Aging affects regions, too
by Don Cayo


Newfoundlanders have a word for what afflicts old folks who fade into frailty for no apparent reason. They call it “the dwindles”.

And that’s as good a description as I know for what’s happening to Newfoundland and what’s poised to happen to the Maritimes.

A study done by the think-tank I run finds that Newfoundland lost 3,000 people a year during the last census period. Even with its promising mega-projects in the works, we don’t see that stopping, merely slowing, in the next eight census periods to come.

Our 40-year forecast for Newfoundland’s Maritime neighbors is better, but still gloomy. We see growth, painfully slow, in New Brunswick until 2011. Then we see the onset of an accelerating decline. Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island will inch forward until 2026, but then they, too, will start losing people.

Some people in Newfoundland seem not to mind — perhaps even to secretly relish — the prospect of this decline. They seem to feel that the province’s rich resources — Hibernia oil and Voisey’s Bay nickel and the fish if they ever come back — will yield bigger slices of wealth if fewer are around to share the pie.

But even if that’s true — and I doubt it — these numbers hint of a sad, if not sick, society.

The problem is not just the number of people who will live in these provinces. It’s the mix.

Everyone knows that Canada faces the prospect of a dramatically aging population as the Baby Boomers, that huge demographic bulge, edge towards retirement. But what our study underlines is how much more dramatic that will be in a region with stagnant or negative growth.

Nor is it just the number of old people who will live among us. Slow growth or fast growth, that won’t change; today’s 45-year-olds will be either 65 or dead in exactly two decades, and most of them will be 65.

But what happens in a slow-growth or no-growth society is that old people form a much larger percentage of the population, because there are many fewer young and middle-aged. So in Newfoundland, less than 40 years from now we expect nearly a third of its people will be old. The figure will only marginally lower in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Most of us have grown up in places where about six per cent of the people were old. Of late the norm has risen to closer to 10, mainly because people live longer and each of our seniors is with us for a few years more.

But a place with 30-plus per cent old folks — a place with more than two seniors for every child? That isn’t where I fancy spending my golden years. I can’t imagine lining up — taking a number, if you will — to wait my turn for a kid to cuddle.

And the economic implications are huge. My generation may be reasonably well prepared to look after our personal expenses when we retire. But old age is costly for society. Most lifetime medical expenses come near the end of life, and many of us will need not only nursing homes but also support services to help us live longer on our own.

Who, I wonder, will pay the taxes to support these things? And how willingly, or grudgingly, will they pay?

A lot of savvy young people are already grumpy, quite understandably, on the issue of “generational equity.” They see more clearly than a lot of older folks how their parents and grandparents dumped a huge debt burden onto their shoulders, thanks to decades of profligate spending. A recent C.D. Howe study tracks how the net tax lifetime burden — the amount we pay to governments in excess of what we get back in direct payments. It has grown from about 30 per cent for the elderly to 34 per cent for the middle-aged to 38 per cent for young working people. And it forecasts that, if we don’t start paying down some of that debt, it will mushroom to 55 per cent for the generation not yet born.

It seems to me that the burden can, and probably will, get even worse in a region with fewer and fewer working-age people.

There are a few things our governments can do down here. Fix the economy is the big one — make this a place where our young people want to stay, and others want to come. We also could, and should, take control of our immigration policy, as Manitoba recently did. And we can start spending intelligently now, preparing for future needs rather than blowing the bundle on short-term vote-getters.

I’ve never seen a forecast on Prairie demographics, but it seems to me that, given the periods in your history when so many young people left, your provinces are potentially as vulnerable as ours. And that you, too, could profit from a policy review now, before “the dwindles” have a chance to set in, to both prepare for the inevitable and stave off the worst.