There will be a lot fewer Nova Scotians working for a living in years to come, a study released Monday predicts.

As our population declines and gets older, the labour force is expected to drop by 100,000 people by 2046, according to the study done for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

“In the past two generations, our single national obsession has been unemployment,” said institute president Charles Cirtwill in an interview Monday. “For the next 30 years, our national obsession is going to have to be the labour shortage.”

Employers are going to expect more productivity out of the workers who will still be around, he said.

“That’s going to be the challenge, trying to get older workers to change their work habits.”

Atlantic Canada’s population has declined by about 47,000 people since 1998. Across the Atlantic region, the population is expected to drop by about 272,000 by 2046, said the report, called An Economic Future with Smaller Numbers: The Population and Labour Force Outlook for the Atlantic Region.

The report was written by Frank Denton, Christine Feaver and Byron Spencer of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

Government policies and business planning must take these trends into consideration, the authors said.

For example, our aging population will put pressure on the health system. The education system will face declining enrolments.

Since eventually there will be about four jobs for every worker, areas such as the service sector will increasingly rely on technology instead of people, Mr. Cirtwill said.

“Automatic checkouts are going to become the norm instead of the exception,” he said. “Those are the kind of jobs people are not going to be interested in taking.”

There’s no doubt a population crunch will hurt the region’s economy, but there are some bright spots in the changing labour force, the study noted.

Although our population has dropped in the past 10 years, the labour force grew by about 123,000 people. A big factor behind that jump is the increasing number of women in the workforce, the study said.

But that won’t be enough to fill the labour gap expected over the next 30 years. Mr. Cirtwill said the study should be a wake-up call for government, industry and workers.

“I’m not entirely sure we’re ready to deal with it,” he said. “We’re in this transition and it’s really going to take an exercise in fundamentally rethinking what we expect from our economy, the jobs we’re willing to do and the expectations in the workplace.”