Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

The shipping (out) news: The struggle to retain young adults is as keen as ever

There are far fewer young adults competing for jobs than a couple of generations ago, writes John Gushue, but even so, many still prefer to take their chances somewhere else.

Many young adults still prefer to take their chances somewhere else

Young adults have been leaving Newfoundland and Labrador for generations, a trend that has had profound effects on the province's demographics. (Shutterstock)

When I moved away from Newfoundland, I didn't use a U-Haul. I didn't need a van, or even a small hatchback.

All I had and needed was a one-way plane ticket and a duffel bag that I had borrowed from my dad.

It was 1985, and I was determined it would not be a permanent move. It was for a contract in Ottawa, my first full-time job in journalism, and to make it happen I put my university studies on hold. I wound up staying an additional year, and I will confess to being tempted to stick around: there were a whole lot more opportunities for an aspiring writer than there were in St. John's.

But I felt something, and not just the vow I made to my parents that I would come back and finish my degree. It was, when I thought about it, homesickness.

Shipping out is a very common part of living in Newfoundland, and Labrador too. Shipping back? That desire to come home is strong, but not as many people come back, and our demographics prove it.

As far as the census goes, our population peaked in 1991, when the federal government counted 568,475 people here. The heady increases of the '50s and '60s were well in the past, and already there were signs of demographic headaches well before 1991.

The next year, of course, was the first year of the northern cod moratorium. The effect — or at least the influence — of that was, well, stunning. The 2019 census put Newfoundland and Labrador's population at 519,716.

A moving story 

Earlier this month, CBC reporter Terry Roberts caught wind of a good story: moving companies were booked flat-out. It turns out that the first assumption that comes to mind — there's a whole heap of people moving away — was not necessarily the case. That has, after all, been the case of these businesses for years.

Terry found something interesting: the majority of traffic is coming in the other direction. That is, more people are moving back — lock, stock and household furnishings — than moving out.

One of the factors? The crises that are causing grief here today are just as profound elsewhere.

Bob LeDrew and other people in the moving industry have been busy transporting the belongings of Newfoundlanders who have been heading home. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

"With COVID and when my company decided they were moving out, that was it," said Bill Perry, who — like thousands of people from N.L. — had made a home in Alberta.

"It cemented our decision to move. Now we're home. We're here."

In other words, if there's a massive upheaval that is affecting the whole planet, some people will be inclined to make some major life decisions.

"I feel that most of them are coming back from Alberta and Ontario because they were laid off because of the COVID uncertainty and they're coming back home here with their families, and a lot of them probably have properties here and they feel safe here in Newfoundland as opposed to other places in the country," said Bob LeDrew, co-owner of Bob LeDrew and Sons Moving Services.

So are we seeing a change in the tide of migration, one that will drive up the population?

Don't hold your breath.

Rest-of-life decisions

It may be more accurate to identify those life decisions described above as "rest-of-our-life" decisions, as mature adults take stock and heave ho.

After all, younger adults tend not to need the services of moving companies. They, like me all those years ago, don't own very much.

Young adults often do need to hire a moving company to head west. (CBC)

Rob Greenwood, who pays sharp attention to demographics and economic development as director of the Harris Centre at Memorial University, told Terry Roberts that a "baby boomer phenomenon" is underlining the boom that moving companies are dealing with.

Unseen, he says, are younger workers who can head west without having to hire a moving company. That resonated with my own experience all those years ago.

While policy experts at Confederation Building will be glad to see the return of productive workers — some, like Bill Perry, bringing their kids back with them — it's the fate of younger workers that must still be cause for concern.

Those numbers have been in decline for quite a lot of time.

A fraction of the students 

Consider this. In 1971, Newfoundland and Labrador's school population peaked at 162,818 pupils.

By 1991, the year that our census population peaked, that number had declined to 121,133 students.

In the most recent school year, that number had dropped to 63,722.

Last year's school population is not even 40 per cent of the peak that was reached almost five decades ago. To put it in a more concrete way, for every five kids that were going to school in 1971, there are just two now.

What's troubling is that even though there are a lot fewer young adults living in Newfoundland and Labrador, it's still a struggle for them to stay. There are fewer high school and college grads to compete for jobs, but how often have all of us heard people in that position say they can't see how they can make a living here?

While classes have almost entirely gone online this semester, Memorial University currently has its largest enrolment. (Marie-Isabelle Rochon/Radio Canada )

There's some evidence of silver linings. This Thursday, for instance, Memorial University reported that its current enrolment — 19,429 — is the highest ever. That number includes Grenfell Campus, the Marine Institute, part-timers and grad students.

But when you consider how there have been far fewer students in local high schools than a generation or two ago, it speaks not only to MUN's recruiting efforts but the fact that there are a lot of young adults in our midst, working on their future. (It also, of course, speaks to the pandemic economy, and how some people are obviously turning to post-secondary classes because of unemployment.) 

Can we keep them, including those coming to study here? 

That is one tough job. 

A few weeks ago, the now-grown-up son of friends of ours got in a car and drove away. His partner will be working on a professional program on the mainland.

Will they come back?, I asked his dad. "I don't know," he replied.

Indeed. We just don't know.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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