That’s not just me talking. That’s StatsCan, as quoted in the Calgary Herald.
Well, I’m doing my best. I just hope Mr. Harper and Mr. Flaherty are paying attention to the point about “much more needs to be done” to make things a bit easier tax-wise for younger families.
I’m not entirely comfortable with governments getting too caught up in “no baby no nation” policies. One thing that I do think is private and a matter of “personal choice” is the decision to have a child, or another child, or another child again (and so on), assuming of course that the means one uses to avoid having that child aren’t contrary to fundamental human dignity. (I am prolife, after all.)
But an aging population and a low birth rate do have broad social implications, so I guess some policy maker somewhere should be thinking about the whys and what-to-dos, if anything, of the problem. If he or she is out there, I would be interested in what he or she comes up with. Canada’s low fertility rate has always puzzled me. (I guess that’s not surprising to many of you, given that I have chosen to have five kids.) Here we are in Canada, living a life of prosperity and freedom; if you look at the sweep of human history or even the conditions that much of the world labours under today, we are at the top of the humanity heap, and this despite the tax burden that is fingered in the Herald editorial as part of the fertility problem. Yet we don’t seem to be able to welcome children into our lives.
I know they’re a lot of work and expense, but so is running a marathon, travelling to Bora Bora or even having a fulfilling career, all of which are things that a lot of people do routinely these days. And I know that there is a standard trajectory for young women (and men) to stay in school for much of their twenties, then work to pay off their school debt and then work some more to buy that first house (which seems to be a required asset of all prospective parents). All of this inevitably leads to delaying children to a point where it is naturally much harder to have a large family (and by “large”, I mean more than 2 kids). But in the past, people lived with much more severe economic constraints and still managed to have kids.
So, what changed? I have a few theories, none of which are entirely satisfying because they always seem to raise more questions. Do people see large families as undesirable or just unachievable? (When I go out with all my kids, from the people who actually comment (thankfully, few), I get about equal parts “are you crazy” and “you are so lucky”). Maybe large families have always been undesirable to most people and the explanation is as simple as the improved technology of birth control. But I think there must be more to it, because adequate birth control (especially between married couples) has been with us for a long time and the bottom basement fertility rates are a relatively recent phenomenon. Is that just because we cannot imagine a “good life” beyond the materialistic one so idealized in our consumer culture and that is only within our grasp if we ration out our fertility? Again, I’m not sure I buy that as a complete explanation, although it’s certainly got to be part of the problem. Is it typically women or men who are more reluctant to have children? That must be relevant to understanding the issue at hand, but how would you ever find that out? Is it because children have gone from being an economic asset (more hands on the farm) to a big liability? I am reluctant to attribute any trend of human behaviour entirely to economic motives.
So, what is it?
Rebecca adds: I have a lot of thoughts on this, which I can’t discuss too much now since I’m preparing a paper on policy implications of pensions given demographic change. (Seriously.) But I think a big, big part of the picture is marriage, or more precisely the lack of marriage. While the number of babies born to unmarried mothers is high and rising, very few unmarried women, or even unmarried couples, explicitly plan pregnancies. And since a depressingly high number of marriages end in the first decade, that depresses childbearing rates as well. If you’re thinking of divorce, or worried that your partner has one foot out the door, you’re not likely to have a second or third child.
I remember reading that families with four or more children were much less likely, statistically, to divorce than families with three or fewer children. The author’s (dismal) conclusion was that the financial cost of divorce was too high with that many children involved, so parents stuck it out even if they wanted to divorce. Other possible explanations, all of which strike me as more likely: large families correlate with religiosity, which correlates negatively with divorce; couples who choose to have lots of children together are just plain more happily married to begin with; people who choose to create a large family clearly see family as a central part of their identity, and thus may be likely to put more effort into their roles as husband/father and wife/mother, than do people who define themselves more by their careers, interests, or something other than their families; or, people with lots of children are too tired to break up.
(Did I mention that my five month old has slept for more than 4 hours exactly twice in his entire life?)
Andrea’s two cents: Sex ed in high school hammered home on “don’t get pregnant, don’t get pregnant, DO NOT get pregnant.” They never discussed that there will be a context, one day, in which it will be both appropriate and desirable–to get pregnant. By the time one is settled in some extremely meaningful career, and has spent so many years “not getting pregnant,” it’s late in the game and one simply cannot have a large family. So many young women, myself included, were taught that the really meaningful and difficult things to do in life don’t involve having kids. And I personally learned that lesson well.
I’ve also been having discussions lately with someone about how the western world now demands a two income family just to get by. I don’t buy it, especially since I’ve started to meet families with ten kids living on one income (and the father in one case was a journalist, not a hedge fund manager). I only started to see these sorts of families after I left Toronto, though. So if the economy doesn’t truly demand two working adults in one home, then the culture is picking up the slack and creating pressure. Two working adults means less kids, I’m convinced. I work hard all day, and if I had to face children when I got home instead of going for a run and hitting the hay, I don’t know what I’d do. It would be too taxing, and I’d say no to a large family too.
Maybe that was more than two cents.
Tanya’s personal observation: Many large families got that way one child at a time. A woman will more likely desire an additional child if the previous experience was pleasant (including pregnancy and the infant stage).
Part of enjoying those early stages of parenthood is spousal support. When a woman doesn’t feel like she’s got to do everything herself, but that her mate is right in there with the diapers and the laundry, she’s more likely to take on the challenge of additional children. Additionally, she and that helpful spouse of her’s are less likely to want to get rid of each other. There you have it! Supportive spouse = long, happy marriage with the open option of many children.