Not complaining, mind you. I’ll cheer whatever family you want — Corleone, Kardashian, Poppy, Partridge — if it means a long weekend in February.
That is, we are not big on families here, at least not the large, traditional ones. The proof is in just-released 2016 census documents showing Greater Victoria has 367,770 people and 172,559 dwellings. That’s an average of 2.1 people per household. Not exactly the Waltons.
The demographics are stark. As of 2011, the metropolitan area’s median age was over 44. Only 38 per cent of couples had children under age 24 at home. Chick-toria had 15,000 more unattached women than men (something to think of as Family Day morphs into Valentine’s Day). The high cost of living means many couples simply can’t afford to have babies.
This doesn’t make us that much different from the rest of the country. Canada has more seniors than children under 15 now, and a fertility rate — 1.6 births per woman — that continues to run well below replacement levels. It hasn’t hit 2.1, the level needed to maintain a stable population, since 1971.
A couple of years ago I came up with a tongue-in-cheek solution: a Temporary Foreign Child program. Similar to Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program, it would allow us to import children who would make up for the domestic shortfall — filling out hockey teams, playing the less-desirable instruments in school bands, mowing lawns for “grandparents” — before being shipped home when they reached adulthood. It was meant as satire, but in some ways it reflected reality; were it not for the more than 1,000 foreign students in the capital region, some public schools wouldn’t be able to reach course minimums, wouldn’t be able to put enough butts in seats to offer Chemistry 11 or Geography 12, or whatever.
Indeed, this week’s Statistics Canada report said two thirds of the nation’s population growth between 2011 and 2016 (with an extra 1.7 million people, it was the fastest-growing G7 country) came through immigration. “Without a sustained level of immigration, Canada’s population growth could be close to zero within 20 years,” the agency says.
Which leads to the question: So what? In pure economic terms — setting aside political and other factors — would it matter if Canada’s population contracted?
Yes, it would, which is why politicians are fretting in places like Russia and Japan where numbers are trending down — though as labour economist Herb Schuetze tells his University of Victoria undergrad classes, the problem is not that straightforward.
The sheer size of the population doesn’t matter as much as its composition, Schuetze says. Right now our composition is disproportionately old and grey, the leading edge of Baby Boomers sliding into retirement without the underpinning of the wide, solid base of young, skilled workers needed to sustain the economy. “We’re heading to a country in which that’s going to be inverted.”
Canada has tried to address the imbalance through immigration. In practice, the age distribution of immigrants isn’t that much different from that of the broader population, Schuetze says. Still, it’s a lot easier to get into the country with the right expertise; the new, largely automated Express Entry process sends skilled would-be immigrants to the head of the queue, particularly if they can be matched with employers who can’t find qualified Canadians to fill open jobs.
Ideally, from an economist’s point of view, one of the goals of immigration is to increase average GDP, to make all Canadians wealthier, Schuetze says. The notion is that immigrants bring avenues for increased trade, or skill sets that complement those of other residents to the benefit of all. The reality can be tough, though; for older immigrants in particular, re-establishing yourself in a new culture can take decades. The good news is that the next generation soars. “There is evidence that the children of immigrants do very well,” Schuetze says.
No surprise there. This is a country of immigrants; one in five of us were born outside Canada. Most of us had a grandparent with an accent from somewhere else. And everyone who came here dreamed of a better life for the family.
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