by Jim Meek
GET USED to dragging your aging butt out of bed and off to work, because even late retirement is starting to look like an iffy proposition for baby boomers.
That’s the first lesson I take, anyway, from the new Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) report on demographic trends and looming labour shortages.
They should have called this report “Freedom 85, or Why You’ll Work Forever.”
Instead, they published this tome under a title weighted down with ponderous polysyllables: “The Developing Workforce Problem: Confronting Canadian Labour Shortages in the Coming Decades.”
Don’t let the title fool you, though; this is a good report. It was written by Michael Foster, a consulting economist, and retired academic and civil servant Jim McNiven.
McNiven is a charming, learned, curious iconoclast, even if his mind wanders off on its own from time to time, into territories where everyone else loses their way.
For a few years now, McNiven has been trying to get us to stop looking at the economy and the workforce the way we did when the government still ran the coal mines in Cape Breton.
The current recession aside, Nova Scotia’s economy does not now suffer from a shortage of jobs, but from a shortage of qualified workers. And it’s only going to get worse if we do nothing about it. By about 2016, the ready and able pool of Canadian workers will be smaller – in absolute terms – than the number of jobs.
The report says the economic consequences of this will be dire. Doing nothing to change public policy “threatens Canadians’ standard of living, and could lead to unrest, outmigration and slow to non-existent economic growth.”
Now that sounds dreary.
Fortunately, Foster and McNiven offer a few solutions.
My favourite is an old-fashioned remedy: more people.
Halifax councillor Steve Streatch got himself into a spot of trouble a few years back when he suggested we solve the population problem “in house.”
Streatch also said that immigration could threaten to “dilute” the Nova Scotia population. Ouch! That wasn’t smart.
But his underlying sentiment – go forth and multiply – wasn’t a bad one, and former premier John Hamm once championed the same solution himself.
Unfortunately, Hamm didn’t promote the idea through public policy. In Nova Scotia, you see, procreation is like the weather: Everyone talks about it, but no one does anything.
In Quebec, they did do something. Under a parental leave program introduced in 2006, the province topped up federal employment insurance payments for parents.
Quebecers, even the federalists, voted “oui” to this policy. The birth rate in the province, once among the lowest in the world, is now among the highest in Canada.
Children are good for the economy, especially the emerging one that McNiven and Foster describe.
So let’s promote policy that encourages baby-production and a first-rate education system. Nothing would help us more in the long run.
As always, increased immigration is also on the menu of options. But as with many fashionable public policies, Nova Scotia couldn’t quite get this one right.
We basically asked smart, capable, affluent immigrants to buy their way into the province, then quickly showed them we had nothing to sell them.
In a world competing for talented migrants, then, Nova Scotia has hardly distinguished itself.
And make no doubt about it, the competition for talent is about to get tougher and go global. This is clear from a recent Economist review of a new book by George Magnus – The Age of Aging: How Demographics are Changing the Global Economy and Our World.
Workers now outnumber pensioners by four to one in wealthy nations like Canada. In 40 years, the ratio will be two to one.
Even emerging economic giants like China, with its one-baby policy, face a population crisis. As The Economist dryly notes, China “will grow old before it grows properly rich.”
Frankly, I’m starting to feel the same way myself.
That’s why I figure boomers will continue to work through the pain – because we can’t stand to lose, and we don’t want our beloved friends and relatives to get a leg up.
Aside from that, we’ll do it for the good of the country.
Jim Meek is a consultant and writer with Bristol, a communications company with offices in Atlantic Canada and Doha.