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A demographic calamity


Two years after I was born, Elvis Presley recorded and released Heartbreak Hotel. If you were an early adopter of new technology, you could have listened to it on the world’s first commercially-built solar-powered radio, also released that year.

John Lennon, then 15, first met a 13-year-old Paul McCartney in the basement of a church following a performance of the Quarrymen. He was impressed that the young lefty could tune a guitar by himself.

Presley and the Beatles would go on to enthrall baby boomers and enrage their elders. Now we are the elders and we are becoming just as much a problem to younger society as we felt our elders were to us when they ordered us to turn that damned music off.

In my birth year, less than 200,000 Canadians had reached the age of 80. In my lifetime, the group that has survived to reach and surpass its expected average life span, is moving toward 1.4 million in number.

The warnings of demographers regarding our rapidly-aging society are coming to pass and we are only beginning to recognize the fact.

Last week, the Washington Post reported that the retirement state of Florida was no longer the oldest state in the U.S. In fact, an entire region of the U.S. has surpassed it: the Northeastern (and formerly industrial heartland) of the country.

The combination of boomer demographics and the outsourcing of jobs has led to an exodus of young families from that region, leaving these states to become the early warning system of what happens to a North American economy when its population turns grey.

By the time a child born this year reaches school age, more than one in five Tennesseans will be over 65. By the time that child graduates high school, almost a quarter of Maine will be in retirement.

Are state legislators and governors getting worried there? You bet they are.

Are they able to do anything significant to avoid an economic collapse from rising costs of social services and a declining cohort of working taxpayers? (Maine, population 1.3 million, already has a waiting list of over 1,500 for geriatric health and home care services.)

We’ll see. Crisis often assists consensus.

This represents a unique opportunity for us in Alberta. While looking for Canadian equivalents of the Washington Post piece, I found a stat from the most recent census that I found surprising.

In Alberta, 70 per cent of us are still of the “working age” group, 15 to 64 years of age. That’s the highest in Canada.

That means whatever is going to happen in New Hampshire and West Virginia will happen here last, if at all. We are going to be able to observe what policies worked there, and which ones didn’t, to ease an entire society into an older, less productive format.

When your house is burning, you don’t get to consider fire prevention strategies.

But the risks are rising in many places in North America, and it’s worth it for local authorities to plan now, to prevent the future from packing up and leaving.

Those plans need to include strategies that city Coun. Buck Buchanan touched on last week. He suggested we need to act now to build better recreational capacity and add more of the amenities that young families look for when they decide to settle down.

If the choice is between building a new rec centre with more covered fields and a 50-metre pool today, or having an unnaturally large portion of your people sick at home or on waiting lists for institutional care (and few family members nearby to provide care) in the future, it seems like a good idea to look at the long term.

After a certain point, encouraging seniors to stay in the workforce longer just isn’t going to cut it. The type of economy we have built depends on having a large cohort of working-age people — and children — in it.

Alberta is well situated to avoid the demographic calamity that is already building in other places. We’re a young region, with the type of job prospects that attract young families.

But for every time we’ve heard that “our people are our most valuable resource,” we too often act like we mean “ourselves” instead of “our people.”

As we get older, it gets more important that we cater to the young. Legislators in the U.S., Japan — even France and Britain — are getting a little more desperate every year, as social service costs grow but the tax base does not grow.

Alberta — make that all of Western Canada — has a chance to preserve resources (that is, the pool of people of working age). We in Red Deer and area have a competitive advantage in attracting that pool to our communities.

Doing so can make our future more secure, even if there are infrastructure costs up front.

Elvis and Lennon were not immortal. Nor are the boomers who worshipped them. Retiring boomers will dominate the economy for a few years yet. But if we wish to leave a legacy, shouldn’t it be a healthy, stable society?

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

 
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