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Budget changes old age security eligibility to age 67

File photo of retirement brochures. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Graham Hughes

Anyone younger than age 54 will have some redrafting to do when it comes to retirement planning.

The federal government has raised the eligible age for old age security to 67, postponing existing benefits for two years.

The widely expected change to OAS will have a trickle-down effect on people’s financial plans. It will affect the guaranteed income supplement, veterans’ benefits, aboriginal benefits, survivors’ allowances and especially the way many companies have set up their employees’ pension plans.

But the changes won’t kick in right away. Ottawa will start making the adjustments in 2023, and phase them in gradually over six years.

That means anyone over 54 won’t be affected. People in their early 50s will see moderate changes. And people under 50 will feel the full force of the new policy.

The government is also allowing some flexibility in the new retirement system, by allowing workers to voluntarily defer their government benefits for up to five years and collect higher amounts when they actually retire. This change comes into effect next year.

Someone who does not want to retire at 67 can keep working for a few extra years and eventually collect a slightly bigger old age security benefit — imitating the way the Canada Pension Plan already functions.

The new policy comes with a commitment to compensate provincial governments for any extra costs that may arise. But it does not contain any specific provisions to deal with low-income seniors who will see two years’ of benefits disappear.

“As many have said before, these changes will have significant impact on low- and modest-income individuals,” said Tyler Meredith, research director at the Institute for Research in Public Policy.

Since lower-income Canadians have significantly shorter life spans than higher-income Canadians, they carry disproportionately more of the loss in benefits, Meredith said.

About 98 per cent of Canadian retirees receive OAS, and a third of those also receive the income supplement. The benefit system has been the key reason why poverty among seniors has diminished markedly over the last three decades.

By delaying the changes a decade, the government is provoking inter-generational conflict, pitting the young against the older generation, said seniors’ advocate Susan Eng of CARP.

“They’re saying ‘let’s do it for the children.’ But it’s the children who get hurt,” Eng said in an interview.

The Conservatives stormed ahead with the changes without listening to the many policy options that could have saved the government money without exacerbating poverty or forcing the young to shoulder the burden, she said.

The only bright side, she added, is that the government has given opponents 11 years to try to change Ottawa’s direction.

The goal of the change is two-fold: to encourage people to stay in the workforce longer, and to save the government billions of dollars.

When fully implemented, officials estimate, Ottawa may save almost $11 billion a year, although there was no documentation to break down the figure.

“In this budget our government is looking ahead not only over the next few years but also over the next generation,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said.

“This gradual approach will enable younger Canadians to plan ahead with confidence.”

The changes were signalled by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in January, when he said Canada’s social programs had to scale back if the country’s finances were to remain sustainable over the long term.

His targeting of old age security was greeted with angst within his own caucus, and push-back from experts who argued repeatedly that retirement benefits are sustainable in their current form.

But the government says many other industrialized countries are raising their age of entitlement, and Canada should too — especially since people are living longer and healthier lives.

“I don’t think it’s a really unreasonable request. I mean, governments around the world are doing this,” said Craig Alexander, chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank.

“As an economist, I have no problem with that. We actually want people to stay in the labour market longer.”

The provinces have expressed some concern that they would be stuck with a big welfare bill for the two years that low-income seniors are no longer able to collect old age security and the guaranteed income supplement.

The federal government’s commitment may alleviate their fears somewhat.

“The government will compensate provinces and territories for net additional costs they face resulting from the increase in the age of eligibility of OAS benefits,” the main budget document states.

Still, the commitment throws discussions about compensation into the political arena, where federal-provincial relations are tense and where the federal government has a spotty record of reimbursing provincial governments to the standard they demand, says Meredith.

Highlights from the Conservative government’s 2012 budget, released Thursday:

— Production of the penny to cease this fall, saving an estimated $11 million a year.

— Deficit projected to fall $8.5 billion, to $24.9 billion for 2011-12, to decline to $21.1 billion next year and to disappear by 2015.

— More than $5 billion in cuts to annual federal spending by 2014-15.

— Job cuts: 19,200 federal positions to be eliminated, or 4.8 per cent of the federal workforce.

— Age of eligibility for old age security and the guaranteed income supplement to gradually move to 67 from 65, beginning in 2023.

— $5.2 billion over 11 years to renew and refit the Canadian Coast Guard’s fleet of vessels and helicopters.

— Eligible Canadians to be allowed to defer old age security for a maximum of five years, beginning in 2013, in exchange for higher benefits.

— $1.1 billion in research and development over five years, plus $500 million to encourage venture capital investment by the private sector.

— First Nations reserves: $275 million over three years for schools and education, $330.8 million over two years to improve water systems and water quality.

— CBC to lose 10 per cent of annual funding.

— Return $130 million in fees to nearly 300,000 would-be Canadian immigrants to eliminate backlog in skilled-worker applications;

— $482 million over two years to improve the effectiveness of the employment insurance system, including incentives for accepting work and ensuring benefit levels align with local labour market conditions.

— Cap on annual increases to employment insurance premiums until operating budget is balanced.

— $205 million for a one-year extension of a temporary hiring credit for small businesses.

— $50 million over two years to provide job skills training for young people.