HALIFAX — Atlantic Canada stands to lose hundreds of thousands of workers over the next several decades as it contends with a shrinking population, a new study prepared for a Halifax-based think-tank has found.

In a report on population and the labour force, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies says the region is experiencing a “population crunch” that’s expected to accelerate as people grow older.

The report is a follow-up to a 1998 AIMS study that predicted Atlantic Canada’s population would grow by about 35,000 people in the ensuing 10 years.

However, the latest study says the region’s population had actually shrunk by about 47,000 people as of 2006 and will likely continue to drop. By 2046, that number is expected to swell to 272,800, the report says.

“Population has declined a lot faster than they thought it was going to back 10 years ago,” Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of AIMS, said in an interview Monday.

The study’s authors cite a number of reasons for the decline: the trouble of attracting immigrants to the region, an aging generation of baby boomers, low fertility rates and out-migration to other parts of Canada.

The East Coast, in particular, has witnessed an exodus of young people who’ve been lured out West with the promise of stable jobs and big paycheques.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s population is expected to be hit the hardest, according to the study.

It predicts the population in that province will plummet from 510,000 people to about 390,000 by 2046.

On a positive note, the study says the Atlantic region has been successful in boosting participation in the labour force in the last decade despite a dropping population, particularly among women.

But the trend isn’t expected to last.

The study estimates a smaller population by 2046 will result in the loss of about 100,000 workers each in Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and 13,000 workers for Prince Edward Island.

“As we get older … and as there are fewer of us, our capacity to get people into the economy is actually going to be weakened,” said Cirtwill.

While it’s important for the region to continue efforts to attract immigrants and boost the birth rate to supplement a declining population, Cirtwill said Atlantic Canadians may need to change their thinking.

“For the most part, we’re going to continue to want our quality of life, our standard of living, we’re going to want to see our economy keep going,” he said.

“That’s going to mean finding ways to do it with fewer people.”

As the population dips and the rate of growth in the labour force diminishes, certain jobs might end up becoming automated, he said.

“Anywhere where a service industry can be replaced with technology, that’s going to happen simply because there’s not going to be anyone to stand behind that counter anymore,” he said.

“It’s not so much that we’re setting policies that are driving people away, it’s that there are no people anymore.”

The study also says special attention should be paid to big-budget items such as education and health care as the population changes and the demand for such services grows or shrinks.

Cirtwill said Atlantic Canada has been feeling the effects of a labour shortage for at least six years. But while the region is leading the rest of the country in that respect, he said it’s not necessarily a bad thing because it is also ahead in looking for ways to respond to the problem.

“We may actually be able to draw people back here because we’ve addressed it sooner than places like Alberta and Ontario have,” said Cirtwill.

“We have to realize that productivity and doing the best with the people we have has to be our priority over the short term.”