May 1997

Boom, Bust &
Boom, Bust & Teachers


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By Daniel Stoffman

Canada’s population is growing older. That has important implications for the public education system.

Statistics Canada’s projections for the next 10 years show a decline in the number of children nine and younger and only a small increase in those aged 10 to 14. This is the inevitable result of the aging of the baby boom, the one-third of the Canadian population born between 1947 and 1966.

The front end of the boom is moving out of its child-bearing years, and is being replaced in that category by the 20-to-30-year-olds, also known as the baby busters. There are fewer busters than boomers and that means slow times at Canada’s maternity wards for the rest of the decade.

Obviously, fewer young children means reduced demand for kinder-garten and elementary teachers.

This drop in the size of the youngest population cohort is being accom-panied by a rapid increase in the over-50 population, a demographic development that is also significant for the future of public education.

The combination of increasing life expectancy and continuing low fertility means that an ever-smaller percentage of Canadians will have members of their immediate families using the public schools. This phenomenon creates a problem for public education because people who are not using the system may become less supportive of it.

Meanwhile, two other trends - a brutal job market, especially at the entry level, and decreasing confidence in certain instruction methods favoured by the education bureaucracy - intensify the erosion of support for public education.

Anxious times

The job situation for young people is the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Youth unemployment is twice that of the general population. One in five people in the 15 to 24 age group have never even had a summer job, much less a full-time one.

Bright young university graduates who would be snapped up in normal times are either unemployed or drifting from one temporary position to another. Prospects for young people without higher education are poorer still because more and more tasks that used to be available to unskilled workers are being reassigned to machines.

This situation creates anxiety among parents who are no longer confident that a high school diploma certifies literacy and numeracy. One result is rapid growth in the private education sector, including commercial tutoring operations and private schools.

The Kumon Institute, a Japan-based franchise operation that offers after-school help in math and language, has increased its Canadian enrollment from 2,000 in 1988 to 27,000 in 1997. Meanwhile, the popularity of private schools owes as much to demographic change as to parents’ anxiety over their children’s futures.

Different choices

The Canadian fertility rate is about 1.7 children per woman, which is typical for a modern industrialized country. The result is that most Canadian families today have only one or two children and this means that private education is now within the financial reach of more Canadian families than ever before.

Middle-income parents who could never afford tuition fees of $10,000 if they had four kids to educate, can turn to private education when they have only one offspring. Moreover, many boomer parents delayed having children until they were in their 30s and many are in two-income households. This increases the affordability of private education still more.

Increasing competition

The public system is thus faced with the prospect of increasing competition from the private sector. This parallels the growth of the private health care sector caused by cutbacks in medicare and the unwillingness of aging boomers to tolerate delays or perceived lower quality of service.

In the same way, an erosion of confidence in the public pension system is helping to fuel the rapid growth in assets held individually in registered retirement savings plans.

So what should the public education system do to protect its position as a crucial part of Canada’s social infrastructure?

Dogmatic adherence to educational philosophies that have lost the confidence of the public, such as whole language reading instruction, is self-defeating. It will swell the exodus from the public system and that will cost teachers jobs as well as adding to the erosion of public support.

Instead, public schools must bolster the core curriculum of basic subjects and skills. And because demographic change means fewer people will be using the system, public schools must become more efficient.

That could mean, for example, that a school board decides to make do with a portable to accommodate a short-term bulge in enrolment rather than building a new school that will be under-utilized a few years hence.

The good news is that most Canadians understand the benefits that a strong public education system confers on society as a whole, including individuals who may not have family members in school. They will support public education but only if it provides results that meet international standards, both in terms of academic achievement and per capita cost.

Expanding demand

Perhaps the most profound impact of demographic change on education is to expand the market for it and this has positive implications for educators, including the 30,000 teachers expected to retire from jobs in Ontario public schools over the next five years.

The day is long past when entry into the work force marked the end of an individual’s education. Rapid economic and technological change means a much greater need for continuing education. That is why universities such as York have established branches in the downtown financial district. The growth of the Elderhostel program and the presence of academic lecturers on cruise ships testifies to the thirst for knowledge by retired and near-retired people.

The oldest boomers have just begun turning 50. This means that the golden age of adult education has also just begun. Professional teachers have the ability to absorb knowledge and impart it to others, a talent that will be in increasing demand in the years ahead. The inevitable growth in demand for adult education gives teachers an opportunity to exploit demographic change rather than falling victim to it.

Daniel Stoffman is the co-author of the non-fiction best seller Boom, Bust & Echo. He is a graduate of the University of British Columbia and the London School of Economics, and an award-winning journalist. His research into Canadian immigration policy as an Atkinson Fellow produced the widely-publicized study Toward a More Realistic Immigration Policy for Canada (1993).