New Brunswick faces a painful population crunch

The rapid increase in the elderly population is creating a fiscal crisis, which demands innovative solutions

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A shrinking labour force and a rapidly-growing population of non-employed seniors in relation to active full-time workers represents an enormous challenge to New Brunswick over the next three decades.

The demographic trajectory of New Brunswick has been creeping up over time. For every 100 working-age people, there were 15 seniors in 1971 and 21 in 2006. And the trend line is accelerating. By 2056, it’s projected that there will be 50 seniors for every 100 workers.

There are two worrisome trends for the health and solvency of New Brunswick.

The first is stagnation in the number of full-time workers. They’re most likely to pay more in income taxes and more in sales taxes. In 1996, just over 253,000 New Brunswickers worked full-time. This figure grew to 280,900 by 2001. Then full-time workforce growth slowed greatly, rising to 294,100 in 2006 and 297,300 in 2011. And between 2011 and 2016, the number of New Brunswickers working full-time declined to 296,500.

The second worrying trend is the accelerating number of New Brunswickers over age 65 who aren’t working full-time. They’re most likely to consume health-care resources, which absorbs nearly a third of the provincial budget. For a province already overtaxed and severely indebted, these trends demand a serious rethinking of social program provision and spending.

What matters in examining the two trends is the ratio between those working full-time and those over 65 who aren’t working:  there are fewer and fewer full-time workers than there are non-full time working seniors. In 1996, there were 2.77 full-time workers for every non-full-time working senior in the province. This ratio improved by 2001, rising to 2.9-to-1, and held at 2.81-to-1 in 2006. Yet beginning in the mid-2000s, it begins to dip, so that by 2011 the ratio was 2.52 full-time workers to every non-full-time senior. In 2016, the most recent census year, it declined further, to 2.12-to-1.

The rapid change in that relationship unfolds even though full-time employment among seniors is increasing, from only 1,800 or less than two per cent of seniors in 1996, to 8,700 or just under six per cent of seniors in 2016. Anticipated demographic and labour force trends won’t likely reverse this phenomenon.

Rather, the rapid increase in New Brunswick’s elderly population will intensify. Roughly one-sixth of the population will pass into the senior category over the next decade. As of 2016, there were 120,000 New Brunswickers age 55 to 64. In the same year, there were 78,500 people aged 10 to 19 – the people who will reach working age over the next decade. In addition, as Richard Saillant points out in his book Over The Cliff?, the prospects for renewed strong growth of the province’s labour force are slim.

This crunch holds serious implications for active full-time population. For example, while we all use health care, the degree of use and its cost rises massively as we age. As Saillant points out, as of 2011, New Brunswick spent about $4,100 per capita on health care. However, among those between 75 to 79 years old, the per capita figure rises to $12,400 and jumps to $28,600 for those over 90.

An aging population drives up public health-care costs, although Saillant recognizes that other factors such as compensation growth are an even bigger driver of provincial health-care costs. In all, health spending per capita in New Brunswick is projected to more than double to $10,000 by 2036.

For a province already facing large debt, low productivity and some of the highest tax rates in North America, the two trend lines ought to provoke honest public policy conversations.

Increased immigration can be a mitigating element but there are no silver bullets. After all, immigrants also age and the level of immigration needed to offset the rapid aging of New Brunswick’s population is probably unrealistic, particularly if they can expect a tax-heavy and entrepreneur-discouraging environment.

Ultimately, New Brunswick needs to have a massive rethink about public spending. For example, with improved treatments and pharmaceuticals, and the rise of more mobile forms of health care, New Brunswickers might rethink their commitment to more than 20 bricks-and-mortar hospitals that consume 45 per cent of the health-care budget.

This is only one area among many where disruptive yet-necessary market solutions will need to be implemented.

Patrick Webber is a research associate at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS.ca)


population, new brunswick

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