Cana­da has a baby-making problem

Mis­sing mar­ria­ges, emp­ty baby carriages

By Peter Jon Mitchell
Pro­gram Director
Car­dus Family

Wed­ding indu­stry ven­dors are repor­ting a boom in bookings – or at least south of the bor­der accor­ding to the Asso­cia­ted Press. Couples who waited out the pan­de­mic are booking the­ir big day, as are tho­se who mar­ried during the pan­de­mic but are now plan­ning cele­bra­tions with fami­ly and friends.

The incre­ased bookings are like­ly due to a pan­de­mic bac­klog rather than an incre­ase in couples seeking to mar­ry. Still, like other aspects of life during the pan­de­mic, it may be too ear­ly to tell how COVID-19 will influ­en­ce social trends.

Befo­re the pan­de­mic, the pro­por­tion of mar­ried-couple fami­lies in Cana­da had been dec­li­ning for deca­des. At the same time, gre­ater pro­por­tions of unmar­ried couples are living toge­ther just as more and more young adults living life alo­ne, accor­ding to the recen­tly upda­ted Cana­dian Mar­ria­ge Map. In short, Cana­dian young adults are incre­asin­gly living alo­ne. And when they do mar­ry (or find a life part­ner), they’re doing it later in life.

The­re are seve­ral reasons why dec­li­ning mar­ria­ge is a con­cern, inc­lu­ding the cor­re­la­tion betwe­en heal­thy, sta­ble mar­ria­ge and a host of bet­ter social, eco­no­mic, and health out­co­mes in our lives. But ano­ther pres­sing con­cern is the con­nec­tion betwe­en mar­ria­ge: part­ner­ship and babies.

As we outli­ne in a new poli­cy brief, Cana­da has a baby-making problem.

The majo­ri­ty of chil­dren in Cana­da are born to mar­ried couples. Like mar­ria­ge rates, the fer­ti­li­ty rate in Cana­da has also dec­li­ned for deca­des. In fact, just befo­re the pan­de­mic, Cana­da reached a histo­ri­cal low total fer­ti­li­ty rate of 1.47 chil­dren per woman, well short of the repla­ce­ment rate of 2.1. Whi­le mar­ria­ge and fer­ti­li­ty rates are lin­ked, this doesn’t mean that a drop in one neces­sa­ri­ly cau­ses a drop in the other. The­re are com­plex social and eco­no­mic trends con­tri­bu­ting to both, but it’s dif­fi­cult to see a rever­sal in fer­ti­li­ty if fewer people are for­ming lasting, sta­ble couples.

The pan­de­mic hasn’t hel­ped mat­ters. Glo­bal­ly, we’ve seen women delay­ing or for­go­ing chil­dren during the pan­de­mic. Ear­ly pro­vin­cial mar­kers sug­gest bir­ths have dec­li­ned in seve­ral Cana­dian pro­vin­ces during 2020. It is plau­si­ble that Canada’s alre­ady wor­ri­so­me fer­ti­li­ty rate took ano­ther hit during the pandemic.

How con­cer­ned Cana­dians sho­uld be is a mat­ter of deba­te. Cana­da has lar­ge­ly mana­ged the issue thro­ugh immi­gra­tion, but this may not always be possi­ble in the futu­re. Dec­li­ning fer­ti­li­ty has impli­ca­tions for labo­ur sup­ply and the abi­li­ty to finan­ce our social safe­ty net – espe­cial­ly elder­ca­re – as our popu­la­tion ages.

Cer­ta­in­ly, eco­no­mic bar­riers play a part in the dec­li­ne of part­ner­ship and fer­ti­li­ty in that they make sta­ble fami­ly for­ma­tion and child­be­aring more dif­fi­cult. Incre­asing housing costs, unsta­ble job mar­kets, and the need for incre­ased edu­ca­tion and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion to com­pe­te in the job mar­ket can result in delay­ed part­ner­ship and fertility.

As Cana­da emer­ges from the pan­de­mic it is time to start having a sub­stan­tial discus­sion abo­ut the country’s sag­ging fer­ti­li­ty rate. A heal­thy plu­ra­lism respects that mar­ria­ge and chil­dre­aring are­n’t for eve­ry­one, nor sho­uld the govern­ment be play­ing match­ma­ker. But the­re is still a role for government.

Across the glo­be, sta­tes have tried to make fami­ly for­ma­tion and chil­dre­aring more affor­da­ble thro­ugh cash bene­fits, loans and other finan­cial incen­ti­ves. Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land eco­no­mist Melis­sa Kear­ney argu­es that it can be a tough slog. She points out that even coun­tries with gene­ro­us social pro­grams and fewer house­hold gen­der divi­sions have fal­ling birth rates.

Govern­ments can tease up fer­ti­li­ty thro­ugh gene­ro­us sup­ports, but they often strug­gle to main­ta­in fun­ding levels over the long haul. Demo­gra­pher Lyman Sto­ne argu­es govern­ments must address spe­ci­fic obstac­les to mar­ria­ge, fami­ly for­ma­tion, housing and edu­ca­tio­nal attainment.

The­re are com­plex social and cul­tu­ral con­tri­bu­tions to low fer­ti­li­ty that govern­ments are less equ­ip­ped to address, inc­lu­ding atti­tu­des towards mar­ria­ge, part­ner­ship and the value and pla­ce of chil­dren in socie­ty. Still, we sho­uld be inqu­iring abo­ut the fami­ly life young adults aspi­re to, and iden­ti­fy the bar­riers that pre­vent them from reali­zing the­se aspi­ra­tions as we exit the pandemic.

Peter Jon Mit­chell is the Pro­gram Direc­tor for Car­dus Family.

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