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Where Have All the Babies Gone? The Unmet Fertility Goals of Canadian Women | C2C Journal

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That said, it’s important not to pass judgment. These women are correct in their assessment of the importance of self-development to modern life. The events that provoke and stimulate maturity have been coming later and later for Canadians in the 21st century. Job market demands for higher degrees and advanced certifications mean schooling often isn’t finished for students until they are deep into their 20s or even later. As a result, the adolescent nature of student-hood is extended.

After education come internships, apprenticeships, fellowships, contract jobs and gig work. Homeownership, another practical marker of adulthood, has become ever-more expensive, with rates among the young plummeting. And so the age of marriage is also delayed, if it comes at all. Young people aren’t wrong to think they might need more development before becoming parents, because society has systematically delayed the life events and stages which facilitate the transition to confident adulthood – often starting with the “helicopter” parenting I talked about at the beginning.

Finishing education, securing a good job and buying a home are markers of stable adulthood which many think they need before starting a family, but which keep getting pushed later into life. (Source of photos except top left: Pexels)

Concerns about delayed stability and adulthood showed up repeatedly in our survey. Women who reported having unstable employment also reported 9 percent lower expectations of having a child in the near future than women with a good job. Women who said they had low-paying jobs reported 14 percent lower odds. Women concerned about housing costs had 12 percent lower odds. On the other hand, too much of a good thing was also bad, as excessively long working hours led to 15 percent lower expectations of near-term childbearing. Being in post-secondary education reduced odds by 19 percent – a similar effect to living with one’s parents. Again, this isn’t to say young adults could just “opt out” of this very delayed life course: poorly educated and lower-income Canadians have similar or even larger gaps between their desires and outcomes.

The Busyness of Modern Parenting

When young or young-ish adults finally get to a stage in life where they feel they can have kids, they do so with extraordinary levels of planning and complexity. Apps and wearable devices to track ovulation. Scheduled deliveries. Intense deliberation over the details of a birth plan. I know – my wife and I did all this, too. Such high-intensity parenting doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from the recognition that some people have advantages practically from the moment they are born and that these advantages help them get ahead in life. Modern parents want their children to have all of those advantages, and so their capstone kid will be parented with all the intensity necessary to assure their success.

Factors like housing or childcare costs do matter for family. But my research for Cardus found that these particular costs were often secondary. Financial factors are less significant to the probability of childbearing in the near future than the personal growth and career concerns mentioned earlier. The problem young people face is not just housing costs, or childcare costs, or leave time or student debt. It’s the additive effect of escalating demands for credentials and skills and costs of childrearing leading to ever-more-delayed family formation, which feeds into a self-sabotaging fixation on self-development. Factors like, “I’m still exploring who I am” or, “I’m still in school” or, “I live with my parents” appear to play a bigger role in women’s family plans than housing costs or lack of childcare. (Government family policies, however, typically focus on these latter, less-important areas.)

“Capstone kids”: When young adults are ready to have children, they do so with extraordinary levels of planning and complexity; modern parents believe a constant stream of activities will give their offspring advantages for later life.

This research suggests that Canadian fertility isn’t low just due to various direct financial barriers. It’s low because the entire modern life sequence in industrialized countries is becoming hostile to the biological timeline of fertility. Moreover, women’s fertile years are just one of several life schedules that regulate family formation. Only one of the 2,700 women in the survey reported lack of access to in vitro fertilization as a serious fertility barrier, suggesting purely biological constraints aren’t the issue.

And even if people could have kids at age 49, would it be as fun to play baseball with your 12-year-old when you’re 61 as it is at 41? Will you ever meet your grandchildren? Until we find a way to get more young people done with their education, gainfully employed, owning a home and married at age 25, fertility rates will continue to fall. As a result, parenting will get even more intense, childhood more competitive, and each generation of kids will face an even harder ladder to climb.

The end-stage of this process can be seen in places such as South Korea or Puerto Rico, where fertility rates have fallen substantially below one child per woman. The results include rising poverty among seniors as existing workers cannot sustain generous intergenerational transfers, infrastructure that is slipping into decrepitude and troublingly high levels of emigration among the remaining cohort of young people.

Fertility rates are falling around the world, with South Korea having dropped below one child per woman; the consequences include everything from declining pension stability and crumbling infrastructure to increasing inequality and a drop in entrepreneurship. (Source of graph: The RAND Blog/OECD)

The Global Context

Low fertility rates bring a lot of demographic consequences, both nationally and globally. The most popularly known issues concern the sustainability of intergenerational wealth transfer programs and national pension systems as mentioned above. But there are other, less familiar problems, such as the collapse of rural economies, rising concentrations of inherited wealth, increasing inequality and a drop in entrepreneurship. It also has implications for countries with large-scale and strategically essential armed forces, such as South Korea, Taiwan, Israel and the United States.

Some countries will be tempted to offset low birth rates through increased immigration – Canada among them. The role of immigration in fertility trends bears further attention, however. The historical stereotype that nearly all immigrant communities are prodigious producers of children is eroding fast. In the Cardus survey, white anglophone and francophone Canadian women expressed a desire having, on average, 2.1 children. In comparison, Canadian women of East Asian descent reported wanting just 1.7 children, while women of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent said they wanted to have 2.5 children.

No solution: Immigration won’t offset low birth rates, with current data showing the historical stereotype that nearly all immigrants are prodigious producers of children is fading fast. (Source of graph: “She’s (Not) Having a Baby,” by Lyman Stone, Cardus, 2023)

It thus appears that immigrant women – but only from certain communities – are currently supporting Canada’s demographic survival. India plays an outsized role here. Yet India’s fertility rate is already below population replacement, and some Indian states even have fertility rates lower than Canada’s. Future immigrants from India will probably want fewer children too, meaning this growth strategy can’t go on indefinitely. And because India’s fertility rate is falling, it will eventually face the same demographic crunch as Canada, but without the backstop of being able to rely on another country’s emigrants to save it.

Hey Parents – You Got This!

The fear factor: Worries about climate change and other global problems are another reason many cite for delaying fertility or even not having children at all. (Sources of photos: (top) JRJfin/Shutterstock; (bottom) Brian Breneman/wweek.com)

If there is a bright spot in all this gloom, it’s the reported fertility desires of Canadian women. Recall that, on average, Canadian women say they want to have 2.2 kids. If this actually became the norm, it would generate a national birth rate above the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. Women’s life satisfaction would presumably rise as well, and various knock-on economic benefits would accrue. But perhaps the greatest benefit of fertility rising to the level people say they want is simply that it’s better to live in a society where people feel able to achieve their aspirations.

So how do we get there? Scaring people with fearmongering about the future is no way to overcome low fertility – and it misdiagnoses the problem. No young couple today will be convinced to have more kids by stories of how bad the future will be if fertility rates stay low. Feeding into the catastrophist narrative of the future may reduce fertility even more, which is an argument against emphasizing the economic consequences of low fertility. Worries about climate change and other global affairs showed up in my survey as significant reasons for delaying fertility.

For those of us who care about individual liberty and not just the abstract socioeconomic indicators of interest to central planners, the individual consequences of low fertility must motivate our concern. The fertility desires of Canadian women are not being thwarted because they are making greater strides in other areas of their life. Rather, it is because of the sequence in which Canadian women pursue their goals. When having children is viewed as a capstone accomplishment to be achieved after career, financial goals and self-development, it may be deferred to the point of permanence.

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