Nova Scotia ‘facing big shortage of workers’ was the headline from a forum of business people and politicians in the Valley this week. The tone was one of an impending crisis as the baby boomers retire and as there are fewer people to replace them. There were calls for the provincial government to get cracking and deal with it.

A couple of years ago, I met then-Opposition leader Darrell Dexter at my local coffee shop up the road at Tusket. We talked about this and that, but his overwhelming concern was about the aging population and the impending problem we face, and his hope to have the issue addressed. So if government is more or less under control after the budget, I’ll assume that he’ll have some kind of committee looking into it.

And here’s the first question this presumed committee should ask: How real is this looming disaster? Is it really something we need to panic about, or is it merely societal change that tends to be mostly self-regulating?

We’re not the only ones talking about it. It’s in the air throughout the Western world, and the debate elsewhere is instructive. In the U.S., it’s the alarmists versus the skeptics. The latter point out that the question has been asked before, notably just before the Second World War. The disturbing question then was: Who will man the factories when the men are off to war? Voilà, the women did.

Even now, they point out, more and more retirees are staying on the job. Labour force participation for people 65 to 74 is sharply up after declining for decades. This is partly because some Americans are working on to pay expensive health insurance, and more recently because many lost their savings in the crash. But mostly, apparently, it’s because retirement was oversold as a thing of glory. The bloom is off mowing the lawn and watching TV.

For more and more people, especially baby boomers who had defined themselves through their work, staying on in some form is apparently the new thing. That’s the U.S. But if you look around, you’ll find many like that, as I do, in Nova Scotia as well.

Meanwhile, predictions made five years ago that the U.S. would be in a labour crisis now haven’t come true. Admittedly, the recession has slowed things down. But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has warned against misinterpreting its data — saying labour markets are very complex things and statistics don’t say it all. People out of the workforce, retirees, immigrants are all unknowns who will come out of the woodwork.

A professor at the Wharton school of business in Philadelphia has made a splash by accusing big business of juicing up crisis talk to make it easier to bring in foreign talent because it’s cheaper “than to address their own retention policies and training programs.”

Nevertheless, there is something real going on. The vanguard of it everywhere is health care. Health workers are harder and harder to come by and the need is greater and greater for an aging population. Meanwhile, counterproductively, nursing degrees have been made harder to obtain.

Cracking health care is the key to the whole thing. A big part of it is education – making it easier to train nurses, and perhaps doctors as well, as well as reforming health care in other ways. Education — gearing it to the needs of the workplace – is a big part of dealing with other labour-short areas as well, as are social policies.

One letter writer to a U.S. business magazine bemoaned the fact that “too many young people are incarcerated or on probation” as a labour shortage problem. True here as well, and every one of those turned to useful activity is a societal victory. As it is when those with mental or physical disabilities can be put to work, or single mothers given support and liberated for employment. Are we and the NDP up to it?

The Valley conference, at Greenwich, mentioned retirees working later, greater productivity for those working and immigration. Alas, we’re being sued by participants of the botched immigration program set up by the Rodney MacDonald government. And we only get one per cent of new immigrants to Canada. Still, there’s the huge diaspora of Atlantic Canadians ready to be tapped if there’s something real for them to come back to.

What’s going on is large, slow social change, not just an economic question, and it must be addressed as such – if we can get our heads around the astonishing idea that our frenzied efforts to create jobs at any cost over the past several generations is now just a historical curiosity.

Ralph Surette

Ralph Surette

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County.