Mohamed: The Line’s Naughty List: The demographic crisis isn’t going away

Another article on the limits of immigration to address weak economic growth although ignoring the productivity issue. But just like increasing immigration is unlikely to significantly counter demographic trends of an aging population, a focus on increasing fertility is, given experience in other jurisdictions, unlikely to move the needle significantly.

Governments and policy makers need to consider alternative scenarios of how to manage an aging population rather than just focussing on semi-effective measures to slow down the trend:

The nearly concluded year of 2022 may well be remembered as the year generational politics finally arrived in Canada, even if nobody wants to talk about the root of our demographic dilemma. 

Saddled for over a decade with stagnating wages, escalating day-to-day living costs, and one of the world’s least-affordable housing markets, Canadians under the age of 40 finally said “enough” in 2022; making generational inequality, for the first time, a major nationwide political issue

Some of Canada’s pissed off young adults have found their messiah in 43-year-old Conservative party leader Pierre Poilievre, a rather cantankerous fellow himself. Poilievre has masterfully used Canada’s housing affordability crisis to tap into a groundswell of support among younger Canadians — recent polling show Poilievre’s Conservative party holding a double-digit leadamong voters between the ages of 18 and 34.

But even if their voices are finally being heard, young Canadians have precious little to look forward to as they start their working lives in earnest. The OECD projects that Canada’s economic growth will be dead last among advanced countries over the next decade. This means that young Canadians entering the workforce in the 2020s can expect the same grim job prospects, stagnant real incomes, and diminished purchasing power as their older cohorts who graduated into the Great Recession (insert James Franco “First time?” meme here). 

Barring a miraculous change of course, Millennial and Gen-Z Canadians will not only be worse off than their parents but will also see their standards of living deteriorate relative to people the same age in other countries. 

Yet for all his bluster and this real opportunity for a political breakthrough, Mr. Poilievre has offered no genuine solutions to this generational slide. 

So what can be done to reverse Canada’s great inter-generational stagnation? For one thing, we can attack the demographic underpinnings of our dismal growth projections.

The biggest challenge will be to mitigate the effect of our aging population on our labour markets. A record 307,000 Canadians retired last year and a further one-in-five workers are nearing retirement age. Retirements are pushing job vacancies to record levels and leaving behind a shrinking workforce to pick up the slack. By 2027, there will be just three working-agedCanadians for each senior citizen.

Policymakers in Ottawa are acutely aware of this problem and are banking on an already overburdened immigration system to provide an easy fix to our labour market woes. Last month, the Trudeau government unveiled an ambitious plan to bring in 500,000 immigrants per year by 2025 (an increase of nearly two-thirds from average annual admissions between 2015 and 2019). Since this announcement, even progressive outlets have voiced concerns about our capacity to absorb such a sharp influx of new Canadians.

As Andrew Potter recently wrote in The Line, the new immigration target places Canada’s fragile pro-immigration consensus at risk. New Canadians may well bear the brunt of intensifying populist anger if they’re seen as contributing to the country’s health-care and housing-affordability crises. (Chinese immigrants, for example, have already incurred a racial backlash for their alleged role in driving up housing prices in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.)

But even under ideal conditions, immigration would not be a silver-bullet solution to the labour-market challenges created by an aging native-born population. The average Canadian immigrant arrives in their late 20s and may need years to become licensed to work in their chosen occupation. Further, working immigrants often bring both non-working spouses and elderly relatives with them. These are just a few of the frictions that make the economic benefit of large-scale immigration subject to the law of diminishing returns

We also need to weigh the potential economic gains of increased immigration against the challenge some new immigrant communities may pose to our political climate by “importing” combustible ethno-cultural grievances. As I wrote in The Line earlier this year, diaspora politics is becoming increasingly visible in Canada and played a central role in Patrick Brown’s Conservative party leadership campaign.

Large-scale immigration has been a massive economic and cultural boon to Canada over the past half-century but it’s becoming increasingly evident that we’re fast approaching an inflection point. Future increases to immigration are likely to generate diminishing economic returns and escalating political costs. 

This leaves us with a rather simple equation. To reverse our forecasted economic slide, we must increase the supply of young Canadians relative to the number of older ones. To do this, we must find ways to encourage reproductive-aged Canadians to have more children. The arithmetic could not be more straightforward.

Unfortunately, this is the exact opposite of what’s happening. As I wrote back in August, Canada’s birth rate, which has long been the lowest in the Anglosphere, hit a record-low of 1.4 births-per-woman (bpw) during the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020. While it bounced back slightly last year, it still falls well below the OECD average of 1.7 bpw

A quick glance at the average price of a single-family home or daycare space in any major Canadian city should explain why cash-strapped millennials aren’t rushing to bring more children into the world. Indeed, beyond tackling our broader affordability crisis, all orders of government could be doing more to make starting families more affordable for young Canadians — Canada’s level of public spending on family benefits falls well below the average among OECD countries

The Trudeau government’s recently concluded bilateral agreements mark the third attempt at Canada-wide child care. Yet fewer than nine months after the last deal was inked, political will already appears to be faltering.

Part of the problem is that the bilateral agreements were pitched as a mechanism to guide Canada out of the “she-cession” created during the first year of the pandemic. This rationale rings hollow now that women’s labour force participation has bounced back to (and exceeded) pre-pandemic levels. 

Tying new family policies to Canada’s longstanding fertility crisis and, by extension, our future economic vitality, could give these initiatives more staying power.

One thing’s clear: the “f-word” (fertility) can no longer be a forbidden term in Canada’s political lexicon. Until we get serious about that, our demographic and political challenges will only get worse. 

Rahim Mohamed is a master’s student at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. His writing has appeared in The Hub, the National Post, and CBC News Calgary.

Source: The Line’s Naughty List: The demographic crisis isn’t going away 

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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