Population Aging and Crime in Canada, 2000-2041

By Carrington, Peter J. | Canadian Journal of Criminology, July 2001 | Go to article overview
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Population Aging and Crime in Canada, 2000-2041


Carrington, Peter J., Canadian Journal of Criminology


The Canadian population, like that of other Western countries, has been aging since the 1970's, and is expected to continue aging for the foreseeable future. As the proportion of crime-prone young people in the Canadian population falls, and that of older people rises, the overall crime rate should fall. This paper explores the implications of demographic change for crime in Canada in the next forty years.

The role of demographic change as a determinant and predictor of crime rates was established by studies of the rise in American crime rates in the 1960's (Sagi and Wellford 1968; Ferdinand 1970; Wellford 1973), and their fall in the late 1970's and 1980's (Cohen and Land 1987; Steffensmeier and Harer 1987, 1991). These writers showed that a substantial part of these politically sensitive crime trends was explained simply by the changing age composition of the American population, primarily the aging of the baby boomers. Overall crime rates rose as this group reached their late teens -- the most crime-prone time of life -- in the 1960's, and then fell as they began to reach their thirties, a decade later. Thus, the age-standardized crime rate in the USA varied somewhat less than the reported crude rate.

The same reasoning can be used to make crime forecasts based on projected future changes in the age structure. In the mid-1990's, some American writers used demographic reasoning -- specifically, an expected upturn around the year 2000 in the number of young people in the USA -- to make rather apocalyptic crime predictions. According to Wilson (1995: 507), the USA could expect by the year 2000, "30,000 more young muggers, killers and thieves than we have now," and Fox (1996: 306) predicted that, as a result of increases in the number of young Americans, the homicide rate in the USA in 2005 would resemble "a blood bath." Other writers argue that demographics will have only a limited effect on American crime (Zimring 1998; Levitt 1999). Recent research in Britain has forecast a short-term rise in crime, due to, inter alia, a projected short-term rise in the number of males between 14 and 25 (Field 1999).

The possible impact of demographic change on crime has also begun to be noticed in Canada. A recent crime report by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics mentions the decrease in the proportion of 15 to 24 year olds as one of the reasons for the fall since 1991 in the recorded crime rate (Tremblay 1999: 5). Similarly, Foot gives demographic explanations for recent changes in the crime rate and the types of crime in Canada, and makes some demographically-based crime forecasts for the near future: more crime in general, and especially more white-collar crime (Foot 1998: 190-195; Foot, Loreto, and McCormack 1998: 38). John Howard Society of Ontario predicts "an increase, likely modest, in the incidence of crime generally, with property crime driving the trend" because of an expected increase from 1996 to 2016 in the numbers of Canadians aged 15 to 24, and "relative stability [in] violent crimes" because of smaller increases in the numbers of adults aged 25 to 49 (John Howard Society of Ontario 1999: 2-3). These demographically-based explanations and predictions of future crime in Canada are highly informal, even impressionistic. So far, there has been no systematic attempt to assess the likely impact of demographic change on the future amount and type of crime in Canada.

Demographic change and crime rates in Canada

Figure 1 shows the actual age structure of the Canadian population for 1999, and Statistics Canada's projections to the year 2041. The anticipated aging of the population is indicated by the growth in the group aged 40 or more, from 44 percent of the population in 1999 to 58 percent in 2041, and the corresponding decline in the relative size of the three younger age groups. As a result, the median age of Canadians, which increased from 26 years in 1971 to 36 years in 1999, is projected to increase to 46 years by 2041.

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