By Derek Abma, Financial PostApril 28, 2010
OTTAWA — Labour shortages caused by the onslaught of baby-boomer retirements will be "the dominant economic trend" in Canada between 2015 and 2030, due to the limits it will place on the country's economic growth, says a Conference Board of Canada report released Wednesday.
Defining the boomer generation as those born between 1947 and 1966, the report says the oldest members of this cohort are turning 63 this year. With an average retirement age of 61, the Conference Board concludes that "the wave of baby-boomer retirements has now begun."
Because the biggest part of this generation is at the younger end, the pace of retirements will accelerate in future years, the think-tank says.
The implications of the shrinking labour pool will be less economic growth, said Pedro Antunes, the Conference Board's director of national and provincial outlooks and author of the report.
He said Canada can expect relatively strong economic growth of more than three per cent, on average, between now and 2015. That's anticipated to slow to about two per cent between 2015 and 2020, and dip below two per cent beyond that until around 2030.
"Why is that important? Why growth for the sake of growth?" Antunes asked rhetorically. "What's really important are two things.
"One is, are we growing richer? Is the average household getting more real income per capita?
"The other factor is . . . we need to be able to grow the economy enough so that we can afford to pay for health care, education and other programs."
The federal government's current deficit position is "manageable," the Conference Board said in its report. However, it sees provincial deficits as more difficult to deal with, largely as a result of the increasing demands that will come of the health-care system, which provinces are primarily responsible for.
Some of the things that might be done, Antunes said, is increasing productivity through investments in equipment and technology, developing more efficient delivery of health care and government cutbacks in areas of spending deemed less crucial.
James Chauvin, policy director for the Canadian Public Health Association, which calls itself "the independent voice for public health in Canada," said his group urges more preventive health measures — such as promoting better awareness of physical fitness, nutrition and cardiovascular health — to help bring down demand on hospitals and doctors.
He also said government health policy should be expanded to cover areas such as housing, income and food security, which can be social determinants of people's health conditions.
The Conference Board's outlook assumes an immigration rate of 350,000 people a year by 2030, up from the current rate of about 250,000, according to figures for 2008. Antunes said this expectation is "optimistic" and still isn't likely to create the kind of economic growth needed to support social programs at current standards.
"Strong immigration will not reverse Canada's aging trend, but it will help keep total population growth relatively stable throughout the forecast period. By 2030, Canada's population will reach 41.7 million, up from 33.6 million in 2009," Antunes said.
Asked if higher immigration targets should be considered, Antunes said: "It's possible . . . Part of the analysis is to generate some discussion."
But even if Canada decided to open the doors wider to immigrants, Antunes said the country would face challenges with increasing competition from other industrialized nations to attract newcomers, and in making sure the people that come are qualified to do the jobs for which they're needed.
Kelli Fraser, a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said the government is targeting between 240,000 and 265,000 immigrants this year, which she said is among the highest relative rates for industrialized countries.
She said there were no long-term immigration targets available, but that "the immigration program is constantly evolving to respond to Canada's changing economic goals."
Antunes said the coming demographic trends provide some upside for those who remain in the workforce in the form of higher pay and more choice. But this is unlikely to apply to low-skill jobs, for which companies will continue to look to countries where people work for less pay. In Canada, it's those working in higher-skill, value-added professions that will benefit from boomer retirements, he said.
"It has to be a win-win situation for everyone, otherwise investment goes elsewhere," Antunes said. "In the long run, we have to make sure that we're competitive. We have to make sure that we can afford those higher wages. And part of the answer is a more productive economy, more educated workforce, because we can't compete . . . in low-wage, high-labour-intensive manufacturing."
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