Tom Milroy is managing director of Generation Capital Ltd. and a founding member of the Century Initiative.
Canada is an exceptional place to live, work and raise a family. Our stability and wealth of natural resources, paired with our educated, innovative and forward-thinking population, make us the envy of much of the world. However, our remarkable standard of living is vulnerable, especially if we don't get bigger – a lot bigger – between now and the end of the century.
Canada has always thrived in periods when our population has grown considerably. Every time our population has boomed, so too has our economy. That's why a cross-section of engaged citizens from across Canada, representing business, financial, academic and social sectors, is launching the Century Initiative, a long-term project with the goal of helping Canada increase its population almost threefold by 2100, from the current 36 million to 100 million.
This is an ambitious but necessary goal to ensure that our children and grandchildren have the same economic prospects that exist today and to ensure Canadians continue to have access to important social programs, such as universal health care and a world-class education system.
According to Statistics Canada, population growth in Canada has fallen by more than half from the early 1950s, to just 1.2 per cent today. That puts us on track to be a country of 53 million people by 2100, which will put us outside the top 50 countries by population, falling behind countries such as Madagascar and Burkina Faso.
At the same time, our population is aging rapidly – faster than any other G7 country except Japan. By 2035, one-quarter of Canadians will be over the age of 65, and the ratio of workers to retirees could fall to just 2:1 from the current 4:1.
The economic and social implications of this are dire.
Without a large and growing domestic market, there will be fewer housing starts, sluggish retail sales, less entrepreneurial activity and fewer jobs. Without enough people in the work force, we will not be able to afford many of the services that have contributed to our collective prosperity.
If the size of Canada's economy declines relative to that of other countries, so too will our global relevance. Canada will become less important as a trading partner and our seat at important economic tables such as the G8 will be jeopardized.
Our declining birth rate means we need many more immigrants to increase our population, but this growth must be planned and implemented in a way that will ensure Canada can handle more people without putting an excessive strain on our communities, services and infrastructure, which are already facing challenges.
Our education system is under tremendous pressure at every level, with class sizes growing and unequal access to quality education across the country. Access to skilled employment remains a struggle for graduates and immigrants alike, which is costly for the economy and diminishes the perceived value of higher education.
Our health-care system is straining as our population ages, with older Canadians facing more complex health challenges and all of us waiting longer for care and access to specialists. The proportion of high-cost users is continuing to rise, tying up significant government spending that could be invested elsewhere.
Canadian cities, where most Canadians live, are becoming less attractive to move to, with transit times high and housing unaffordable for many in our largest cities.
Rising child-care costs make it more difficult to work and raise a family – wait lists at some child-care facilities are more than a year long.
These cracks in the system are only going to worsen if we do not start to act now.
A new Conference Board of Canada report examines several long-term population scenarios, ranging from the status quo to achieving 100 million people by 2100. Its conclusions are clear: Population growth will increase the growth of Canada's labour force and generate higher economic growth over the long term. Canada's economy will be "significantly stronger" with 100 million Canadians.
With thoughtful, strategic population growth, Canada could unlock its tremendous potential. We could strengthen our educational institutions, build big cities with smaller carbon footprints, encourage the flow of ideas and people, spark investment and research in our growing economy, and support families in their choices to have children and to work productively.
We know we don't have all the answers or a clear road map to achieve these goals. No doubt, things will shift over the next 83 years. But we also know that small changes today will have an enormous future impact, ensuring that Canada remains the envy of the world for generations to come.