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Clarion Congress & Hotel, Io


Karen Foster, Dalhousie University (Sociology and Social Anthropology).

Topic: Seeing a Future in it: Generations, Work and Business Succession in Rural Atlantic Canada


In many countries, concerns are mounting around what will happen when the ‘Baby Boomers’ exit the labour force permanently. In rural Atlantic Canada, these concerns have crystallized around a looming crisis in the region’s independent farms, fisheries, and small businesses. Scattered statistics and anecdotal evidence suggest that as large cohorts of farmers, fishers, and independent business owners approach retirement, the next generation is not poised to take their place. My research, comprised of a regional telephone survey about work values, attitudes and experiences in rural and urban Atlantic Canada, and a set of in-depth qualitative interviews with entrepreneurial rural families (farmers, fishers and small business owners), endeavors to understand the sociological underpinnings of this ‘economic crisis’ in succession.

Preliminary findings suggest two compelling hypotheses in need of further investigation. First, smooth or automatic succession in family businesses is problematized by a liberal commitment—embraced by individual families and social systems such as schools—to children’s autonomy and self-discovery. In plain, people believe children should ‘follow their dreams’, and resist laying expectations on them, specifically the expectation that they will take over the family business when they grow up. Second, the discourse of entrepreneurialism animating social policy and education is narrowly focused on the business ‘startup’ and not the ‘takeover,’ such that young people with entrepreneurial ambitions and skills are trained and in some cases funded to start their own original ventures with little exposure to the possibility of taking on an existing business from a retiring businessperson. In the midst of mass retirements, this means there may be many missed opportunities for business succession.

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