Darrell Bricker: Demographic Changes Are shaping CAF Recruitment & Future Crises

An Interview with Darrell Bricker

“The collapsing global population is a big issue that hardly anybody is talking about today that will define a lot of the rest of this century.”

Demographic Changes Are shaping CAF Recruitment & Future Crises

What challenges does Canada’s aging population and declining birthrate present for the CAF, especially considering its existing struggles with recruitment and retention? How can these challenges be overcome and how is the CAF addressing them?

The Canadian Armed Forces currently faces two problems: 1) finding people to serve in the CAF, 2) diversity. The CAF can’t just have its heart in the right place, it must be truly representative of the Canadian population. There aren’t nearly as many men in Atlantic Canada to do what needs to be done on our ships anymore. We’re going to have to look to young women, new Canadians, and people from across the country. We must also think about trying to retain people in the CAF for longer. People in broader society aren’t retiring at 60, on full pensions anymore. The current structure was developed for populations that only lived until 65. The average Canadian is now living to the age of 82. Many of us are living much healthier, longer lives. There are a whole set of issues related to diversity, retirement policy, and recruitment policy in the CAF that must be better aligned with the demographic realities of today. We’re talking about some fundamental changes to the way that the CAF thinks about personnel.

Nobody wants to go work in a toxic work environment. That must be fixed if you want to attract more diversity to the armed forces, because—it’s the right thing to do—but it’s also necessary. We really must take a serious look at what our HR policies are going to be in the future. The CAF, as a workforce, is somewhat unique in Canadian society, in that, it has a huge reserve or part time complement. We will need policies that can attract more people into the reserves because that’s our force multiplier. We’re not alone in this. Every armed forces in the world is dealing with the same problem. The only places that have a surplus of young people to populate armies these days are countries in Africa. The rest of the world is going through the same situation—some even worse than we are. The populations of Eastern and Western Europe are in absolute decline. Canada’s population is increasing almost exclusively because of immigration. We just recorded our lowest birth rate in Canadian history last year at 1.6.  We’re no longer naturally replacing our population. This portends a much more difficult recruiting environment going forward.

After WWII—when we moved into industrial revolution 2.0—there was a huge migration of people from rural areas to urban areas, globally. This changed people’s motivations for having children. General trends show that when a society becomes more urban—Canada is an incredibly urban population, over 82% of us live in a community larger than 1,000 people and 40% of us live in the four largest cities in the country—people have fewer children. Urbanization changes the lives of women. When women began moving to cities, they wanted to obtain more education and become more educated than their mothers, or grandmothers. When you have an education, you want to participate in the economy, which has the effect of pushing marriage off further into the future for many women. In 1960, the average Canadian woman got married at the age of 21. Today, she gets married around the age of 30—if at all. Women also tend to wait longer to have children, and when they do have them, they usually have one. Having one or two kids does not grow the population—you’re simply replacing yourself and your partner. Today we’re half a kid short to even maintain the population that we have.

We are emerging from the pandemic but entering another period of economic uncertainty. People have children when they’re feeling hopeful about the future, and people are not feeling hopeful right now. This decline in fertility is going to accelerate. Every day the population gets older and less capable of replacing itself. This is an issue happening all around the world. In 2017, the UN projected that by 2100, we’re going to reach 11.2 billion people in the world. They just put out their most recent calculations and are now predicting it’s going to be down to 10.4 billion. That’s a reduction of 800 million people in just five years—nearly 1 billion. They’re still way, way off on this—it will even be less. The collapsing global population is a big issue that hardly anybody is talking about today that will define a lot of the rest of this century.

If you’re in the CAF or foreign policy community, becoming aware of what’s happening, understanding public opinion and what people who serve think will give you an awful lot of information about the political space you’re working in. The demographic changes I spoke about will really shape, not just recruiting, but the crises we will have to manage around the world going forward. The population trends in China, Russia, and the Middle East are going to have huge implications for the CAF’s interest in the international space in the future.

Is Canadian society polarized? If so, where are the fault lines? How might you distinguish populist, or populist-tinged political movements in Canada, from other political movements seen in France, the UK, and in the United States? 

I wouldn’t say Canadian society is any more polarized than it may have been in the past. If you lived through the 1970s and into the mid-1990s, Quebec separatism was a defining feature of our national discussion, which was pretty polarized, considering the perspectives of Quebec and the rest of the country. Polarization along the political spectrum—left and right—is something we are seeing more of. When you remove the national unity question from the table, and Canadian politics can focus on things that most other countries focus on—the economy, the size of the state, regionalism, class, etc.—these normal differences emerge.

I don’t think Pierre Poilievre, is any more populist than John Diefenbaker was. We haven’t seen the same edge that exists in other parts of the world around the question of the direction of the country that has typically been assumed by the populist side of the political discussion. The character of that conversation is certainly different than it is here. Social media obviously plays a part. Populism is a political strategy—a set of political tactics. Politicians decide to adopt an us against them rhetoric. So far, Poilievre has not embraced the more animating elements of populism from around the world, which often includes grievances or concerns regarding cultural and social change driven by immigration.

The populist outbursts in Sweden, Germany, the United States, and Italy are often anchored by this idea of cultural change taking place because of demographic change. Focusing on this issue has proved to be an effective strategy for populists. I don’t see Poilievre doing anything radically different from what Stephen Harper intended to do, which in his mind was opposing the Laurentian elites. Harper expressed opposition to the governing class of Canada. From his perspective, he was advocating for a voice that hadn’t been part of the Canadian political discussion, which has been dominated by a small group for a long time. To me, Poilievre is in that vein. On issues like immigration and abortion, he doesn’t really deviate from the other parties. He hasn’t really embraced the type of right-wing ideology you would see in the United States. His opposition is to the Laurentian elite and elite institutions. That’s not that different from what Stephen Harper did. I’m not lighting my hair on fire about a populist revolution in Canada because I just don’t see it. People are not particularly well informed about what is happening in other countries. They simply take foreign rhetoric that seems easy to apply to the Canadian situation and do it without appreciating that the same rhetoric doesn’t necessarily apply in the same way.

I think there is a certain amount of disagreement between the downtowns of our major cities and the rest of the country. However, this is a phenomenon that John Ibbitson and I wrote about in The Big Shift. Some politicians understand these kinds of divides very well and know how to use them to their advantage—Poilievre is a good example. You could describe that urban-rural divide as being polarized, but I’m not sure it is. Are some Canadians opposed to what they see as a ruling class that doesn’t understand them, and are they frustrated by that? Yes. Could that be defined as polarization? Maybe it can, but I don’t believe it is values-driven. It’s not the same as what you’re seeing in France, for example. We need a different type of rhetoric or language to describe what’s going on in Canada.

Something is happening in Canada though, and I think it’s the result of the demography and psychology of the country changing. Until the turn of the millennium, Canadians were deferential towards their national institutions, our legal system as it was defined, and expertise. That is declining to a certain extent, which has led to more scrutiny over what our governments are purporting to be doing on our behalf. Part of the problem is that our national government is completely centralized in this strange place called Ottawa. In Ottawa you can have an entire career in government, from the beginning of your professional career to the end. It’s almost as though there’s a clergy in our public service, that stays there, never goes anywhere else, and doesn’t talk to anybody else. We have a federal system in our country that promotes this dynamic to an extent.

Since the national unity discussion ended, we have been able to have conversations that some might describe as populist—not in the vein of Bolsonaro or Obrador, perhaps. What our conversations have in common is that there is an undercurrent of opposition to the governing elite. You can argue about whether that is healthy or unhealthy. We’re now seeing opposition to the moderate left and right, which have historically governed this country. That’s where we’re seeing the opposition. Is that populist or is it anti elite? Is the sentiment real? Yes, it is.

Ipsos indicated that 46% of people polled didn’t support the tactics of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ but sympathized with the frustrations of the movement – this number is even higher for Canadians aged 18 – 34. 54% Of Canadians did not sympathize with the movement. Why did young people appear to be more sympathetic to this movement? On what grounds did the truckers and the general population align? 

I think we are seeing lots of frustration today. There’s a general sense that Canada’s best days may be behind it. The younger generation does not feel like they’re going to live up to their potential, nor do their parents. Fifty percent of individuals aged 18 – 35 in the Greater Toronto Area still live at home with their parents. This inability to move into what we consider to be real adulthood is really frustrating for the younger generation. Interestingly, this is the same cohort that aligns itself with movements like Black Lives Matter, are concerned about social inequity, and many of the issues that have been so prominent with this current national government. I think they paid more attention to the frustration the truckers were displaying, as opposed to some of their tactics, or whether they were as respectful of law and order as political expression has typically been in the past. This generation is experiencing a general sense of frustration about not being able to make progress, and feeling like their future is being denied, so they’re upset. Younger generations may have viewed the type of demonstrations employed by the convoy as acceptable, whereas older generations found it to be more disagreeable.

While younger generations were sympathetic to those types of tactics, the things that lead to change in this country are elections. The problem with the younger generation is they don’t participate in elections at the level required to implement the change they want. Young people can go out and vote when they feel inspired, or when they feel that the election is of consequence—we saw it for Justin Trudeau back in 2015. But it’s like Halley’s comet in politics. There is certainly the potential for a generational schism in this country. However, it’s not only 25-year old’s who are frustrated, but also people who are 45. People who should be well on their way to achieving their middle-class goals—homeownership, a stable relationship, raising families, investing—feel like they won’t be able to. It’s not just young folks trying to sort things out that are frustrated, it’s the aspirational middle class that feels like they should have been able to afford the home in the neighbourhood that they want to live in, and they no longer think they’re ever going to have access to that. Two groups of people are saying, what’s going right now isn’t working for me. More disruptive types of politicians, like Poilievre could potentially speak to these people—that’s where his potential is.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



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