Demographic Decline in Atlantic Canada: Shrinking to Promote Economic Growth

Population decline is a positive economic indicator.
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Population decline is a positive economic indicator.
Sydney, Nova Scotia. (Photo: Abebenjoe/Wikimedia Commons)

Sydney, Nova Scotia. (Photo: Abebenjoe/Wikimedia Commons)

"There are several reasons why at least moderate population growth should be a main objective of government." In my last post, I positioned myself as a critic of this claim. In favor of promoting population growth, replace retiring workers and at least maintain the tax base. I will explain how to achieve both goals with a declining population.

Everywhere, population change is an existential issue. If the polity isn't expanding, then the nation is dying. The Volk need Lebensraum. Blood and soil become place. We think of geographic vitality in terms of how many people live there. Atlantic Canada wrestling with the Grim Reaper:

Thinking like that is one reason the commission’s report was called Now or Never: An Urgent Call to Action for Nova Scotians. “We didn’t pick the title,” explains Commission Chair Ray Ivany. “The title picked us.”

Long-limbed, animated, the son of a Sydney steelworker, Mr. Ivany is president of Acadia University, one of the nation’s finest liberal-arts institutions. He is passionate about the challenges his province faces.

“We were not trying to be hyperbolic,” with the title, he maintains, during a conversation in his office on the Acadia campus, in postcard-perfect Wolfville. “The demographic and economic spiral has reached the point that, if we don’t grab hold of the situation now, there is a reasonable question to be posed of whether we can turn it around.”

Key to that turnaround, he is convinced, is overcoming the region’s resistance to outsiders, by aggressively targeting and attracting immigrants. That, in turn, will require a change of mindset, both within government and the population.

Indeed, Nova Scotia and the rest of Atlantic Canada require a change in mindset. But the change in mindset does not concern the taciturn disposition toward outsiders. The issue is the normative assessment of demography itself.

In the era of a Sydney steelworker, the larger population (relative to today) included a number of dependents: children. Similarly, a retirement community could boom with dependents at the other end of life. One group has paid into the system and has some sort of a pension. The other demographic just sucks up resources. We romanticize the era with the smaller labor force because it sports bigger population numbers. Hooray for civic pride.

Whereas children must be independents, seniors do not. Innovations in health care could increase the longevity of the workforce. Innovations in health care could reduce the costs of increasing the longevity of the workforce. Working later into life accomplishes the same goal as boosting population.

A person with a college degree earns more over her lifetime than someone with just a high school diploma. Thus, 1,000 people with a high school diploma earn less in total income than 1,000 people with a college degree. Quite conceivably, 800 people with a college degree could earn much more than 1,000 people with less education. The population decreases by 200. Yet the tax base increases.

Better-educated households make more money and have less children. The number of dependents who cannot work goes down, while the earning power of independents goes up. Furthermore, with better and cheaper health care, these high-earning independents are able to work well past the expected retirement age. The percentage of the overall population outside of the workforce shrinks dramatically. Workforce and total income goes up while the number of people in Atlantic Canada goes down.

Jim Russell, a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development, writes regularly for Pacific Standard.