By now, we’ve been pretty much terrorized by the demographers’ prophesies of the coming apocalypse of an aging society. The health-care system will collapse under the weight of geriatric care. The actuarial basis of the Canada Pension Plan is threatened. Statistics Canada warns of manpower shortages within 15 years, when the tail end of the baby-boom bulge exits the labour force.

All these scenarios are possible, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re probable. Indeed, to accept such straight-line projections as inevitable or the forces of demography as immutable leads to a faulty assessment of the future and blinds us to alternative possibilities that may be more in keeping with the future we want.

Fortunately, history shows that society does not evolve in the linear fashion that demography may suggest. Based on population projections alone, our universities should have been wanting for students since the late 1980s, when the last of the big generation graduated. Instead, post-secondary institutions are bursting at the seams and only high-school grads with top grades are admitted to their school of choice. What happened? The value we, as a society, place on university education increased and participation rates skyrocketed, more than offsetting the declining numbers of eligible, university-aged students.

Even more than hindsight, common sense tells us the unidimensional perspective of demographic analysis alone provides an incomplete, often distorted picture of our future. To leap from predicting an aging population — which is indisputable — to the conclusion that society will be exactly as it is today except with more old people would be simplistic and illogical. Already, the baby boomers have transformed society in ways no demographer could have predicted 40 years ago.

Think about it. This is a generation whose clarion call was never trust anyone over 30. Now they don’t pay attention to anyone under 30. In the best tradition of youthful rebellion, Mick Jagger said he’d rather be dead than singing Satisfaction at the age of 45. Now he’s on tour doing precisely that — while celebrating his 60th birthday. By the end of the ’60s, Jean Shrimpton’s modelling career was over because, though still in her twenties, she was deemed too old to be considered beautiful. Today, the words gorgeous, sexy and even hot are applied to the likes of Susan Sarandon, 56, Goldie Hawn, 57, Harrison Ford, 61, not to mention Sean Connery at 72.

The fact is, by dint of its size and influence, this generational cohort has shifted social iconography and provided intergenerational role models like none before. It has redefined what is young, what is old, and what are acceptable and unacceptable behaviours and lifestyle choices for individuals at different stages of their lives. This happened because demography does not influence society in a vacuum. Population changes alter attitudes. Changed attitudes, in turn, affect consumer choice and public policy, thereby reshaping society in non-linear ways. These changes not only determine who may be a hot box-office commodity — they also generate far more profound and far-reaching changes that affect us all.

Consider what has happened to the wealth of different age groups over the past 25 years. Those under the age of 54 in the latest data actually saw their net worth shrink, while those nearing or in retirement experienced a significant increase. The youngest cohort — under 25 — is suffering the most in comparison to their predecessors at that age. But here, too, raw statistics mask the subtle yet profound implications embedded in demographic change. The young are poorer not simply because of traditional unemployment or shrinking salaries. The clogging effect of the big generation on young people’s career opportunities has put today’s youth on a life-cycle trajectory that is vastly different from any generation’s before. Today — unlike a quarter-century ago — there’s just no place in the workforce for many under 25 (in fact, there’s a good chance they’re still living in their parents’ basement, listening to Ja Rule on their headphones).

At the other end of the age spectrum (and virtually without public comment) we have drastically reduced poverty among the old during the past quarter-century. Anticipating a stampede to retirement and losing faith in government and its ability to provide for old-age security, the post-war generation began to invest and save. Policy-makers and the financial sector responded in their own ways with investment vehicles like mutual funds and RRSPs, which took off as a result of the shift in the composition of our population.

All of which suggests that if we are to look to demography as a tool to help us anticipate the future and plan accordingly, it is time we stopped simply counting noses and began to carefully consider how the presence and behaviour of great numbers of a new type of old person will fundamentally alter society. The most basic change will be the end — or at least a reduction — of ageism.

Marketing, advertising and, yes, my field, public opinion research, all use age as the principal basis to anticipate everything from who will watch which television programs to who is the target market for various products or who’s most likely to vote for the NDP. But we’re all finding that the predictive power of age is diminishing because North Americans aren’t behaving as past generations did at the same stages of life. As an extension of this trend, it is likely we will witness the end of mandatory retirement within the next decade. Four provinces and all three territories have already erased mandatory retirement legislation from their books. Members of the big generation may not work as much, or in the same jobs, but having been the central focus of society for their entire lives, it is unlikely they’ll slip quietly into retirement. So, far from experiencing labour shortages, it is more likely we’ll see legions of octogenarian consultants offering their services in the workplace.

The refusal of the baby-boom generation to act like “old people” also means that, SARS and terrorism notwithstanding, the bump in the travel and leisure business we’ve seen to date is nothing compared to what will follow in the coming years. Tomorrow’s seniors will seek out adventure travel, vacation properties and club memberships in numbers greater than we could have ever imagined in the past.

And what of the younger generations? Are they to be relegated forever to the shadows of this senior-dominated future? Not at all. In the same way that a new generation has accepted the likes of Bob Dylan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jay Leno as society’s icons, it is also likely to keep up its relationships and ongoing interaction with its parents. Want evidence? Go to a Rolling Stones concert. In fact, when the young are wearing Che Guevara and Clash T-shirts, it’s difficult for them to shun their parents or treat them as irrelevant. The narrowing of the generation gap means that parents and adult children can actually relate to and learn from one another.

Now, we are seeing parents maintain responsibility for their children well into adulthood. The stage is set for these children, in the future, to take responsibility for their parents well into dotage. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re seeing the re-emergence of extended families, much as in the pioneer days, with more children, parents and even grandparents living, working and socializing in close proximity to one another.

Demography — understanding the changing shape of our population — is one of the most powerful tools we have to understand the world we live in. But it is not a crystal ball. Used properly, it can provide a glimpse of a number of different paths we may follow tomorrow. And if we combine that knowledge with imagination, we can better predict our future and, more importantly, help create the kind of society we want.