By Dave Wilkin and Ross Maund
Welcome to the third article in the “Big Challenges” series. Here we examine population growth and changing demographics and the potential associated challenges. Our charts depict global and Canadian populations and key demographic change dynamics projected 50 years into the future.
The world’s population is on track to reach 10 billion by 2055. Growth is driven almost entirely by less developed countries, while developed countries’ population growth remains flat. Without immigration to developed countries, their populations will most certainly decline, as birth rates have fallen well below the population replacement level of 2.1 births per woman (Canada was at 1.5 in 2019, third lowest among G7 countries).
The dotted green line in the graph below clearly shows rapidly rising prosperity in the developing world (88 per cent Asian), moving roughly an additional 1.7 billion poor/vulnerable people into the middle class within a decade. This increasing prosperity leads to a gradual slowing of global population growth. Clearly there will be human benefits and a significant impact in developing countries, accompanied by rapidly rising offsetting stresses on the world’s ecosystem and finite natural resources. The impact of these evolving trends must be factored into Canada’s climate, natural resource/trade and immigration policies going forward.
Canada’s population is on track to double to over 70 million within 50 years (StatCan’s high growth scenario, noted in the top blue line in the graph below). This high growth is driven by immigration and non-permanent resident growth, and we are now on this trajectory. Canada’s 2019 population growth was 1.4 per cent, the highest recorded and top among G7 countries. The UN’s latest Net Migration Rate forecast places Canada in the top five countries globally and triple that of the Europe + North America average rate. Excluding immigration, our population would decline (solid red line below, low growth scenario). At the same time, Canada’s senior population is set to double (lower dotted blue line below, high growth scenario).
Eighty per cent of recent immigrants reside in just 10 large Canadian city areas (2016 census), with the GTA rapidly approaching half (~38 per cent today). If this high growth rate continues, the GTA population rises to 10 million within about two decades (likely exceeding Quebec’s total population). At the same time, rural Canada’s population starts a slow decline (UN forecast, lower black line above) if current trends continue. Concurrently, rural senior population grows at an accelerated rate when compared to the national average. Muskoka’s population is forecasted to grow at a rate of about one-third of that of southern Ontario’s large urban centres, while aging faster.
Without immigration, our economy would be contracting, net of inflation—a sobering message that high immigration levels are now masking underlying economic weaknesses.
These population dynamics raise a need for understanding, discussion and government leadership as we look into the future. Some of the concerning implications to Canada’s future population picture includes:
- Uneven population distribution that will worsen provincial and regional economic growth disparities.
- Disproportionate infrastructure and services investment by governments, along with the potential of increased debt and tax burdens. Rising conflict for share of government services may grow, especially in sectors such as healthcare. With burgeoning population increases in urban areas and uneven aging of populations, equitable provincially funded systems across Ontario and Canada will be increasingly strained. The question of sustainability is critical, and solutions must be sought on a priority basis.
- Affordability of housing, already a significant national crisis, stands to worsen as high demand exerts continuing upward pressure on housing markets. More Canadians will be side-lined from affordable housing well into the future. Vancouver and the GTA’s real estate cost challenges, in part driven by offshore real estate ownership, require stronger regulatory standards and enforcement in many municipal jurisdictions to help mitigate the negative impacts.
- Additional GHG emissions will be one of the many outcomes from a rapidly rising population, challenging achievement of Canada’s 2030 emissions reduction target. It is very likely that achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 will be impossible.
- Rapid rise of a culturally diverse, younger and more prosperous urban population leans toward a more liberal orientation. A declining and more rapidly aging rural population with a more conservative orientation hastens the ‘rural – urban divide’, already quite evident in Canada’s most recent federal fall election.
A more divided and potentially weaker Canadian economy may lie ahead unless more pragmatic national and provincial leadership emerges. We need more discussion and clear consensus on:
- sustainability of Canada’s economy multi-decades ahead;
- population size, mix, distribution and rate of growth that best serves our nation;
- optimizing the benefits of immigration while mitigating the corresponding challenges;
- lowering barrier impediments to growth and prosperity for businesses and families;
- improved distribution and equity of income and government services; and
- a better-educated population accountable for personal health/well-being and much less dependent on government health care services.
These questions and more need discussion. Solutions do exist. Putting Canada on a sustainable path requires better government collaboration, in partnership with business and community stakeholders.
As these dynamics evolve, mitigating some of the negative aspects of growing populist/nationalist sentiments clearly visible in the US, U.K., EU and many other countries, becomes a priority. While excessive immigration rates can be destabilizing, Canada can strike a balance and mitigate many of the factors with which other countries continue to struggle.
Watch for our next article, where we explore the shifting world order and see how it may reshape geopolitics over the coming decades!
Read more in the Big Challenges Series here.
Dave Wilkin, P. Eng., M.Eng.
Ross Maund, career senior executive
Both are Huntsville residents
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