as seen in 1999 with the unrealized fear of a global shutdown of computer systems at the turn of the century.
The recession of the early 1990s had many serious and long-term effects on Canada's economy. One of the most important of these was the emergence of a new level of social distress, which has been called the "New Poverty". Levels of poverty among families and children, in particular among single-parent families, grew from the beginning of the recession, despite the numerous social programs in place.
The experience of Canada's senior citizens throughout the 1990s formed a notable exception to this modern re-emergence of poverty. On average, Canadian senior citizens saw continual growth in their incomes and improvement in their standard of living. In 1997, 19 per cent of Canada's senior citizens lived on low incomes compared to 34 per cent in 1980. Looking at after-tax measures, the low-income rate among seniors fell to nine per cent. This incongruous development in relation to the growth of low-income rates among the entire population was largely the result of the growth of Canada's public pension system.
The rapid improvement in the financial position of senior citizens in Canadian society was accompanied by numerous policy initiatives that helped to ensure that the public pension system would be strong enough to support the increasing numbers of people due to retire over the next generation. Despite these positive changes, research also suggested that younger Canadians needed to focus on their retirement strategies if they wanted to ensure that their retirement incomes would remain comparable to their incomes while in the workforce.
In the late 1990s, Statistics Canada projected that by 2041, twenty-five per cent of Canada's population would be 65 or over. As health care continued to improve rapidly, Canadians were expected to spend much longer periods in retirement in the future. Moreover, saving for retirement had become increasingly difficult for many people as more and more jobs became temporary or part-time. Such jobs generally did not offer benefits to employees who, if they had the disposable income, had to put money aside for retirement on their own.
Both the number and the percentage of senior citizens in Canada grows each year as the oldest members of the "baby boom" generation move toward retirement. The effect this will have on Canadian public pensions will be profound and will require careful management of the pension programs. Adjustments made to the programs over the 1990s were designed to meet this challenge. (Profile of Canada's Seniors, Statistics Canada (Ottawa 1995), p. 7).
The 1990s were also marked by increased globalization. Canadians were increasingly offered worldwide opportunities to tap into larger markets and transcend social, political and business borders. The movement of people and knowledge went beyond national boundaries and crossed into international ones.
One of the largest changes in the composition of Canada's workforce by the end of the 20th century was the growth in the number of women entering employment. The number of working women between the ages of 45 and 54 increased from 41 per cent in 1971 to 72 per cent in 1999. This change was expected to help lessen the financial effects of the growth in the proportion of older people in Canadian society. This was because as more women entered the workforce, the percentage of Canadians who were employed would increase in relation to the growing percentage of people in retirement.
The ratio between the number of retired people and the number of employed people - the dependency ratio - is used to calculate the financial effects of the aging of Canada's population. It is notable that Canada's dependency ratio after the Second World War, including children as well as seniors as dependants, was markedly higher than the projected 2040 figure.
The changing role of women in Canadian society brought into question many traditional notions concerning the family. By the late 1990s, the very concept of what constituted a family came to be re-evaluated. The gay community became more active and outspoken in its attempt to obtain a wider range of legal entitlements. Over the course of the 1990s the question of extending the spousal rights of opposite-sex common-law partners to same-sex couples became an important political issue.
It is interesting to note that unlike age and mental or physical disability, sexual orientation was not included in the Equality Rights laid out in Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, since 1985, when Section 15 came into effect, a number of rulings of the Supreme Court of Canada have established that other minority groups that faced discrimination in the past are also protected by Section 15. Protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation thus came to be included in the Equality Rights of Canadians as an analogous ground, despite the fact that it was not explicitly stated in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
This development was strengthened in 1996 when the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended to include, among its clauses, freedom from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2000, the federal government acknowledged this change by extending to same-sex couples the rights and obligations previously enjoyed only by common-law partners of opposite sexes. This initiative had important consequences for Canada's public pension system. Same-sex partners were given the same rights and obligations as opposite-sex common-law partners on July 31, 2000.