Nova Scotia

Learning why rural areas in Nova Scotia find it difficult to retain youth

A new study is hoping to discover the stories behind why rural areas are finding it difficult to retain youth.

'I think it's important for us to know whether there's a crisis up ahead'

Karen Foster will be conducting a five-year research project on the stories behind why rural areas are having trouble retaining youth in Nova Scotia. (CBC)

A new study is hoping to discover the stories behind why rural areas are having difficulty retaining youth.

Karen Foster, a sociologist and associate professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said statistics on rural occupational succession point to a looming crisis in independent business and production in Atlantic Canada.

In 2011, Statistics Canada found that 60 per cent of Atlantic Canadian farms were owned by farmers aged 55 or older. By 2016, 92 per cent of them had no written succession plans.

Foster, who holds a research chair in sustainable rural futures in Atlantic Canada, is launching a five-year research project on the issue entitled, "Seeing the Future in It: Generations and work in Atlantic Canada." 

Stories behind the stats

She said she's hoping to add more context to the statistics that are often shown.

"I think when you look at the numerical data it's informative to a point, it tells us about broad trends, but it doesn't necessarily get into the really complex dynamics and decision-making processes around who stays and who goes," said Foster.

She wants to look further into how youth determine whether they will pursue a traditional career that has been in their family or do something new.

"I think it's important for us to know whether there's a crisis up ahead and what we might want to do about it," she said. "In order to understand that the numbers are really important, but the stories are really important, too."

She said this research could be useful at a policy level. It could be used by government when it comes to granting loans if it was determined that money was the greatest impediment to young people taking over family farms.

Rick Williams of Praxis Research, which works primarily in fisheries policy studies, has just completed a three-year study on rural labour supply demographics, primarily in the fishing industry.

He said in 2016, up to 40 per cent of Atlantic fishing captains planned to retire within 10 years.

Problem affects many industries

Williams said there has been a dramatic decline in the number of young people coming into the fishing industry over the last 20 years. He said this could affect where licences go once fishing captains retire.

He said this problem is affecting many different industries in the province. "The current demographic for rural regions in Nova Scotia is for every 100 people that retire in the next 10 years, there only are 75 young people to replace them."

Elspeth McLean-Wile (left), owner of Wile’s Lake Farm Market in Wileville, N.S., said youth employment rates have changed drastically in the time she has been in business. (Elspeth McLean-Wile)

Elspeth McLean-Wile of Wile's Lake Farm Market in Wileville, N.S., said that employment rates have changed drastically in her 33 years in business.

But in the past three-to-five years, she said she and her husband have been finding it increasingly difficult to find youth to employ in their seasonal business. She said they were unable to find anyone to work in their greenhouse this year.

Despite being able to hire great youth over the years, she said there has been a general change in work ethic and availability. She said students would often stay through their high school and university years.

Workers demand flexibility

She said this is no longer the case, and she believes the perspective for how work fits in life has changed in youth.

"They want their employer to be very flexible in adapting to their needs outside of the workplace," she said.

McLean-Wile said she is now looking toward hiring retirees to work for the business. She recently hired one after a student quit just a couple weeks into this year's busy season.

Foster's research project will look into what kinds of careers young people are looking for in the region.

She will be conducting a telephone survey with a sample size of 2,000 respondents in rural areas of Atlantic Canada.

Foster will also do interviews over several years with about a dozen rural families across the region. They will be families who either own farms, fishing boats or small businesses.


Danielle d'Entremont

Reporter/Editor CBC North

Danielle d'Entremont is a reporter and editor for the CBC in Whitehorse.  Most recently she worked reporting in Yellowknife, after working as a national news reader for CBC Toronto. She has also worked for CBC Nova Scotia in her hometown of Halifax. When she isn't chasing stories she is on the search for the best hiking trails around town.  Send her your story ideas to