The most fundamental fact of Nova Scotia’s political thinking is wrong, but the secret truth is coming out.
The foundational message of the Ivany report, the economic bible that has set the course for Nova Scotia’s economy over the last 10 years, was that Nova Scotia is getting old, too old. And old is bad. It is the single motivating premise for all Nova Scotian political thinking since. Everything, it seems flows from this fundamental truth. It is repeated ad nauseum as the reason for every government initiative, every hairbrained economic development scheme, and every political party’s pitch.
But is it true? Are we getting old? Too old? Or is our greatest social/economic fear misplaced? If so, what about the fear-based decisions government is making?
In 1966 The Byrds recorded an album they called Younger Than Yesterday. The title was inspired by the Bob Dylan cover song (their 11th) that became the album’s most enduring hit – MY BACK PAGES. The classic Dylan song’s chorus claimed We were so much older then, we’re younger than that now. It may have seemed enigmatic. But it holds a great truth about the modern era hidden in plain sight.
Far from aging, Nova Scotia is younger than we have ever been, younger than yesterday, and even younger than we were when Ivany incorrectly identified aging as the ‘main’ problem with Nova Scotia’s economy.
To frame up the issue we need to really understand what year it is. Most people in the western world would say it’s 2019AD. Where year 1 is thought to be the year in which Jesus was conceived and born. Now, Jesus may or may not be an historical figure, and the best historical record from the time period would put that date to plus or minus 4 to 40 years. Because we live in a an increasingly secular society some call the years since then The Common Era, or C.E. rather than A.D., which they believe imposes an unnecessarily Christian orthodoxy on the simple idea of knowing what year it is. But in that case why stick with year 1? Why is it 2019 rather than any other number? The reason, it turns out, is purely practical. The main alternative is to measure and record history from the present. In this case the World Trade Centre bombing was 18 years ago. Woodstock was 50 years ago. WWII ended 74 years ago. The problem here is that this measuring of time would require the history books and everything to be changed every year. Having a year 1 date even randomly anchored in the past means that we have a static reference date that conveniently helps record the passing of time and lets us firmly place history on an orderly timeline.
So, it’s no surprise that we think of our age in the same way we think of Jesus age. We are born, we have our year one, and on it goes from there. The number increases every year. The fear of an aging society and it’s economic collapse seems so obvious. And worse, the story goes, all the young people are leaving and Nova Scotians aren’t having babies like they used to. Ivany must be right. Right? Nope. At least in economic terms.
Here’s the main idea. In economic terms we are not concerned with how long we’ve lived, but how long we have left to live. In particular, how many productive years we have left. And to be even more specific, how many tax paying years. This is what matters to our economy and our future. In this sense we are younger than we ever were, and getting younger all the time.
One hundred years ago in Nova Scotia life was mostly brutal and short. Most regular people did not see 50. Fifty years ago ago the ‘old age pension’ was set at 65 because 65 was OLD, and most people wouldn’t cost the system much because they wouldn’t live much past that. This was not a random made up number. Trust government in this sense. They did the math.
And they know the math now. They know very well that most people living today have every hope of living until their mid 80’s. And more, ever year that goes by that age gets pushed a little further off into the future.
This summer I had the great good fortune to be an insider at the original location of the Woodstock Music Festival in upstate New York for its 50th anniversary. I was at the gate as more than 60,000 people came through to celebrate the anniversary along with some of the original artists including John Fogarty, Melanie, and Santana. The average age of these folks was about 75. The surprising thing for me beyond the astonishing swirl of tie-dye was that these people didn’t seem old. They were just regular people, out to have a camp out concert. They were out to have fun.
When my grandparents were 50 they were old. Really old. Both my grandfathers at 50 were coughing spitting, broken and dying old men. The product of a (short) life of work in the coal mines with zero thought of industrial safety. Neither of my grandmothers had teeth at fifty. Smoking and poor nutrition from childhood had left them in rough shape. But things had changed by then. Advances in health care meant that they were old and unhealthy for a really long time.
We were so much older then, we’re younger than that now
Truer words were never spoken.
But all the young people are leaving and we’re not having as many babies as before!
These truisms are so ingrained in our thinking that politicians can repeat them in any setting on any terms and be sure to get an applause line. Mark Twain liked to say, “It ain’t what we don’t know that’ll hurt us. It’s what we know that just ain’t so.” The truth is that statistics for the last 3 years show a consistent and growing return of young people. More people are returning to Nova Scotia than are leaving. It’s an inconvenient fact that politicians and fearmongering media don’t like to mention. And how about those babies? Well, there’s two things happening. Mostly we live in a golden age of childhood health. The diseases of childhood from a generation ago, thanks to vaccines, nutrition, and great public health have nearly vanished. We don’t need to have big families because the kids are much less likely to die from starvation, war, and disease they way they did even one generation ago. The other factor is related to how long we have left to life. Women, and their partners, now knowing they are younger and more healthy than ever, are having children later and later in life. From most people’s perspective, certainly from an educational and economic perspective, that’s a good thing.
Looking in even deeper, for economic purposes, what we’re really concerned about is the productive years. The years spent working. The truth is that the ratio of the population 0-14 and 65+ as a share of the working age population (15-64), called the the Dependency ratio, is getting dramatically lower since its peak in 1961. Yes, so people who live longer may outlive their working, tax paying lives. But it’s not just about the people over 60 or 65, or 75, that count. It’s also the people 1 to 16. You don’t need a lot of statistics to see that these people – they are literally called dependents – are the big cost. Anyone with kids knows this. And with the baby boom we went through the most expensive years ever with more kids costing more than any time in history. The expenses are positive and negative: health care, education, social services, clothes, entertainment, but also crime, accidents, and care. It was an incredible expense. But few framed it as a problem. It was an opportunity for change. We called that change Growth, and government got pretty hooked on that dope. Today we’re also at a point of change. A return to a more stable population with the added twist that people will increasingly live very long increasingly healthy lives.
We’re healthier, more educated, been treated better, traveled more, earned more, and at 50, at 65, at 75, we have longer to live than any Nova Scotians before us. We will work more and longer, and we’ll pay more taxes – on income, on investments, on pensions, on RRSPs, and on consumption than anyone at any age ever before.
And we will work. Not in coal mines. Not in factories. Not in farm fields. Not in most of the places earlier generations did because those jobs do not exist. We don't need to rush to fill them, and we don't need to artificially recreate them. They have been replaced by machines. 100 years ago 80% of Canadians worked directly or indirectly in agriculture. Now that number is one twentieth of that amount and they are producing 10 times more food using 1/10 of the land previously required. And if history is teaching us anything it is that future efficiency, like in all the other occupations, is going to go up not down. We will work in creative industries. In the best possible future, we will work to make things better, to restore, rebuild, replenish. But most of this work will be in the world of ideas. much work will require stopping doing the things we've been doing to wreck the planet. Maybe we’ll work from home. Maybe we’ll work virtually. We’ll work because we want to. We’ll work because it gives life meaning and it connects us in a meaningful way to the world around us.
Maybe we’ll work for money. But even that seems like an old fashioned idea. Trading hours in our day for a share of the wealth created in the country. We are citizens of one of the healthiest richest, safest, most educated countries in the world – ever to exist in the history of the world. And citizens of a country, like shareholders of a successful company, are entitled to a dividend, a fair share of the profits, the wealth, and the capital. Our only real task is to work out the new way wealth is distributed if it's not the old fashioned 'working for wages' way. That’s the real economic challenge of the next generation.
So what makes a country or region rich if not ever more and younger labour force? Is it true that younger populations make richer countries? Absolutely not. Organizing the countries of the world by age, with sub-Saharan African countries like Ethiopia being the youngest and industrialized countries like Japan being the oldest, shows clearly that youth invariably correlates with poverty not wealth. Young people cost a lot. Think about it at your family level. Which costs you more, your kids or your grandparents? Maybe natural resources make us rich and we just need young people to extract them? Again, it’s not supported by the evidence. With the same example Japan has very few natural resources and many very poor countries are rich in natural resources. Studies – and there have been lots as you can imagine – show that it’s great systems, institutions, markets, and stability that make rich countries rich. It’s education, health care, public safety, and trust. It’s the ability to contract and be sure that things are as they seem. In short, it’s maturity.
So what’s the problem with an ‘aging’ population? And if we’re wrong about aging, what about all the radical political decisions that are being made to solve the “problem of an aging population”.
There’s nothing wrong with our aging population. We are younger than yesterday. Younger than we ever were before. And it just keeps getting better.
Fortune Magazine recently named the AARP as the most powerful and influential lobbying group in Washington. With over 38 million members the American Associated of Retired People is one of the largest and most powerful lobby groups in the world. It shows the political, social, and economic power that is just begun to be harnessed as baby boomers think about retirement with the time and money on their hands to shape government policy.
The intuitive trap of the ‘aging population’ argument is inherently Ageism. The ageist idea is to make a false equivalence between being old and being sick. Being old and being sick - code for being a costly burden to the health care system - are two different things. We will all die. And it is known that the last 30 days of life are often the most expensive from a health care perspective. But this is true no matter how young or old the population is. If we die at 50, 65, 75, 85. The cost is the same. The difference is that now, as we live longer, and we are less sick and unhealthy for shorter period, even at the end of life, we have many more productive years to contribute to covering that expense. Health care is a market like any other. Supply and Demand. The cost would not be going up to the stratospheric levels they are currently if we couldn’t afford to pay for it, or at least borrow for it. In fact, we’re so wealthy that we are almost certainly paying far too much for too little because of a bloated and useless bureaucracy, an organizational cancer grown on the system itself because of the availability of too much wealth, too much food for the system.
The problem, as is often the case with government, is that we’re solving the wrong problem. The obsession with growth is like filling a bucket with a hole in it. You have two choices. You can keep finding more ways to put more and more water in the bucket to keep it filled, which is our obsession with growth. Or you can stop. Just for a moment. And think about how to repair the hole. Think about where the water is really going and why. We need to stop, just for a moment, and consider where our capital, our wealth, is going and why. Where's the hole in our bucket? We need to ensure that the citizens of Nova Scotia, of Canada, are benefiting as they should from our vast natural wealth and that the wealth is distributed, both publicly and privately, in a fair way.
Aging is not the problem. And growth is not the answer. It may even be corrupt and immoral in a planet with a finite amount of resources that are rapidly coming to their limits - and that includes human capital. Amazingly, even the government itself is coming around.
This summer the NS government put out a statistical overview.
It shows the actual contribution of seniors pointing out, among many other things, that 44% of seniors volunteer regularly in the community, fully 25% of seniors remain in the workforce in Nova Scotia, and 25% of those are entrepreneurs employing themselves and others.
Far from an aging problem, the senior population is more likely the key to a successful society and economy.
Writing about life, citizenship, and Nova Scotia.