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History Table of Contents
1992 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1992
Competitiveness and Social Justice: How Can Canada Have Both?

Special Seminar:
Inevitable Surprises – Demographics and our Future Society

Department of Economics, University of Toronto

After lunch, Mana Naghibi of the CIPA program committee introduced Professor David Foot, department of economics, University of Toronto. She did so in such glowing terms that some bloody-minded members of the audience were beginning to find him a hard man to like – a prejudice that disappeared immediately as he began to speak. He performed better than a stand-up comic, and offered a fruitful approach to a great many problems.

He used "overheads", charts projected on a screen, wider than usual to make it clear for an aging population. Foot argued that demographics offered a window on the themes under discussion. He was going to give a glimpse of Canada and Ontario through the window.

He had been in Rio de Janeiro last month where an entire United Nations conference on development and the environment passed without any discussion at all of population or demographics.

With the help of an overhead image of a population pyramid, Foot reviewed the history of Canadian population and gender. In Canada, fertility peaked around 1960, started down gradually in the early ‘60s, then plummeted over the late ‘60s. Twenty years later, then, there would be a dramatic decline in labour force growth. You’d want to stop building office towers. He had pointed this out to the property forum in 1987, only to be laughed off the podium. But now? "I am the guest speaker again this Sunday!" The big developers did not know their demographics. They’d had 20 years of growth and believed it would go on forever. Demographers had known back in 1971 that that would not happen. You did not have to be a rocket scientist to see it.

An economist by training, Foot was used to making assumptions. He made one now. And that was that every year you grew a year older. He had tested this assumption and knew that it worked. He therefore continued with the analysis.

The dominant feature of the Canadian population was what we called the Baby Boom. You knew where it started, 1947. And here they all were in 1986 aged 40 and pretending to be 39. They were now 45, their eyesight heading down the tubes. Eyeglass demand would be a booming industry. "I often think a great niche market for the 1990’s is going to be for bifocal scuba goggles," the professor said.

The boom peaked in Canada around 1960. The Baby Boom generation was born between 1947 and 1966. Real estate prices soared around the 1980’s when the boomers went out to buy houses. Declining fertility over the later ‘60s and through the ‘70s created what demographers called the Baby Bust generation. They were our teenagers today. They were in short supply, in great demand for baby-sitting by the boomers, hence baby-sitters now cost $6.00 an hour.

There had been increasing numbers of births over the 1980’s. Yet there was a decline in the fertility rate. The reason was that the boomers were now moving into their childbearing years, and though each would have fewer children over her lifespan, the boomers were around in such numbers that the birth rate would go up for a while. Their children made up what was called the Baby Boom Echo generation.

Foot confessed he enjoyed visiting the offices of senior executive vice-presidents of banks, silver-haired men in their fifties. They could not understand why their 29-year-old sons were still living at home. The men born in the ‘30s had faced little competition, and though they thought it was because of their talent and industry that they now held such responsible jobs, with six-figure salaries and carpeted offices on the 45th floor, it was really because they were in short supply. Foot liked to tell them so.

The 29-year-old sons represented a generation that appeared on the charts as a flat rectangle. There was a problem trying to move a rectangle up through a system structured as a pyramid. That was why there was urgent need for restructuring, and why the pyramid structure of authority was being changed.

Applying demographic analysis to the constitutional debate, Foot exposed a number of mistaken approaches. From here he passed to the crisis in eastern Europe, where misguided policies had resulted in underemployment and unemployment. If you did not provide jobs for your young people they would tear the country apart.

In the ‘30s and ‘40s Quebec had a higher fertility rate than the rest of Canada. But with the quiet revolution, the fertility rate began to fall to the point where it was now below that of the rest of Canada. And what happened when one part of the population began to decline in proportion to the rest? If that part took pride in its distinct culture, there would be a sense that the culture was under siege. The problem was not unique to Canada.

In Fiji, Lebanon, Israel, Northern Ireland, you had similar problems.

Widening the perspective, Foot said that the only countries with significant Baby Booms were Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. There was no Baby Boom in Europe.

In Japan there had been a different story. Fertility and the birthrate had plummeted after the country’s defeat in World War II. After suffering two atomic attacks Japanese women did not feel like having babies. It was some 20 years before a new generation began to arise. With these children coming of age Japan was trying to become an economic power and increase output despite slow growth of its labour force. The solution for xenophobic Japan was to introduce, not immigrant workers but robots. And in short order productivity shot through the roof. It had nothing to do with the brilliant style of Japanese management. It had to do with our dropping two atom bombs on Japan during the war.

When Japan was replacing workers with technology, in North America, Canada was facing the biggest Baby Boom in the world. And what happened when you absorbed great numbers of young people into your work force and you forgot to give them new machines to work with? Productivity went down the tube. Foot loved telling the private sector that a national policy of declining productivity was a brilliant social policy. It enabled us to create jobs for our young people, without their leaving or tearing the country apart. Throughout the 60s and 70s we focused on job creation, resulting in declining productivity.

In the ‘80s we were in the same situation as Japan 20 years earlier. With falling numbers of young people entering the labour force we increased immigration and discovered technology. Right on target.

We had done it correctly.

We had heard earlier about our lousy productivity. The figures did not lie. In manufacturing you could measure productivity accurately. But in services it was not so simple. How the hell did you measure the productivity of a Canadian bank? Or a university? If you wanted to assess our productivity the last place you’d want to look would be at manufacturing, some 20 per cent of our economy. That was not where we had been investing. You’d want to look at the services.

With a fast sequence of jokes, Foot illustrated the problem of electronic illiteracy in an aging population. Older people did not use bank machines, were incapable of resetting digital clocks or programming the VCR. The longer you lived, the more technological changes you had to adapt to. Even if you kept up with three quarters of them you would still be left behind. Hence illiteracy rose with age and the introduction of new technologies was slow.

With reliance on technology, literacy and literacy training became crucial.

Since women lived seven years longer than men on average, an aging population meant increasing the relative numbers of women. In 1981, for the first time in history, Canada became statistically a female dominated society. But nature compensates so that more boys than girls are born – 105 boys to every 100 girls just now. Somewhat defensively, Foot suggested an explanation of recent male aggression towards women. That concluded the "I’m-proud-to-be-male" part of his presentation, he said.

Still on the assumption that every year everyone is a year older, Foot used his charts to read the future. The group retiring in the ‘90s were those born in the ‘30s, the richest group in Canada. Did social justice require that we give them senior citizen discounts? "I was on Peter Gzowski’s [CBC radio] show. Gzowski was born in the ‘30s. ‘Yes, Peter, you have a good show, but you had no competition!’ I said."

For the first time in our history there were two seniors’ markets. A very small younger seniors group of Canada’s richest, and a much larger group of older seniors, predominantly a poor senior women’s market. Might not social justice in the ‘90s demand that we take some benefits from the rich seniors in order to provide for the poorer group? What we needed in this country were retirement village complexes, but no one was talking about this, not the public nor the private sector. The market would be like nothing we’ve ever seen and we were doing nothing about it.

In his last ten minutes, Foot made a rapid tour of future implications of present demographics. For instance, the only way you could keep Boomers employed was to flatten corporate structures. Instead of a lineal career-path you would have a helical one, with several changes of occupation. Day-care centres would be needed, with three soundproof rooms, one for the children, another for the grannies, and a third for the grannies to take care of the children. New school buildings would be needed but should be constructed with a view to re-use in the early years of the next century as condos for seniors.

What it came down to was the need for more farsighted thinking. True, politicians were elected for terms of only five years, but we had to think beyond the short-term. It was because of concentration on quick fixes that demographics were neglected.

Last of all, looking at crime, Foot said that crime rates had come down in the eighties, no thanks to the police. It was because crime was mostly a teenage occupation and in that period there were few teenagers. But while overall crime was down, more serious crime was up. The reason was that older criminals committed more serious offenses.

During the question period, the professor continued to show how demographics could cast light on almost any public issue that was raised. An academic colleague murmured privately that David Foot reminded him of the violin virtuoso who played only one note, explaining that while other fiddlers were searching for this note all over the gamut, he had found it. It was noticeable that the colleague did not risk putting this to the demographer, who was brilliantly capable of defending himself.

In the lobby, a smiling Dave Shea was demonstrating his economics machine with full confidence in its validity. It was as beautiful and enigmatic as a Tinguely invention.