Falling off the demographic cliff: the younger face of New Brunswick’s aging population


“It is estimated that over 50,000 young adults have left the province in the past two decades.” So says a UNB report last year. That’s enough to get your attention. But that’s not what got me thinking. It was a CBC report written by Julia Wright.

Her piece opens with, “Myth of the unspoiled island: how Campobello got trashed”. While on the face of it the piece deals with trash on the island, the subtext is actually Campobello’s declining and aging population. Simply put, residents are getting too old—or too financially strapped—to demolish the decaying private infrastructure falling into the ocean, or clean up the trash dumped around the island due to lack of a community landfill site.

Wright interviewed 88-year-old woman, Sissy Newman, whose family owned Jackson Bros., a local fish plant, gas bar and general store. The place is now abandoned and falling into the harbour. Of the building Newman, the last family member, says, “I was hoping and praying that a good nor'easter would take her down, but it hasn't done yet.”

There are scenes like this all over rural New Brunswick. Covered bridges that can’t be repaired. Old homesteads decaying into the forest. Old trucks rusting into the woods, and boats rotting on the shore. It’s picturesque. But sad.

The provincial government is too cash strapped to do anything about the collapsing private infrastructure. It has a hard enough time providing decent health care for the aging population. The obvious government emphasis is now on the retention of youth in the province—to staunch the outmigration.

I did a quick search to see what they were doing about it. I came across A Youth Strategy for New Brunswick, a 20-page report published in 2011. The first 13 pages deal with vision, mission and methodology (essentially boilerplate), with just 5 pages of recommendations. “Disappointing” would be an understatement. Take Recommendation 4: “…we need to improve our retention strategies so that they respond to the priorities of young people and emphasize their potential. These strategies must promote youth retention and their repatriation so that they will settle here and contribute proudly to the economic and social development of our province.” Genius. Stating the obvious. One wonders how much this canned process cost the taxpayers, or what became of the recommendations.

Moncton, the darling of the Atlantic Canada job opportunity market, has its own problems. On the same day Wright published her piece about Campobello, CBC ran another piece on the trouble with youth retention in Moncton. Reporter Hadeel Ibrahim interviewed young computer science graduate David St-Pierre, who said it took him 11 months to land a job in his field after graduating. The reason it took so long? He didn’t have on the job experience. He solved his problem the old-fashioned way: he went out and made connections—and avoided the easy trap of landing a mind-crushing call centre job. Moncton economic development consultant suggests that local businesses need to “really explore the talent that’s coming out from university and colleges out here and really mentor [them]”. Again, genius. The trick is getting them to do that.

A link on the same CBC webpage reads, “New Brunswick lost 1800 jobs last month”, and another reads, “Employment opportunities directly linked to population growth”. There’s a connection between these two thoughts. New Brunswick’s population is not growing—so there aren’t a lot of job opportunities.

New Brunswick has great divided highways linking its larger cities. The countryside looks beautiful as you drive through on your way to Quebec, PEI or Nova Scotia or the other way to the US. More of that countryside is devoted to fewer large corporations extracting greater wealth from the natural resources, while small local, rural businesses die. Unlike rural areas, cities in New Brunswick, like cities elsewhere, thrive on technical, service and knowledge-based businesses. But the province’s cities are small, and lack the high-quality amenities that big cities elsewhere offer to attract younger workers. Which is a vicious circle, because lacking amenities, there are fewer jobs available, which in turn attract fewer young applicants.

Meanwhile, the rest of the population just keeps getting older, day by day. The Gallant government sees this as a silver lining stating, “10,000 jobs will become available each year in New Brunswick thanks to our aging population, and there aren't enough people to fill them“. So it’s spending $25 million on a new Youth Employment Fund to keep youth in the province—which obviously assumes young people are too stupid to take advantage of 10,000 new jobs a year. More genius. Thanks government. But young people are going to go where they want. Fund or no.

Despite all efforts over decades to shift the population, New Brunswick’s ratio of urban to rural residents remains stuck at 1 : 1, while the rest of the country has moved to the city—with  a 3 : 1 urban to rural ratio. 

New Brunswick remains stubbornly rural and aging. While its youth continue to outmigrate. I’m pretty sure $25 million is not going to change that.


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  1. I just wanted to add my nickel's worth to something you touched on in the piece, NB's Youth Employment Fund. You're old enough to remember the days of LIP and OFY...the federal youth initiative programs of the late 60s early 70s. I worked a couple of them, one being a research project on working women in the Lakehead, another taking drama out to the regions. I think there was another but I can't remember it.

    These programs did more than just give students a summer job. They were often (not always but often) challenging and aspirational in nature, and got kids thinking beyond the borders of their own small town experience. They often (again, not always but often) made you feel you were doing something worthwhile, but more than that, many of them gave you a taste for the politics of making change. Even the bureaucratic bits - putting together a grant application, figuring out what you wanted to do and how to do it, hiring the necessary people and so on - was good experience. Many of us were never going to be satisfied working in retail or the mill...speaking for myself, my experience on these projects honed skills I was lacking, having come at them from a straight liberal arts education. The projects taught me about working in teams, dealing with budgets, being answerable for taxpayers' money.

    When I finished school and was out there looking for real-world jobs, I was better equipped to find them than I would have been otherwise. I know things have changed - I only have to watch my own kids struggle to land decent paying jobs equivalent to their education and experience - but I wouldn't dismiss the possibility that by setting up a youth initiative program NB may be funding something that will do more than just provide some short-term jobs for out-of-work students.

    Good column, btw.

    1. Interestingly, I have a son in university. He's on scholarship, which requires him to maintain a certain grade point average. He told me yesterday that 90 percent of kids who get scholarships lose them in the first year. Many kids go through university on student loans, and accumulate tens of thousands of dollars before they ever hit the job market. And the percentage of people doing post-secondary education his much higher than it was 50 years ago—when blue collar jobs were still available to graduating high school students. So things are not as they were.

      On another page, governments these days are more indexed to corporate interests than ever before. The last thing corporatized governments want are hoards of politically-aware, politically-engaged students—as we had in the 1960s and 1970s. I very much doubt those the Company of Young Canadians program, Local Initiatives Program and Opportunities for Youth program would ever see the light of day in our 21st century reality. There is an interesting Ph.D. thesis paper on this that you can read (I've only just scanned it) at https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/10824/1/NQ27793.pdf

      All that is not to say we don't need to revisit these strategies in to understand how they might fit into the current context—or identify innovative new approaches. There is one important commonality: the economic stagnation of the ’70s and our current economic condition.


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