Wanted: Young people. Population under the age of 65 in N.B. hits 46-year low
Record 781,476 people living in N.B. July 1, but seniors are behind all the growth
Like a Bay of Fundy tide creeping up the beach toward a vulnerable sand castle, New Brunswick's long gathering problem of an aging population inched its way closer to threatening the province's economy this year, with no quick fix in sight.
This week, new figures revealed the number of residents below the age of 65 in New Brunswick shrunk to an estimated 610,214 on July 1. It's the smallest number of people below retirement age living in the province in 46 years.
At the same time, the number of those over 65 hit a record 171,262.
New Brunswick economist Richard Saillant believes the aging of New Brunswick's population, underway for decades, is the most serious of a number of challenges currently facing the province.
"It underlies all problems with no exception whatsoever," said Saillant in an interview Wednesday. "People think they can undo demographic trends overnight. No. This is a snowball that has been going down the hill for more than 50 years."
New Brunswick's population has been growing in recent decades, but in a way that has disguised a central problem. There has been an explosion in the number of seniors driving growth while younger age groups, following decades of declining birth rates and out-migration, have been tumbling in numbers.
According to Statistics Canada, New Brunswick's population has increased by 33,355 since 1992, but that includes an 80,687 jump in the number of seniors over the age of 65 and a loss of 47,332 people among those below 65.
It's the most dramatic shrinkage of a working-age and younger population in Canada outside of Newfoundland and Labrador. In neighbouring Nova Scotia, the population of those under 65 has fallen, but only by 33,000 since 1992, while in PEI it has gone up by 14,000.
2nd oldest population in Canada
Stacey Hallman, an analyst with Statistics Canada's centre for demographics, said New Brunswick, which had an average-aged population in the 1970s, now has the country's second oldest.
Governments and public policy experts have been warning about the potential danger of New Brunswick's population becoming top heavy with seniors for decades.
Partly the concern has been over a lack of workers and entrepreneurs available to take over jobs and businesses from retiring baby boomers.
But there are also worries about whether the underlying economy staffed by fewer people can support the health and long-term care expenses of a burgeoning number of seniors.
Saillant said the oldest baby boomers, at the front end of New Brunswick's large surge of seniors, are now 74 and will be in need of increasingly intense care over the next decade.
"The major cost of aging is the final year of life and that's why it grows exponentially as boomers age and mortality rates grow dramatically," said Saillant.
In 1996, former premier Frank McKenna issued a discussion paper raising all those potential problems, an issue that has been fretted over by every New Brunswick government since, including the Higgs government last year.
"In the next 10 years, about 120,000 jobs will become available in our province, resulting in more jobs than people who can fill them," wrote Post-Secondary, Education, Training and Labour Minister Trevor Holder last year in a report calling for dramatic increases in immigration to help fix the problem.
That immigration solution, first articulated in the McKenna discussion paper, has been helping slow the decline in younger age groups in New Brunswick but has not been able to eliminate it.
In the last year, 4,009 immigrants arrived in the province, five times the number of 1996, but the overall population of those under the age of 65 in New Brunswick still fell by more than 1,200.
Saillant said that is a sign of how significant New Brunswick's demographic challenge is.
"What we've been able to do with immigration so far is barely stand still so we have to run just to stand still but we're certainly not catching up," he said
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic New Brunswick had been hoping to build immigration levels to 7,500 newcomers per year, a number that appears out of reach in the short term, at least until the virus is better contained.
In the meantime, 1,000 New Brunswick residents continue to turn 65 every month and Saillant said in the absence of higher immigration numbers to replace them in the workforce, New Brunswick's economic challenges will only grow more severe.