Thunder Bay and the challenge of seniority – by Joe Friesen (Globe and Mail – December 26, 2012)

Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

THUNDER BAY, ONT. — The history of Canadian wealth is written on the land here north of Lake Superior: the fur trade post that supplied Europe’s beaver pelts, the forest that yielded billions in lumber, the towering grain elevators, the smoking pulp mill, the railway that opened the West.

Fortunes have been made and lost in Thunder Bay through periods of boom and bust. In 2013, another challenge looms, one that it shares with the rest of the country: Thunder Bay is aging, and it may get old before it can get rich again.

With 7 per cent of its population aged 60 to 64, Thunder Bay has a greater proportion of people nearing the traditional retirement age than almost any other Canadian city. Rebecca Johnson, a local councillor who led the push to make Thunder Bay officially Age Friendly, has seen so many retirement parties she swears she won’t attend another.

But as the first wave of the baby-boom generation nears retirement, Thunder Bay is also on the cusp of a potential economic boom. There are 13 mines planned in the next six years for the region north of here, many in the area known as the Ring of Fire. Thunder Bay will be the hub for all that development, which includes building roads, camps, mines, as well as services for the influx of workers. An economic-impact study estimates that 16,000 new jobs will be created through the first nine mine projects.

With so many people poised to leave the work force, who will fill those jobs? Unemployment, slightly more than 5 per cent, is already lower than the national average. When the local economy crashed in the mid 2000s, many of those aged 25 to 45 went West; workers here tend be very experienced, mixed with a smattering of the relatively green. It’s also a region that has not attracted many newcomers lately.

There was a time when the mix of Finns, Ukrainians and Italians made this a multicultural, blue-collar city. But from 2000 to 2010, Thunder Bay attracted an average of just 135 immigrants a year, third lowest among Canada’s 31 biggest cities. If demand for labour is high, wages should rise to attract workers. But that process unfolds slowly and even then it takes years to train an electrician or carpenter or plumber. Competition for those workers is also expected to continue to intensify as resource development accelerates in Western Canada and Northern Quebec.

Thunder Bay’s demographic situation is in many ways a preview of Canada’s future. The aging of our society has serious implications not only for economic development but the foundations of the welfare state. Today there are slightly more than four people of working age to support every retiree in this country. That ratio will tumble to a little more than three to one by 2020, and closer to 2 1/2 to one by 2030.

In a speech earlier this year Deputy Bank of Canada governor Jean Boivin laid out the stakes: “Ultimately if we ignore the reality of aging and make no adjustments, the consequence will be a lower standard of living. An aging population implies a smaller proportion of working people relative to people not working. That means a pie growing more slowly than the number of eaters – less for everyone.”

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