The plight of New Brunswick's young3/4/2013
A few weeks ago, I handed my students in ECON 3905 – Contemporary Issues in the Canadian Economy – a challenging assignment. The context for this particular assignment was the public consultations by Finance Minister Blaine Higgs in order to seek input for the provincial budget that he will deliver on March 26, 2013.
I asked my students to write a short essay on the hot button economic issues facing their generation. They were also required to include an economic analysis of each issue and their prescription for resolving it.
There is no denying that their answers were predictable. Indeed, every New Brunswicker with a son or daughter, niece or nephew, grandson or granddaughter and all those who are in contact with young people at work, in the sports arena or in a volunteer capacity are familiar with the trials and tribulations, challenges and problems and the hopes and aspirations of this generation.
All of my students identified our provincial public debt as a daunting economic issue for their generation. One of my students had an incisive assessment on this matter: “It seems to me that the relationship between political expediency and deficit financing is far too strong. Too often will politicians choose to operate with a deficit budget in order to avoid raising taxes or otherwise inconveniencing the people in their riding. Getting re-elected is more important than the overall health of the economy.”
New Brunswick’s high and rising unemployment rate was the second paramount issue of major concern for my students. They offered a very pragmatic plan for reducing our unemployment rate. Their generation are strong advocates for public policies that support and encourage the private sector to lead the charge in employment creation. Indeed, they were astute enough to conclude that with government restraint, fiscal deficits and a significant public debt the employment creation capacity of the public sector is practically non-existent.
Along with diminished job opportunities and the specter of part-time, temporary and contract work, they have come to the conclusion that theirs is a generation growing up without job security. In this regard, one of my students wrote “for many young people of this generation, the outlook is grim.”
It was not surprising that my students expressed a high level of frustration with the contemporary post-secondary landscape. At a time when acquiring more human capital was essential in order to secure the jobs of tomorrow, they face considerable financial barriers to accessing higher education.
With rising tuition fees, financial stress, uncertain job prospects and mounting student debt, they proposed longer student debt repayment and a shorter time frame for degree completion. In particular, they were persuasive advocates for framing the debate regarding publicly funded education as an investment rather than a cost that will pay significant economic dividends in the future.
One student captured the educational challenges for his generation in this way: “The poor financial state of the provincial government, combined with rising cost of education, going to university is becoming harder for students. Despite the fact that post-secondary education is an excellent investment, the students are having to choose between long-term debts after graduation, or being without a university degree in an increasingly competitive international job market.”
My students were overwhelmingly in favor of shale gas development, so long as the provincial government enforced strict environmental regulations and policies. Their analysis referred to gains in public revenue, employment creation, disposable income and a new source of energy supply. Their assessment for this new resource was guided by the potential for sustainable economic development that is protected by environmentally friendly policies.
New Brunswick’s youth is cognizant that they are being squeezed between two crushing demographic cohorts. This takes the form of the bulge in retirements of the baby boomer generation and the decline in the birth rate at the base of the population pyramid. In consequence, they are going to suffer the economic impact of the distortions to our provincial population profile.
All of this is forcing our young people to shoulder the burden of repaying the public debt, paying higher taxes and making elevated contributions to their pension plans. They were also intimately aware of the economic impact to our provincial labour supply and economic potential as a result of the exodus of their peers for employment careers in the other parts of Canada and overseas. Their solution to this demographic deficit was to increase immigration.
My students recognized the importance for New Brunswick to acquire a global mindset and a purposeful international outreach program in order to diversify our exports and attract foreign investment.
Reading their essays was a bittersweet moment. I felt their pain and anxiety. I was also flushed with pride for our next generation of opinion leaders. Their essays were engaged and engaging. They were thoughtful, articulate, incisive and prone to suggest informed and innovative solutions.
Their submissions were a mirror to the hopes and aspirations as well as the problems and anxieties faced by a new generation of New Brunswickers.
We can collectively take pride in our young men and women who are growing up with a good economic compass to guide them through the challenges and opportunities of the new global economy of the 21st century.
Constantine Passaris is a professor of Economics at the University of New Brunswick. He was conferred the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 for his exceptional contributions to New Brunswick and Canada.