Much like the rest of Canada, population growth has been carrying Nova Scotia’s economy to new heights after decades of challenges.

A wave of international and interprovincial newcomers in the past four years has bumped the province’s population growth above the national average for the first time since the early 1980s.

As a result, more workers and consumers have significantly stimulated the economy. Gross domestic product growth has surpassed the national average since 2019 with Nova Scotia hitting the fourth fastest growth rate in Canada over the last four years.

It’s quite a turnaround from its lagging performance in the previous three decades. But the demographic and economic boom is not the Atlantic miracle it may seem.

The province hasn’t been able to turn the momentum from the influx of younger people into better living standards—a greater productivity challenge that the rest of Canada also needs to overcome.

Per capita output in Nova Scotia and all other provinces shrank last year. This means less income was generated in the economy from all sources per person when adjusted for inflation.

And despite younger newcomers helping to tackle the province’s demographic challenges (low birth rates and rapidly aging baby boomers), its population still remains among the oldest in Canada.

A combination of ramping up capital investment, becoming more tax-competitive and improving education outcomes could help the province become more productive and prosperous.

This report takes a closer look at Nova Scotia’s recent economic resurgence and what’s needed to ensure it remains on the path to sustained long-term growth.

The strongest migration inflows in generations have boosted Nova Scotia’s economy. But sustaining or enhancing economic growth will rest on the province’s ability to attract (and retain) more workers and boost output per hour of work (labour productivity).

Recent developments are encouraging with prime working-aged people moving to the province in larger numbers in the last few years. A net gain of 45,500 people aged 25 to 54 from international and interprovincial migration since 2018 accounted for roughly half of the population growth. This sharply contrasted with the cumulative loss of nearly 900 people in that age group between 2000 and 2014, which materially hampered demographic and economic growth during that time.

Aging is still an issue despite younger migrants

Still, demographic challenges persist. Nova Scotia’s population remains one of the oldest in the country with a median age of 43.8 surpassing the Canadian median of 40.6 in 2023.

Importantly, prime working-aged cohorts represent a smaller share of the population in the province—and older age groups are overrepresented. This poses many issues for the labour market and how social programs are financed. A higher old-age dependency ratio puts a heavier burden on the working population to support healthcare and other costs related to aging.

Therefore, the younger migration trend must be sustained over the longer run to rebalance the province’s age structure. Nova Scotia needs to build on its reputation as a welcoming destination, and a place of economic opportunity and high quality of life to further attract and retain newcomers. But recently announced caps on temporary residents and new international students by the federal government are set to temporarily dampen the inflow of migrants over the next three years.

Productivity underperformance in the business sector

Unfortunately, the recent trend in productivity—the growth of which is essential for any lasting improvement in living standards—hasn’t been as encouraging. The measure of labour productivity (real GDP per hour worked) has declined in Nova Scotia over the past four years in the business sector. The underperformance dates even further back to the 2000s when it grew more slowly in the province compared to the Canadian average.

The weaker relative growth (or decline) has perpetuated a significant gap in the level of labour productivity. Nova Scotia’s real GDP per hour worked in the business sector has consistently been about 25% lower than the national average—ranking second lowest among the provinces over the last decade.

The gap is widespread across industries. All but four—information and cultural industries, finance and insurance, educational services, and non-durable manufacturing—had a measure lower than the national average in 2022.

Many factors have contributed to the low measure of productivity, though weak capital investment has no doubt weighed heavily.

Business investment in non-residential structures, machinery and equipment per capita has been among the lowest in the country in the past 20 years, ranking last between 2018 and 2022. Capital spending by businesses in Nova Scotia fell more than 10% in the last decade, echoing a similar drop in Canada. Weak investment has hampered the development of a more capital-intensive economy that leads to stronger gains in productivity.

What can be done to increase productivity

The near-term outlook looks more promising, though. Investment picked up last year in the province, and capital spending intentions show another big 16% jump this year as major infrastructure projects (largely healthcare-related) ramp up.

However, the broad business environment must be competitive for any rebound in capital investment to be sustained in the future. That includes tax rates, which are generally steeper in Nova Scotia than most other jurisdictions in Canada. This in part reflects the province’s relatively high dependency ratio, which puts a heavier burden on working taxpayers and businesses. Efforts to make Nova Scotia’s tax system more competitive without jeopardizing the government’s financial position would go a long way toward attracting the investments needed to make the economy more productive.

Educational attainment in Nova Scotia is also modestly lower than the Canadian average. This may have constrained growth in knowledge or other industries over the years. As of 2021, 32% of Nova Scotians aged 25 to 64 years old had a college certificate or diploma, and almost 30% had a bachelor’s or higher degree. This compares to almost 35% and 33% for Canada, respectively.

The good news is educational attainment has risen noticeably over the past decade, and the gap with the rest of the country has narrowed. That’s partly thanks to the wave of newcomers, many of whom arrive with a higher education degree. Raising workers’ skills, training and education are proven ways to increase productivity.


Robert Hogue, Assistant Chief Economist

Rachel Battaglia, Economist

Rajeshni Naidu-Ghelani, Managing Editor, Economics & Thought Leadership

Shiplu Talukder, Digital Publishing Specialist

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