She's gone b'y, she's gone

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A super low fertility rate (live births per 1000 women of child-bearing age) has been the reality in most of Europe for decades. And such a reality can have people do bizarre things.

Years ago I read about a Polish teacher who was arrested, late at night, up a ladder, at a house not his own. In court, he told the judge his teaching job was in jeopardy due to fewer students. So, he took it upon himself to target young couples - climb up to their bedroom, knock loudly on the window and take off.

His goal was to shock them wide awake and, hopefully, the fright would lead to a baby-making mood. And more babies were his job security.

That's not a Polish joke.

"No joke" is the incredible change in Newfoundland schools.

In 1971-72, there were 162,898 students, grades K-11; with 70,875 students in K-4, alone. That K-4 tally is more than the 67,000 students in whole school system K-12, for 2013-14. Astounding!

If grade 12 had not been added in 1983-84 the decline would have gone over the 100,000 mark for sure in 42 years. Had a teacher here, taken on the Polish initiative, he may very well have worn out his knuckles knocking on windows. And still lost his job.

Will we ever again have 162,828 students in our schools? Never say never, but Newfoundland's fertility rate of 1.45 (StatsCan 2011) would necessitate its population be around 1.2 million. Dream on!

Thus, it is not illogical to predict, it's all over - she's gone b'y, she's gone. Even if the 800 yearly abortions ceased, our population would still be spiraling downwards.

Are there any signs of more babies in the crib? Not according to the Conference Board of Canada; its prediction, our population of 527,000 will fall to 482,000 by 2035. That fall would have us back below the 1966 census (493,000). Jeepers creepers! The ?last one out, turn off the lights scenario? is really heading our way.

Former premier Danny Williams calls the Conference Board's prediction, "Bullshit". Let's hope he's right!

However, as a lawyer, William knows that facts beat bullshit any time. And the data shows Newfoundland has had a steady low fertility rate, a shrinking population for some time. Thus, betting the farm on a business venture without due consideration for that low fertility rate is to ignore reality at your peril!

And Newfoundland is not alone in being torpedoed by a sinking  population.

StatsCan's data (2011) shows all provinces with fertility rate less than 2.1 - the magic number of births just to sustain your population, never mind grow it. Thus, she's gone b'y she's gone is a national phenomena, except in Nunavut. Provinces now grow by immigration and migration or a combo of both.

Is there anything to be done to improve the low fertility rate? Better child care? More income support? More flexibility for women to exit and enter the work force? Better maternity leave?

If all or some of these factors were magical fixes then surely countries such as Denmark, Norway and Sweden - leaders in social programs would have stable if not growing populations. Sorry, all three have less than a two percent fertility rate. All three, like us, are dying breeds.

Since the 1970s Newfoundland (like many developed places world wide) has entered a new era, a new paradigm ? fewer and fewer children per woman of childbearing age. The population growth we once had is seemingly gone forever.

As for that 70,000 job openings expected in Newfoundland in the coming years, who is going to fill them? We don't have enough being born, thus we either entice those in other provinces to come here or increase immigration.

Maybe we will be on the cutting edge of robots on the job. Some employers would love that...work, work, work, no break, no time off, no sick leave, no pension. All no's and more profits - gotta love that! But will the robots be fun to be with, cheering on the Olympians?

As for immigration, so few immigrants come here, and many who do move on. If Nova Scotia has trouble retaining its 2300 or so yearly immigrants what hope do we have?

Why choose to live in Newfoundland when air travel from here is so costly? Why choose to live here with ever-rising ferry rates with vessels now in service less reliable than ever? Those ever-increasing ferry rates have an impact on the cost of family travel and the cost of goods we consume, as many products arrive here on trucks.

To have children or not to have children is indeed a personal decision. But that personal choice, which means fewer people living in our province, has all sorts of serious implications be it social, economic or cultural.

Who will work and pay the taxes to shore up unfunded pension plans and provide the budget funds for matters such as hospitals and roads?

What kind of millstone could Muskrat Falls become for a dwindling population?

What might happen to our economy if our heavy dependence on oil revenue should hit unexpected bumps?

Could our population take another unexpected nosedive if shrimp and crab stocks were to collapse as did the cod?

For the grey haired generation, we won't be around to see the potential serious ramifications of an ever-declining population. But you can't help wondering where it is all going to end. Who in Confederation Building is really paying attention to the fix we are in?

As for the childbearing generation, take heed of the old adage, "God helps those who help themselves", and have more babies! Don't wait for a knock on the window!

 

Andy Barker at abdp9@hotmail.com

Organizations: Conference Board of Canada

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Europe, Nunavut Denmark Norway Sweden Nova Scotia

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