We know that being able to work virtually can make it easier for parents, but does it actually encourage people to have children in the first place? Evidence out of Germany suggests that there is indeed a correlation between good broadband access and birth rates, which is a not insignificant fact in a part of the world where births have been languishing for years. Taking that thought further suggests that the pandemic shift to working from home might nudge up Canadian birth rates over the next few years, which would be a somewhat unexpected result of the pandemic.
It is not news that the pandemic has been difficult for working parents. The shuttering of schools and child-care centres in 2020 left students sporadically at home, with parents gamely trying to help them with remote education. With much of the burden falling on mothers, there has been well-placed concern about women’s careers as some have decided to give up on juggling too many balls and leaving the work force altogether. Still, although this is often framed as an issue for those pursuing high-paying careers who have spent years breaking through the glass ceiling, the reality is actually a bit different.
In truth, it is not really white-collar female professionals that have left the labour force during the pandemic. According to Statistics Canada, in August, 2021, the number of women in the labour force in Canada was around 9.8 million, about 2.0 per cent higher than in August, 2020. There was, however, considerable variation between different occupational groups.
In the category of professional occupations in business and finance, the number of women in the labour force was up by 3.5 per cent. In contrast, in the service sector, the number of female sales representatives in retail and wholesale trade was down by 2.9 per cent, while the category of service representatives and other customer and personal services occupations fell by 7.0 per cent.
There is no doubt that there are many female lawyers and executives who have gotten tired of trying to do two jobs at once and have thrown in the towel since the pandemic started. That said, the reality is that they have been far outnumbered by waitresses and cashiers who are physically unable to be in two places at once and have had no choice but to quit their jobs.
So it seems that we do indeed have a divide – one between those who are able to use digital technology to do their jobs away from the workplace, and those who simply have to show up to do them. The research out of Germany, done well before the pandemic, suggests that the ability to use tech to work has an impact on parents even before they actually become parents.
The 2019 study, published in the journal Demography, used German data to look at whether the availability of broadband influenced women to have children. It is a subject that is of particular interest since for decades German birth rates have been very low and the population aging rapidly. The geographical area studied had a particularly low birth rate, given that it was in an area where it was known for the difficulty in combining work and family life.
Looking at the period from 2008 to 2012, the researchers found positive effects on broadband availability on the fertility of highly educated women aged 25 to 45, leading them to conclude that it significantly increased the number of working mothers. They went further too, in suggesting that access to broadband allows highly educated women to reconcile careers and motherhood, but does nothing for those with lower levels of education. A decade after the researchers looked at the German data, broadband access in Europe and North America is widely available. At the crux of it, however, what the researchers were really looking at was the ability to work from home – which is not a given for all workers.
Canada, like all developed countries, has seen fertility rates drop over the past decades. These days, couples do not have to think about having huge families to work the farm, or worry unduly about infant or childhood mortality. As well, as women acquire more education and have more opportunities in the world, they tend to choose to have smaller families. Data from the World Bank database show that in 1960, the fertility rate (the number of children a woman would have over her lifetime) was 3.8, a figure that fell to 1.7 in 1980 and to under 1.5 by 2019.
At this point, it is too early to say whether the ability to work from home will make would-be parents open to having children in the years after the pandemic. In the U.S., we have seen the opposite effect so far, with births in 2020 falling to their lowest level since 1979. While births in Canada did not fall as dramatically (they were down 3.6 per cent, taking them to their lowest level since 2006), clearly we are seeing the same general trend. It matters for the economy: All things being equal, lower births one year mean decades of consequences in labour markets and in the broader economy as well. Children not born in the 2020s will not be taxpayers in the 2040s, when Gen X and millennials might be thinking of retirement. A mini postpandemic boom would act as some offset to that effect.
The existence of technology allowing some to work from home will be of little use to those whose jobs require them to be there in person, suggesting we may indeed see a divergence in both births and labour-force participation rates in the future, depending on the jobs parents – and women in particular – hold. What is also clear, however, is that corporate culture and the openness to allowing different kinds of work arrangements can have an impact well beyond any individual workplace – and that decisions made now may have repercussions for years to come.
Linda Nazareth is host of the Work and the Future podcast and senior fellow for economics and population change at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the number of births in Canada in 2020 increased slightly from 2019. According to the latest data from Statistics Canada, births declined by 3.6 per cent last year on an annual basis.
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