Parag Khanna is the founder and managing partner of FutureMap and an author whose books include The Second World, Connectography, and The Future Is Asian. His latest book is Move: The Forces Uprooting Us, from which this essay is adapted.
In the early 2010s, my colleague Greg Lindsay and I set out to answer the question, “Where will you live in 2050?” The answer could simply have been “high-tech cities,” but which ones? Some will be sites of predatory surveillance while others will allow residents to preserve some privacy. Some will be in areas resilient to climate change, while others may well have been submerged by then. Some will have thriving service economies and lively culture, while others will have become the discarded “factory towns” such as those littered across Michigan. As we scanned the world for geographies that offer abundant freshwater, progressive governance, and could attract talent to innovative industries, we decided on … Michigan.
More broadly, we pointed to the emergence of a “New North,” a collection of geographies such as the Great Lakes region and Scandinavia that are making significant investments in renewable energy, food production and economic diversification. Not too long after living through Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Greg and his family moved from New York to Montreal.
Greg’s relocation to Canada is far from unique, and it represents a bet not only on Canada’s climate resilience but also its physical and economic mobility. These are the tenets of what used to be called the “American Dream.”
Even as millions of Americans intentionally relocate to more spacious homes to capitalize on the trend toward remote work, remember that millions more have been forced into mobility since the 2008 financial crisis, as firms collapsed and they were forced to downsize. On the surface, today’s trend appears to symbolize a return to the 1940s to 1960s period, during which about one-fifth of Americans moved every year as the population grew and expanded westward. But still far too many Americans are “stuck in place.” Instead, they should move to places where housing, health care and education are cheaper. As today’s hordes of unemployed youth look for work again, they’ll have to get moving to find it.
The American Dream needs to be redefined. Instead of owning a home, the new ideal should be mobility – enabling every American to go wherever they need to go, to where their skills are needed and they can earn more. Research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty shows that over the course of a generation, socioeconomic performance improves once families move to places with greater economic opportunity. Physical mobility, then, is the best pathway to economic mobility.
Coming out of the pandemic, perhaps ever more of them will follow in Greg’s footsteps and find the American Dream in Canada. After all, the “Canadian Dream” is much more attainable. Canada is a policy lab for experiments in reducing inequality. The country is far from perfect, but it ranks far higher than the U.S. in social mobility: Almost 20 per cent of Americans are born below the poverty line, a figure that’s less than 10 per cent in Canada. America is also going through its second eviction crisis within a decade, worsening both poverty and hunger.
Americans and Canadians have been moving with relative ease across their long interoceanic border for two centuries. The expansion of large-scale farming just over one hundred years ago lured 750,000 Americans to Canada’s Prairie Provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Today more than one million Americans live in Canada, and their numbers are rising. After 2016, it was Donald Trump’s election that drove a new wave north of the border. In 2020, at the height of the coronavirus, Americans jammed Canadian real estate websites, buying properties unseen. Canadians joke they’ll need to build a wall along their border to keep Americans out. At least Canada wisely banned certain assault weapons in 2020, keeping out the most odious American trait.
What Canada is also more clear about than America is its commitment to systematic mass migration and assimilation. While the U.S. convulses over immigration policy, Canada has far fewer qualms. Canada has entered the immigration big leagues, setting a clear target of 400,000 migrants annually to add to its 38 million population – a far higher annual percentage than the U.S. Canada’s “Century Initiative” openly aspires to grow the population to 100 million – at which point its population will likely surpass that of Russia. Is Canada the migration magnet of the 21st century?
Canada embodies the reality that immigration policy is economic policy. Its aging population requires caregivers; its eastern and Maritime provinces need to be rejuvenated with new industries, from IT to hydropower; its thawing frontiers require hearty workers to cultivate the bounty, and connecting its oilpatch and farmlands to global markets requires new pipelines and a vast freight rail network. There aren’t nearly enough Canadians to do it all.
One-fifth of Canada’s current population is immigrants, who account for most – and soon all – of its population growth, especially South Asians and Chinese. If Canada continues this high immigration trajectory, by 2036 half the country’s population will be foreign-born or have at least one immigrant parent.
Canada may pull ahead in the next wave of the immigration-innovation nexus as well. Canada is on the hunt for talent as it seeks to diversify its economy, and Indians are an easy target to poach. The number of annual Indian immigrants to Canada more than doubled between 2016 and 2019, to nearly 90,000, more than migrated to the U.S. Critics of Mr. Trump’s 2020 executive order suspending the H1-B visa program dubbed the order the “Canadian job creation act.” Next Canada could pluck from the 500,000 Indian-origin residents of Silicon Valley alone. American nationalists shouldn’t separate the innovation emerging within their borders from the diverse nationalities of the brains that produced them. Without the latter, much less would happen in the former.
European numbers may well expand alongside Americans. Like America, Canada has a large Eastern European diaspora, and as those homelands continue to depopulate while unemployment remains high, many of the jobless could skip across the Atlantic to join their relatives. Canada is much more like continental Europe than the U.S. or United Kingdom, which partly explains why its politics since the financial crisis has stuck to the centrist path of the Netherlands, France and Germany rather than the virulent populist nationalism of America and Britain.
Canada just had an election – and there was no insurrection. Meanwhile in America, the stench of Jan. 6, 2020, remains, and Democrats are looking at 2022 – and 2024 – with great uncertainty. Meanwhile, it remains unclear if even President Joe Biden’s insufficiently ambitious infrastructure bill and immigration reforms will see the light of day. Young people around the world keep a close eye on these trends, which is why they continue to flood the website of the Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS) to check their eligibility to gain Canadian residency.
Every March and April I get antsy e-mails and phone calls from friends in London, Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore whose children have just been admitted to numerous fill-in-the-blank universities in America, Canada, Britain and elsewhere. After debating the merits of the schools and countries, they thank me and go back to fretting about their kids’ future. Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a more frequent leaning toward sending their children to Canada. While American college graduates remain unsure what to do with their degrees, Canadian universities such as Waterloo have blended apprenticeships into their curricula as a requirement for graduation. This European-style vocational approach has proven very successful in adapting the work forces of Germany, Korea, and other advanced industrial economies to both global competition and technological automation.
There is one other major reason for youth to favour Canada: The vast majority of new jobs created are full-time rather than just temp work. Indeed, Canada’s immigrant surge coincides with oil’s collapse, meaning the country is betting on a more diversified economy focused on manufacturing and services as well. To cope with its growing population and to prevent an anti-immigration backlash, Canada needs to build far more residential communities, schools and hospitals.
In the recent election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party won primarily due to its strong showing in major cities even as they again failed to win the popular vote. This is vaguely reminiscent of the fate of the Democratic Party in the U.S.: urban and educated, pro-immigration and well-earning in the services sector. The urban-rural gap is common across the world. Indeed, it represents as profound a pattern of inequality as the disparity between North and South globally. But it does not have to be this way, certainly not in a wealthy country such as Canada that can make significant investments in digital broadband, affordable housing and skills training. The flip side of being a mass migration society is preventing massive inequality before it’s too late. Think “No Canadian left behind.”
The government does enjoy enough support to continue deficit spending and a strong fiscal program, which can also be directed toward national infrastructure upgrades and the low-carbon agenda. Canada needs a more robust coast-to-coast rail network for commodities and construction materials. It also needs to think about greater North-South transportation routes as agriculture expands. These investments will make Canadians much more aware of their bounty in the years ahead. As Canada warms, farming output has swelled, with organic farming and crop rotation across millions of hectares producing ever greater yields of wheat, legumes, millets, flax and oats. The acreage of protein-rich soy growth has also accelerated all across Canada. A single drone made by a company like Flash Forest can plant 100,000 trees each month, meaning billions more trees sprouting by 2030. Canada’s energy, agriculture and technology sectors are expanding in lockstep with its population.
These efforts would be part of a strategy to predesign Canada for a world of accelerating climate change rather than being caught off guard by it – something that is clearly, and unfortunately, the case in most of America. Whereas Americans have been flocking to low-tax but climatically troubled Texas and Florida, Canadians old and new are likely to become more dispersed farther and farther north. Towns in Canada’s inland provinces of Ontario and Manitoba are becoming much more desirable as the climate warms and Hudson Bay becomes a grand Arctic gateway. Shifting vulnerable coastal populations inland and away from fire-prone areas, planning flood control, fire management, and other municipal services, and building more grain storage and food distribution networks are yet more steps Canada can take to prepare for the inevitable. Simply put: Canada’s future human geography will dissipate beyond the narrow belt along the U.S. border.
Some suggest that Canada choose the path of “zero growth”: keep the population low, stabilize emissions and focus on domestic social concerns. Growth would decline for a period but eventually stabilize, while living standards for the existing population should eventually improve by upgrading technology rather than importing people. Of course, Canada could also reduce its carbon footprint simply by deploying existing technologies to green the extraction from its noxious oil sands. This could be done without returning to the boring low-immigration society it used to be – or abandoning the path of the high-immigrant society the world needs it to be.
The “Canadian Dream” is reliable, both today and tomorrow – a burden 21st century Canadians should bear with pride.
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