Category Archives: Demographics

How are we feeling?

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Is there some sort of correlative relationship between the health of a population and the condition of its economy?

We’ve known, for decades, that New Brunswick is becoming increasingly geriatric. Now, it seems, we’re also getting sicker, and in ways that are not exclusively linked to the ravages of aging.

A stern and alarming report from the New Brunswick Health Council concludes that this province “ranks last among. . .ten. . .on the percentage of the population that perceives their general health or their mental health as ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’. As for having pain or discomfort preventing activities, it ranks nine out of 10.”

Adds the Council’s CEO Stéphane Robichaud: “The proportion of the population with a chronic condition is growing and chronic conditions are appearing in younger age groups. The current trend is that a growing proportion of people are developing additional conditions as they age. The demographic trends have not taken the system by surprise; they have been expected and should have been better taken into account during planning efforts.”

Certainly, there’s a great deal of truth in this. But aging demographics do not entirely explain why health problems are cropping up with morbid persistence in ever-younger people in the province. Nor is it clear how a health care system that’s more concerned with palliation than prevention can fight the trend.

Recent research by Statistic Canada shows that the incidence of smoking in New Brunswick is the third highest among provinces in Canada – 20.9 per cent, just behind Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia.

A separate study by the numbers-crunching agency shows that as a percentage of the population, New Brunswickers tend to imbibe more heavily than their fellow citizens in other parts of the country.

When it comes to obesity, this province is also a national trend leader, especially among males.

In a CBC website commentary a couple of years ago, Gabriela Tymowski, who was identified as an associate professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of New Brunswick, wrote, “ While the numbers vary between surveys, recent indicators reveal 63 per cent of adult New Brunswickers and up to 36 per cent of New Brunswick children to be overweight or obese. At the most extreme classifications of obesity, New Brunswick adults have the highest rates in all of Canada.”

What’s more, she noted, “Obesity comes with personal, health and economic costs for individuals and societies, and here in New Brunswick we are heavier, more sedentary, smoke and drink more and eat fewer vegetables than most other Canadians.”

The economic costs of poor health seem self-evident. Absenteeism, short- and long-term disability bleeds skills and productivity from the labour force. According to a Conference Board of Canada report some years back, “There is a wide range of potential impacts of aging and poor and declining health on individuals and businesses. The indirect costs of poor health, including lower productivity due to short- and long-term disability and loss of future income due to mortality, provide some indication of the effects of poor health on productivity and, in turn, how well the economy can supply health care. For ten selected health conditions and chronic diseases, the economic burden (nationally) from indirect costs is estimated at $119 billion in 2010, up from $79 billion in 2000.”

All of which convincingly points to the link between the health of a population and the condition of its economy.

In this regard, Mr. Robichaud properly rings an alarm about a crisis in New Brunswick that’s not only humanitarian; it’s also distinctly and observably practical.

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N.B.’s immigration Catch-22

As New Brunswick needs immigrants the way a marathoner needs water, crossing the economic-development finish line is a goal that’s proving increasingly elusive.

Now, it seems, the province’s own systemic weaknesses and failings are taking a bitterly ironic toll on its ability to bolster its population and, therefore, productive workforce.

While spokespeople of either level of government are loath to publicly admit it, the problem is an outcropping of federal-provincial relations.

Ottawa sets the quota of newcomers for which each province and territory qualifies. These caps are largely, though not exclusively, based on demographic trends. Jurisdictions with relatively high populations, and growing job markets, qualify for correspondingly high numbers of foreign residents. In this context, New Brunswick finds itself queasily parked behind the immigration eight ball.

According to a CBC report last summer, “The departure of young people has quietly helped transform New Brunswick into Canada’s fastest-shrinking province. Statistics Canada says while Canada has grown by a million people in the last three years, New Brunswick has shrunk by 3,497.

“That’s equivalent to the entire population of the Town of Dalhousie, and double the decline experienced by Canada’s other two shrinking provinces – Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. Statistics Canada’s Patrick Charbonneau says the most recent numbers, which show the province lost 941 people during the first three months of 2015, is not only the biggest decline in the country, but the worst quarter the province has recorded in 35 years.

‘It’s the strongest decline since 1980,’ said Charbonneau.”

Meanwhile, according to another CBC report last month, “New Brunswick’s unemployment rate jumped to 9.3 per cent in January as the economy shed 1,100 jobs, (said) Statistics Canada. The monthly labour force report showed the province lost 4,600 full-time jobs to start 2016 and gained 3,500 part-time jobs. The overall unemployment rate rose to 9.3 per cent up from 8.9 per cent in December. . . The participation rate, which is the number of adults in the labour force or actively trying to get a job, of 62.3, is lower than provinces with stronger economies.”

All of which militates against New Brunswick’s chances of boosting the number of immigrants it can welcome to its shores – a requirement Premier Brian Gallant, himself, has said will be crucial to rebuilding the provincial economy.

“New Brunswick is facing a number of significant population challenges, including youth outmigration and a population which is aging at one of the fastest rates in Canada,” he said last year, as reported in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal. “When retirees leave the workforce, we must access new workers to ensure our economy thrives. As youth outmigration trends are projected to remain high, we are looking towards immigration as a tool for building our workforce.”

In fact, though, the federal government has only recently refused to reconsider the number of immigrants allocated each year, through the Provincial Nominee Program, to New Brunswick.

Said a spokesperson for Immigration Minister John McCallum in a Telegraph-Journal piece earlier this month: “Provinces and territories were consulted on 2016 levels in the summer and fall of 2015 and in early 2016. Their views were incorporated into the plan and the Provincial Nominee Program levels were maintained at 2015 levels.”

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A hand-out by any other name

Who says I'm not happy?

Premier Brian Gallant’s decision to ask the newly elected Liberal government of Justin Trudeau to pony up new money for seniors’ care in this province is a bold move. But it could also be a very bad one.

In his end-of-the-year interview with the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, Mr. Gallant welcomed an $80-million-plus increase to New Brunswick in federal transfers next year. “I am very happy to hear that we are going to have the transfer conversation,” he said, sounding almost dismissive.

Still, he continued, “I have always made it very clear that we need extra support from the federal government because of our aging population. . .New Brunswick is facing an aging population that is more significant than almost any other province in the country. Therefore, the federal government has an opportunity to test run what programs will work to overcome those challenges.”

This is the tried-and-true “canary in the coalmine” argument that one level of government, fiscally subservient to another, routinely makes when it can’t quite figure out how to address the economic and demographic realities it faces.

Newfoundland and Labrador now faces an annual deficit of $2-billion, which dwarfs New Brunswick’s by a factor of four. Canada’s western provinces, reeling under a spot price for oil that barely nudges the $36-per-barrel mark, are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Do these jurisdictions – whose populations are, by the way, also aging – deserve any less consideration from Ottawa than does New Brunswick?

Yet, Mr. Gallant, all of 33 years old, persists. This province, he says, could and should become a test lab for federal programs (read: handouts) over and above the Canada Health Transfer that will putatively teach legislators at all levels of government across this great, aging nation how to properly care for old folks in their senescence, in the sunset of their years.

It sounds great, but it feels wrong and for a variety of reasons.

Presently, even the smartest, most perspicacious New Brunswick bureaucrats can’t tell you exactly when, how or why the province’s aging population will compromise the ship of state in these harbours we call home. Some say, doom has already descended. Others insist we have several years before we notice a deleterious difference in our standards of living. Still others declare, optimistically, that septuagenarian baby boomers represent an untapped resource – a resource whose potential is yet to be fully plumbed.

What’s missing in all of this is real, credible research that would justify a broad, multi-million-dollar ask from the feds to address a problem New Brunswick hasn’t actually parsed with any degree of social-policy, let alone scientific, rigour. It feels panicky, precipitous and, in the end, disastrously misaligned.

There’s also something distressingly infantilizing about all of this.

Shall the rest of Canada care for the elderly in New Brunswick over and above the degree they already do simply because an actuarial table over at Statistics Canada shows that the population here is getting older?

Again, how many of these people live below the poverty line? How many live well above it? Answer these questions, and then, perhaps, have a useful, evidence-based chat with Ottawa.

Fundamentally, no government anywhere in this nation has money to burn. Our grown kids can’t find the sort of work we once hoped they would. They can’t locate affordable, high-quality childcare. They can no longer expect to be better off, more prosperous or happier than their parents.

Building the base for their futures seems, to me, a better use of public money than securing the dwindling years of people like me.

Trust me, I ain’t near rich enough to afford a government-backed handout to myself.

 

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How we live now: By the numbers

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According to Environics Analytics, my wife and I, both at the well-seasoned age of 54, are “striving startups”, by which the self-described “premier marketing services company” in Canada means that we belong to that cohort of citizens who are “younger, urban, lower-middle-income singles and families.”

Who knew?

I mean, I imagined I was getting my hipster groove on a couple of years ago, when I dropped a few pounds and started hanging around The Gap, snooping for 80-per-cent-off sales. But a full-on “striving startup”. I’m. . .well, flattered, I guess.

It’s a better demographic designation than this, perhaps: “The Cosmopolitan Elite” enjoy an average, annual household income of $469,882. They own their homes. Period. They all boast university educations. They are “white collar” (whatever that means these days). They are overwhelmingly, ethnically waspish. And their “sample social value” is “emotional control”.

As a white guy, born in Toronto, raised both there and in the “Little Toronto” proving grounds of southend Halifax, I should, by all rights, claim membership among “The Cosmopolitan Elite”. Instead, though, as a striver at the tail-end of the mid-point in  my productive career, I’m told I’m more like this cultural animal:

“Situated in once-thriving downtown districts, the duplexes and low-rise apartments of Striving Startups no longer anchor new and expanding neighbourhoods. Yet, these urban communities attract a mix of predominantly young singles and their families and single-parent families for their affordable rentals near in-town amenities.”

Do tell. “Despite modest incomes from jobs in sales and services, these households have active social lives, with high rates of going to bars, nightclubs and movies. Many like to exercise outside, running marathons and ice skating. Describing themselves as discriminating consumers, they follow the latest trends at auto, outdoors and health and living shows. And many have aspirations to improve their lot, with a disproportionate number going to career colleges, community colleges and management training courses.”

How a “disproportionate number” entering professional skills development courses becomes the X-Factor in broader, social engagement depends entirely on what you think should be a “proportionate number”. I any case, none of these metrics apply to me or my wife of coming-on 35 years together.

Here’s how we spend our time: Working, talking to our children, talking to our grandchildren, working, shoveling snow, woking, sneezing and coughing, talking to our children, talking to our grandchildren, walking, coughing, sneezing, shoveling snow, dozing, snoozing, sleeping, and, of course, shoveling snow.

So, then, what are we to make of Environics Analytics and its clever boys and girls who get paid for getting everything about Canada’s citizens so exquisitely, simplistically wrong?

Here’s what Joe Friesen of The Globe and Mail had to say last week about the firm’s proprietary propensity for pigeon-holing 37-million people for fun and profit:

“The labels may sound glib, but together they form a segmentation system that functions like a demographic decoder ring for Canadian neighbourhoods. [Environics]  takes each of the roughly 750,000 six-digit postal codes in Canada, assesses the households by age, ethnicity, education and net worth, and then assigns the postcode (usually just two blocks of one side of a city street) one of 68 demographic profiles. These 68 profiles form a snapshot of the way the Canadian population, in aggregate, sorts itself geographically.”

As proud members of demographic profile No. 52, my wife and I will be more than happy to wear that designation until we move to the country, where working postal codes in the last federal budget went extinct.

Much like, I expect, our good, aging, hipster selves did about four grandchildren ago.

Tuning out our insular attitudes

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In the time-honored practice of central Canadian commentary about what’s ruining the economically flaccid East Coast, only one thing’s more annoying to a Maritimer than a diatribe that manages to get it completely wrong.

And that’s one that manages to get it utterly right.

Globe and Mail writer-at-large John Ibbitson’s lengthy piece, entitled “The incredible shrinking region”, in that newspaper’s Focus section last Saturday, left me with the urge both to pat him on the back and punch him in the nose.

That, in an odd way, is his point.

“Disaster looms unless Maritimers work together to reverse the slide – and, in some respects, adjust their thinking,” Mr. Ibbitson writes.

Quoting University of Prince Edward Island political scientist Peter McKenna, he observes that “the Maritimes enjoy strong social cohesion. . .‘You don’t get that sharp polarization’ between left and right seen elsewhere in Canada. But there is also a downside: ‘a particular resistance to change.’”

University of Moncton economist Donald Savoie concurs and believes he knows what’s behind Atlantic Canadian intractability. “Our region, more than any other. . .remains rural,” he tells Mr. Ibbitson. “New ideas and thinking usually come from urban areas, which are home to universities, innovation and less social and religious pressure.” Crucially, though, Mr. Savoie says, “Our region also lacks the energy, entrepreneurial spirit and the desire for a fresh start that new Canadians bring.”

Ouch, indeed!

Is there a solution? Mr. Ibbitson and the men and women he interviewed for his story like to think so.

First, stop looking to Ottawa for bandaids. Governing politicos and their bureaucratic factotums there couldn’t care less about us.

Second, make sure that the Atlantic region’s private enterprisers are actually equipped to grow their various provincial economies.

Third, acknowledge that urban, not rural, centers are where the true action occurs. (A place like Greater Moncton, for example, already seeds southeastern New Brunswick’s villages and hamlets with far more economic capacity than they can, and do, account for on their own).

Fourth, create a single, inter-provincial trade zone in the Maritimes where modern – not archaic – principles of commerce encourage productive collaboration on government procurement, labour mobility and skills and professional accreditation.

Fifth, and finally, attract and retain immigrants. Lots of them.

As perspicacious as Mr. Ibbitson’s piece is, he is not the first (nor will he be the last) to imagine that these measures are long-term solutions to Maritime malaise.

The enduring problem in this part of Canada, however, has never been understanding the dimension of our collective economic difficulty, or even crafting handy steps to resolve it. The problem has been that we’ve never really wanted to confront any challenge that extends beyond our individual front doors or back fences.

The real conundrum here is not the fiscal morass that besets our governments or the associated demographic perils of low birth rates, aging producers and accelerating outmigration. The real peril is that though we know well what to do with ourselves, we simply choose to do precisely nothing.

In fairness to us, this is not a pathology exclusive to the Maritimes. “Head-in-the-sanditis” is now rampant in Toronto, Vancouver and Alberta, where home-buyers still leverage their futures against absurdly overpriced shacks on the wholly discredited notion that the status quo in human affairs is, somehow, an immutable law of nature.

It isn’t, and we on the East Coast should know this better than anyone in the country. More’s the pity, and the shame.

What is ruining the economically flaccid East Coast? It’s not central Canadian commentators. It’s not even Stephen Harper.

It’s just us. It has always been just us.

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The good news for New Brunswick: Here, in this place 

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“Finances bleak, but province not bankrupt” – headline news in the Moncton Times & Transcript, Friday, January 23, 2015

Dear New Brunswick,

Here’s what you do when you’re about to go under: Put on your Sunday best, paint a smile on your face, take a walk through all your favorite haunts, count your blessings, and, above all, keep your mouth shut.

You would not believe how ennobling simple measures can be when you are about to lose everything.

After all, what is “everything”?

Is it a house, a car, a snowmobile?

Is it a wife, a husband, a son, a daughter?

Oh well, easy come, easy go.

We can’t have it all.

Gone – that’s the poetry of our times.

Gone.

In fact, when you think about it (and you’ll have plenty of time for that), “Gone” is a pretty fantastic place to live.

No more obligations, expectations or dreams. No more plans, plots or potting beds. No more of. . .well, anything, really.

Just silence, sleep, and the slow inexorable crawl to the circus tent, where all are destined to find their final resting places – just some sooner than others.

Still, dear New Brunswick, don’t forget to slap on that lipstick, don that boater, adjust the suspenders on the oak barrel you’re wearing. The world is watching you. You want to be presentable when you finally succumb.

Don’t you?

Fear not at all, noble province. Those who were smart enough to leave in time to make their bones in far-off places – where big, rock candy mountains still transform black gold into fountains of toonies – will return to bless your own inert skeleton.

Speaking of them, what of Jules and Jim 15 years from now.

In January 2031, Jules is running a hand through his thinning, grey hair, glancing occasionally at the clock on the wall of the departure lounge. “Looks like we’re running out of time,” he mumbles. “What else is new?”

The storms of late December had minced the schedules of the one airline that still bothers to call on New Brunswick. Normally, any delay en route to the oil and gas fields of northern Alberta mean long lineups for itinerant Maritimers arriving late to Fort Mac’s weekly job lottery.

But, today, Jules doesn’t mind so much. His traveling companion is late. Might as well sit tight, he tells himself. A pipe-fitter by trade, 25 years of going down the road and back has taught him how to wait. He’s good at it; waiting and thinking.

He’s old enough to remember a different New Brunswick, when his native home was not just a regional staging ground in the brisk business of exporting human capital. That was before the Wall Street money lenders had called the loans, effectively throwing the province into receivership.

Really, he thinks, what other choice did they have?

In 2024, the provincial government had failed to make the minimum payment on its long-term debt of $42 billion. Sporting an operating budget deficit, in that fiscal year, of $7 billion, it had needed a miracle to cover its financial obligations. And there hadn’t been one of those in this benighted corner of Canada for some time.

Still, Jules recollects the word “miracle” being used when he was a boy and Greater Moncton, for one, was an authentic economic nexus of the Maritimes.

He checks the clock on the wall again.

“Where is that whelp?” he mutters to no one in particular. “The boy is 45 minutes late, and the plane is here, finally.”

As his 16-year-old nephew Jim’s bonded master, Jules is almost looking forward to showing his young apprentice the ropes in Alberta.

Jim, apparently, has made other arrangements.

Dear New Brunswick, here’s what you do when you’re about to go under: Put on your Sunday best, paint a smile on your face, take a walk through all your favorite haunts, count your blessings, and, above all, shout from whichever rooftop you still own.

Shout loudly and shout boldly.

“I am still here.”

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Giving thanks for the mercies of memory

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We stood at the tree line, exhausted from our short, but brutal climb through the forest primeval, transfixed by the view of the lake.

I hadn’t been up here in almost 30 years, and the younger members of our party had never seen this part of the family property.

“Wooo-hooo!” hooted my grandson from behind his father’s leg, “We finally made it. I’m all wet.”

It had been an idyllic Thanksgiving weekend in Port Shoreham, on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore near Cape Breton, where several generations of Bruces, Thompsons  and Towses had gathered to feast on turkey, lamb and nutloaf.

My daughter and her husband and their two children had come down from Charlottetown to join her parents, grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousin for the all-too-fleeting duration, and it occurred to me that some of us might want to take a gander at what I’d always called “the north 40”, the plot that lay above the highway that bisects the roughly 80 acres of land that has been in my family since the late 18th century.

“Who’s up for a walk?” I crowed gamely.

In the mid 1980s, my father wrote these words to begin his book, Down Home: Notes of a Maritime Son: “I am writing this in longhand in the house where my father was born, and where, if he’d had had a choice, he’d have died. . .Port Shoreham is not a port, nor a town, nor a village. It is a shore. It is a handful of old farms scattered over the low hills as loosely as their own sheep. Some maps pretend there’s no such spot, and even its name is variable, like the wind. At time, the postal address of Port Shoreham has been Clam Harbour, Ragged Head, and Rural Route 1, Mulgrave.”

Undoubtedly, there are lovelier places in the world to behold. But memories tend to make besotted admirers of those of us who can remember what this place was like in the early 1970s.

I was there, down by the ocean, preparing to skinny dip in the frigid Atlantic as my father checked on the work crew that was building him a cottage with an ocean view.

I was there, on the shore, as a total eclipse of the sun (the one Carly Simon made famous in her ditty, “You’re so Vain”) blackened the sky at noon.

And I was there, huddling with some local 13-year-old buddies around a fire on the beach as one of them gazed toward the far shore of the bay, about five miles away, and said, “You know, my girlfriend lives over there in Queensport. . .I could probably swim and make it there by morning if I started now.”

When we were younger, my wife and I would spend long, happy nights at the cottage and, later, the main homestead, plotting and scheming about our own building plans, our own ambitions for living and working in what was one of the more remote backwaters the Maritimes had to offer.

Still, Port Shoreham had then, and does now, a sort of sturdy resilience. Over the decades, legions of young folk have left and never returned. Some have, but the trend has been to empty out the working population and leave the flat, grumbling shore to the geezers and gaffers who remain.

As a result, perhaps, the area has never quite dies. Indeed, up and down the main street of nearby Guysborough, the seat of the county, evidence of a civic renaissance is everywhere. Banners fly as locals mix with tourists at pretty cafes and shops, festooned with homemade goods and specialty fare. There, along the boulevard, the Rare Bird Pub & Eatery jostles the Skipping Stone Cafe and Store.

Not far away, the Full Steam Coffee Co. shakes hands with the Harbour Belle Bakery. Elsewhere, the Osprey Shores Golf Resort caters to those of a clubbier mindset and the DesBarres Manor Inn provides a year-round destination for romantic foodies of every inclination.

These thoughts flashed through my mind as I, holding my grandson’s hand, peered off across the lake wondering about the future of this typical Maritime, rural outpost that somehow manages to defy its stereotypes.

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What’s so trendy about getting old?

It is the dawning of the age of senescence, and the evidence of society’s fallen arches is everywhere – on the covers of major magazines, at the top of Google’s list of most popular searches, with fashionably silver-haired talking heads, leading the nightly news.

Of course, we’ve seen this coming for some time. It’s been decades since the wiser demographers among us issued their first warnings about the geriatric crunch we now face. That most populous of generations, the post-war baby boom, would one day cease to be young, and the rallying cry for millions of arthritic ex-hippies would become, “You can’t trust anyone under the age of 50”.

Still, the Atlantic magazine’s October issue’s main story makes it official: As we’re all living longer, it’s now cool to be gramps.

  “Since 1840, life expectancy at birth has risen about three months with each passing year. . .If about three months continue to be added with each passing year, by the middle of this century, American life expectancy at birth will be 88 years,” writer Gregg Easterbrook notes in his piece, “What Happens when we all live to 100?”

What happens, indeed?

As Easterbrook points out, “Longer life has obvious appeal, but it entails societal risks. Politics may come to be dominated by the old, who might vote themselves ever more generous benefits for which the young must pay. Social Security and private pensions could be burdened well beyond what current actuarial tables suggest. If longer life expectancy simply leads to more years in which pensioners are disabled and demand expensive services, health-care costs may balloon as never before, while other social needs go unmet.”

On the other hand, he writes, “If medical interventions to slow aging result in added years of reasonable fitness, life might extend in a sanguine manner, with most men and women living longer in good vigor, and also working longer, keeping pension and health-care subsidies under control. Indeed, the most-exciting work being done in longevity science concerns making the later years vibrant, as opposed to simply adding time at the end.”

It’s a sort of glass-half-empty-full proposition, which is a safe call if you happen to reside in a relatively affluent, vibrant jurisdiction that offers plenty of professional and cultural opportunities to younger, well-educated workers.

But what if you don’t?

“The proportion of people aged 65 and older was highest in the Atlantic provinces and lowest in the territories,” Statistics Canada reported last month. “Among the provinces, the highest proportions of seniors were in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (18.3 per cent in both cases), while Alberta (11.4 per cent) recorded the lowest. The nation’s youngest population lived in Nunavut, where seniors made up 3.7 per cet of the population.”

Meanwhile, “Population aging was most rapid in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the proportion of people aged 65 and older rose by 9.5 percentage points (from 8.2 per cent to 17.7 per cent) between 1984 and 2014. Population aging was also rapid in New Brunswick and Quebec (+7.8 percentage points for each province) over the last 30 years.”

As laughably hip as the mainstream media likes to make growing old appear, economists pose serious questions about social and economic costs an aging, steadily less productive workforce impose on the generations coming up behind it.

“Age-associated declines in mental-processing speed, working and long-term memory, and problem-solving are well established,” writes Ezekiel J. Emanuel, a 57-year-old oncologist, bioethicist and vice-provost of the University of Pennsylvania, in an Atlantic piece, which accompanies Easterbrook’s.

“Conversely, distractibility increases. We cannot focus and stay with a project as well as we could when we were young. As we move slower with age, we also think slower. It is not just mental slowing. We literally lose our creativity. About a decade ago, I began working with a prominent health economist who was about to turn 80. Our collaboration was incredibly productive. We published numerous papers that influenced the evolving debates around health-care reform. My colleague is brilliant and continues to be a major contributor, and he celebrated his 90th birthday this year. But he is an outlier – a very rare individual.”

As for the rest of us, not so much.

That neatly explains the meaning of Emanuel’s article, the title of which I’m even tempted to endorse: “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”

A tale of two debt loads

Mountain of debt...maybe we grow accustomed to its face...

Mountain of debt…maybe we grow accustomed to its face…

Implementing prudent fiscal policy is, for finance ministers, like threading a needle with a tightrope. Just ask Ottawa’s Joe Oliver or Fredericton’s Blaine Higgs who are, for very different reasons, attempting to execute that particular circus trick.

In the wake of a C.D. Howe Institute report that calls for the federal government to loosen up on its avowed purpose to balance the national budget by 2015 come what may, Mr. Oliver thunders like a Calvinist preacher: “Our government will not open the taps on reckless spending. We will not go down that well-trod and irresponsible path to economic decline.”

Still, economist William Scarth is adamant. “The federal government should delay its final stage of deficit reduction by three years,” he writes in his report for C.D. Howe. “If its deficit-to-GDP ratio is held at one-half of one percentage point for three years before reducing it to zero, it is estimated that the nation’s unemployment rate would be four-tenths of one percentage point lower during this three-year period (the equivalent of 75,000 new jobs).”

He’s not alone in this thinking.

A recent Canadian Press piece quotes several noted experts – some of whom are not partisan word warriors – who point out that the Canadian economy is not, in fact, in especially good shape. Over the past 12 months, only Alberta has created any jobs –  and even there, 72,000 new positions are not enough to boost the flagging fortunes of Ontario, Quebec or, for that matter, New Brunswick.

“Balancing the budget is a political imperative not an economic one,” NDP finance critic Nathan Cullen says. “It’s like balancing the family budget and not feeding the kids.”

Meanwhile, Liberal deputy leader Ralph Goodale writes in a recent editorial, “For months on end, (the Harper government) dismiss weak employment numbers like the ones recently reported by Statistics Canada for the month of June – as just ‘monthly volatility’.  But it keeps recurring, month after month. One might ask, at what point does that so-called ‘volatility’ become an undeniable trend in the wrong direction. Or to put it another way, when will Mr. Harper pull his head out of the sand?”

Then, there’s David Dodge, a former Bank of Canada Governor whose Spring 2014 Economic Outlook for the law firm Bennett Jones observes: “It is. . .important to realize that in the current environment of low long-term interest rates, fiscal prudence does not require bringing the annual budget balance to zero almost immediately. Small increases in borrowing requirements to finance infrastructure investment would still lead to declines in the debt-to-GDP ratio. Moreover, with low interest rates, it is the right time for governments and the private sector to invest in infrastructure.”

Finally, the CP taps Bank of Montreal chief economist Doug Porter for his views. Says he: “The market is not crying out for a tighter fiscal policy at the federal level. If the government wheeled out a significant medium-term infrastructure program, I don’t think I’d have a big problem with it they can borrow very cheaply and there’s a pretty good case to be made that there’s lots of demand for infrastructure.”

Move eastward to New Brunswick and witness a whole different tale of woe. Here, Finance Minister Higgs would give his left pinky to own Mr. Oliver’s set of problems, i.e., to spend or not to spend.

According to the latest audited financial statements, the province finished fiscal 2013-14 with a deficit of $500 million (about $20 million more that anticipated) on a long-tern debt of $11.6 billion.

Meanwhile, New Brunswick’s population of 755,464 people continues to age, making a quick return to fiscal health about as likely as a late-July nor’easter.

Still, plucky Premier David Alward enthuses, “We are turning the corner and we see revenue projections on target or actually a bit ahead of target from what we are projecting.”

Of course, to do that, Telegraph-Journal reporter Chris Morris notes “additional revenues of $1.129 billion, a 14 per cent increase over 2014-2015, must be achieved.”

Not even on his very best day would Mr. Oliver walk that tightrope for Mr. Higgs.

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Fat and poor: What’s not to love about the East Coast?

Evidence of Atlantic Canadian exceptionalism mounts with each day that passes. Judging from the headlines, our position within Confederation has never been more secure, our role never more crucial.

Do we serve the rest of Canada as both the butt of their jokes and the source of their ire? Of course we do, and with brio, mister.

Merely consider the following from the Globe and Mail, Canada’s self-assured, self-identifying “national” newspaper, the other day:

“The number of obese Canadians has tripled since the mid-1980s, a phenomenon driven by a sharp rise in the number of extremely overweight adults whose health complications are expected to place a heavy burden on the health-care system.”

And where, pray tell, will we find the highest rate of corpulence in Canada?

“(The) burden is not spread evenly, with the highest proportion of obese adults in the Atlantic provinces and the lowest in wealthy and healthy British Columbia, according to a new study that predicts the country’s weight problem is only going to get worse, especially in the fattest provinces.”

What’s worse, the piece goes on to say, “the study warns that, if the trend continues, more than one in five Canadians will be obese by 2019. In five provinces – Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – there will be more adults who are overweight and obese than adults who tip the scales at a healthy weight that same year.”

Oddly, there’s no explanation for why Prince Edward Island, alone among East Coast provinces, is missing from the list. It’s conceivable that with a smaller population than Metro Moncton’s, the Island failed to impress itself as a province upon the study’s authors, one of whom is, herself, a resident of Atlantic Canada.

“We have a growing number of these people (overweight and obese) and we haven’t really sorted out the treatment. ” Laurie Twells, a prof in the faculty of medicine at Memorial University in St. John’s. “We’re not actually curing it (obesity). We haven’t managed to help people lose weight and keep it off, other than through something like bariatric surgery.”

Now, as other research links obesity with straightened socio-economic circumstances, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Atlantic Canada is not only home to the nation’s highest proportion of fat people; it’s also home to the highest proportion of poor ones.

According to Statistics Canada’s The Daily a year ago, “the income gap between the top one per cent and the rest of filers has widened over time. In 1982, the median income of the top one per cent of filers was $191,600. This was seven times higher than the median income of $28,000 for the other 99 per cent of filers. By 2010, the median income of the top one per cent of filers increased to $283,400, about 10 times higher than the median income of $28,400 for the rest. The income of top filers was increasingly dependent on their jobs, rather than on investments.”

Meanwhile, “in 2010, four provinces – Ontario, Alberta, Quebec and British Columbia – accounted for 92 per cent of the 254,700 people in the top 1 per cent.

Ontario had 110,300, followed by Alberta with 52,200, Quebec at 42,600 and British Columbia with 29,500. Between 1990 and 2010, Alberta’s share of the top 1 per cent of filers doubled from 10 per cent to 20 per cent, while Ontario’s proportion fell from 51 per cent to 43 per cent.”

The only reason why no Atlantic province gets a mention is that the incidence of conspicuous wealth in the region is so rare, it’s statistically insignificant.

On the other hand, reported the Globe last year, “new data shows the share of individual income that comes from government transfers is highest in the Atlantic provinces. Three of those provinces. . .receive slightly more transfers than the total taxes they pay. The main factors appear to be higher unemployment in Atlantic Canada – but also an older population.”

Uh, no kidding Sherlock.

To be sure, though, we along the seabound East Coast might yet salvage some dignity. A new Scotiabank poll finds that Atlantic Canadian small business owners are more inclined than their counterparts elsewhere in the country to work until they drop.

That, too, makes us special among our countrymen.

Still, who’s complaining? As long as it keeps our minds off the junk food.

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