In four years, Canada will undergo a demographic revolution – a change also known as the “crossover”: the day when there are more seniors than children. The impact on the country’s economic growth, productivity, innovation, pensions, not to mention health care, will be monumental.
This transformation has been under way for several decades, as women became more educated and then chose to delay or avoid child-bearing. The trend then replicates itself and becomes harder to reverse: with fewer children today, there will be fewer women of childbearing age in 20 years.
Research shows, however, that effective policies can counter falling birth rates. If the government and private sector embrace strategies that improve work-family balance and gender equality, they can remove artificial barriers to having and raising children.
Then women won’t have to choose between having a career and a family. And really, why should they have to?
The indirect costs of having children still fall mainly on women, according to research conducted on 16 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries over 20 years. The study found that fertility rates are higher in countries that offer more flexible work hours, paid maternity leaves, part-time work and a higher percentage of mothers in the labour market. These countries are Sweden, Finland, France, Denmark and Australia. In Italy, Spain, Hungary, Portugal and Poland, fertility rates are notably lower; so is gender equality.
Canada’s birth rate actually grew slightly in the past decade from 1.6 to 1.7, as the children of the oldest boomers began having families. However, if Ottawa wants to make further progress and bring up the rate to the replacement level of 2.1, it should consider the impact of family-friendly policies. Programs, such as paternity leave, which rebalance the distribution of care within families are effective, and so are financial and tax provisions that lower the burden on families with children.
Consider the case of Quebec. The birth rate has increased 17 per cent since 2002, due to inexpensive daycare and generous parental leave programs.
There is a widening gap between the number of children women want to have, and the number they actually have. That means falling birth rates are not inevitable. Women want to have more children. But they need to know that it is possible to combine parenthood and paid employment and that they don't have to choose between one and the other.