I was a little daunted to write a piece for Benefits Canada’s 45th anniversary issue — it has been almost 15 years since I last penned a column for the magazine and I’m a little out of practice.
The assignment seemed straightforward — 500 to 600 words on how benefits have evolved or what’s expected for the next 45 years. I could never have predicted half of the events of the past two years, let alone the next 45, so I figured a retrospective was the safer bet.
But when I sat down to start writing, it occurred to me: how do you sum up one of the greatest periods of change in human history in a page or less?
Sure, we’d already sent someone to the moon by the time the first issue of Benefits Canada rolled off the presses in 1977. But the last four and a half decades have brought their share of advancements and upheaval — the dawn of personal computers and the internet, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11 and the war on terror, the mapping of the human genome, smartphones, social media, climate change and a global pandemic. Not to mention disco, the mullet and parachute pants.
I started thinking about all of the developments in our industry during that time and how much benefits plans have evolved. There’d be enough for an entire Netflix docuseries.
The nature of the workplace — and of work itself — have changed dramatically since the late 1970s. Back then, you gave a company your best 30 years in exchange for job security, a decent wage, a pension plan and a generous benefits program.
But the downsizing and restructuring of the 1980s and 1990s changed things. Organizations had to pass more costs along to employees. Many replaced their traditional defined benefit pension plans with defined contribution plans and their traditional benefits plans with health-care spending accounts. In exchange, employees got more flexibility and choice.
At the same time, the digital age was transforming the plan member experience. Before the 1990s, everything was done on paper. As the internet became more pervasive and technology improved, the plan member experience went digital. Now, plan members can submit claims, check their coverage balances and even consult virtually with a physician all using their mobile devices.
It wasn’t just technological advances that were re-shaping benefits. As awareness grew about mental health, employers started to take a more holistic approach to supporting their employees. We saw the proliferation of employee assistance programs and other wellness plans that focused on plan members’ overall well-being. More recently, employers have started to recognize the need to provide benefits that better reflect the diversity of their workforce. And the ‘Great Resignation’ has a lot of organizations rethinking their plans.
So yes, benefits plans have evolved significantly over the last 45 years, but one thing hasn’t changed. I notice it every time I fill my regular prescription at the local pharmacy and I know my medication is covered. It occurs to me whenever I see the monthly pension deduction on my payroll statement and remember that retirement isn’t that far off. And it really hit home recently when we called to book my 12-year-old to be fitted for braces.
Benefits plans still matter. Forty-five years on, they continue to make a real difference in the lives of working Canadians. They’re every bit as important as they were back then. If I were to make one prediction for the next 45 years, it’s that they’ll matter even more.
Don Bisch is director of group marketing at Equitable Life Insurance Co. of Canada. He was the editor of Benefits Canada between April 2005 and April 2008.