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Boom, Bust and Echo

by David Foot and Daniel Stoffman

Does everything come down to demographics? Is the study of human populations the key to solving all our nation’s problems?

According to demographer David Foot and journalist Daniel Stoffman, the answer is, more or less, yes. In the introduction to Boom, Bust and Echo, the authors do issue a slight cautionary note: demographics, they say, explain about two-thirds of everything. But that “everything” includes when houses will go down in value, what school enrolments will be a decade hence, and what sorts of crimes will be on the increase. If Canadians – especially their decision-makers – understood and trusted demographics, Canada would be a better place to live. In fact, say Foot and Stoffman, “demographics affect every one of us as individuals, far more than most of us have ever imagined.”

Thanks to media fixations, most of us know about the baby-boomers, that “bulge” of the population born between 1947 and 1966, said to be responsible for such current societal ills as complacency and overconsumption. But of course, everyone alive is part of a “cohort,” that is, belongs to a group born in a particular span of time. For example, if you were born in 1937, you are one of the “Depression kids,” which means, according to the authors, “it wouldn’t hurt to learn a little humility.” Because so few people were born in Canada in 1937, you haven’t had much competition, unlike, say, the poor soul born in 1961, “one of the worst years in this century to be born.” The first year of the ’60s spawned the huge crowd of late baby-boomers (dubbed Generation X by author Douglas Coupland) who were shut out of most of society’s good jobs by the mass of older boomers already ensconced in them.

So you see how it works: by your date of birth shall we know ye. As the acknowledgment of Boom, Bust and Echo states, this book began six years ago as an article for The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business magazine. So popular was Stoffman’s article explaining Foot’s demographic research, this book was born. Its conception, you might note, makes it one of the “Baby-Boom Echo,” that cohort born between 1980 and 1995.

Skeptics, such as American education critic Neil Postman, might say that just having all this data won’t help us solve our social problems. Foot and Stoffman would disagree. In 11 clearly written chapters and two appendixes they tell us how an understanding of demographics can help Canadians reform the health-care system, rethink education, understand the vagaries of the real-estate market, pick leisure activities, and transform the workplace.

If this sounds like too much of a panacea, you may well be right, because demographics cannot explain that remaining one-third of the equation, the wild card of individuality. Still, for politicians, educators, consultants, and especially journalists, Boom, Bust and Echo offers useful insights into future problems – and solutions. Its biggest drawback is that anxious and ill-informed politicians may seize upon the numbers as a justification for their various policies, thereby snuffing out the “one-third” of the equation that makes Canadians both human and unique.