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Population linked to Island’s prosperity

More stable times: People hit the streets of Hamilton back in 2004, when Bermuda’s population was higher and the economy stronger

The debate about our population and the economy needs to happen without further ado. Make no mistake, this issue relates directly to the Island’s economic sustainability, its ability to pay pensions and provide social services, to keep its public debt under control and to provide opportunities for the younger generation.

If anyone doubted the link between population and prosperity, they should consider events in Bermuda over the past seven years. The opposite of population growth has occurred as thousands of foreign workers and their dependents have left the Island. Has it made Bermudians better off? Has it boosted local employment? Has it benefited local businesses and entrepreneurs?

After six years of painful recession, the answer is an emphatic ‘no’ on all counts.

According to government statistics, there were 40,213 jobs in Bermuda in 2008. Last year, there were 33,475 jobs, meaning a drop of more than 6,700 jobs in the space of six years. There are now about 3,500 fewer work permit holders in the workforce than there were then, but there are 3,200 fewer jobs for Bermudians, their spouses and permanent residents as well.

We don’t need an economist to tell us why an exodus of thousands of workers would lead to economic pain. It’s logical that when there are fewer residents, there are fewer customers for all kinds of businesses, whether they’re selling burgers or banking services, mattresses or massages. A smaller population means a smaller market. A fall in business means fewer employees are needed and that translates into fewer jobs for Bermudians.

The statistics bear this out. Gross domestic product — the sum of the total value of goods and services produced by the Island — was $6.1 billion in 2008 and $5.6 billion in 2013. That’s an 8.2 per cent shrinkage in the economy, but the impact is much greater than that when inflation is taken into account.

Unfortunately, Bermuda’s economic recovery from an awful recession faces a strong demographic headwind. According to projections by the Department of Statistics, the Island’s population will fall from 64,129 in 2010 to 61,566 by 2020, due to a combination of low birth rate, longer life expectancy and more people leaving Bermuda than moving here. But that loss of more than 2,500 people is not the only economic problem.

One in five of the population will be aged 65 and over by 2020, a total of more than 12,000 people, compared to about 8,700 in that age group in 2010.

If we continue on this path of declining population, the country’s healthcare and pension schemes will come under ever-increasing strain, as fewer working-age people pay into the system to support a greater number of seniors. The Government’s tax base will shrink — fewer residents mean less revenue from payroll tax, land tax, customs duty and vehicle registrations. Government would be faced with having to slash spending, increase taxes, or both, or suffer the devastating consequences of the public debt spiralling out of control.

The drop in economic activity associated with a fall in population may also mean fewer opportunities for our bright young people. The Department of Statistics report mentions the possibility of a “brain drain” effect, which would only exacerbate the economic challenges.

Having seen the impact of population decline in recent years, it’s somewhat surprising that a poll commissioned by this newspaper and published this week found that more than half of respondents would be against an increase in the population to boost the economy.

Nervousness about an influx of foreigners is not unique to Bermuda and is understandable. However, as we saw before 2008, the rise in expatriate employment was accompanied by more economic activity and more jobs for Bermudians. We could learn from the Cayman Islands on this score. Our fellow British Overseas Territory was suffering economic difficulties that echoed our own not long ago. Last year, the Cayman population rose 4.5 per cent to a record high of 58,200, thanks mainly to the arrival of about 1,800 foreigners, mostly work permit holders. During the same period, the unemployment rate among Caymanians dropped by 1.5 percentage points to 7.9 per cent.

Don Mills, the chief executive officer of a Canadian market research firm Corporate Research Associates, who worked on the periodic, HSBC-backed Bermuda business sentiment survey with Total Research Associates, has interesting views on the seriousness of the population trend.

“There is very modest potential for growth with the population that you have right now,” Mr Mills told this newspaper in February this year. “You have to find another 3,000 people to have any reasonable growth expectations. I would estimate Bermuda’s growth rate will be hampered by at least 1 per cent per year unless the population issue is addressed.”

Mr Mills is an advocate of economic immigration — the selling of citizenship to a limited number of wealthy individuals on condition that they each invest, for example, $5 million in job-creating enterprises. Just 100 of those would create many more than 2,000 jobs, he argues. Whether that would be supported by Bermudians is far from certain, but it is an idea that warrants discussion.

Prominent commentators in our community like Sir John Swan, Larry Burchall and our own columnist Nathan Kowalski have all signalled warnings over the potential dire consequences of continuing on the road of declining population. This newspaper will continue to highlight this issue and foment discussion of it, because of its fundamental importance to our future.

Mr Mills added: “There has to be a national dialogue on population. You can’t just wait another ten years — it will be too late.”

He may well be right.