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The pandemic has made even more Canadians uncertain whether they can afford - or want - to have children. When borders open again, immigration will be more important than ever to our future – if we're willing to embrace it

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Illustration by Hayden Maynard

John Ibbitson is writer at large at The Globe and Mail. Darrell Bricker is global CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs. They are the authors of Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline.

On Aug. 10, 1966, nine months after a power failure plunged New York into darkness for 10 hours, The New York Times ran a front-page story with the headline: “Births Up 9 Months After the Blackout.”

The Times got it wrong; subsequent research proved there was no blackout baby boom. But the urban myth endured, leading half a century later to social-media snickers predicting an uptick in babies thanks to the COVID-19 lockdown.

In fact, the very opposite is true.

A growing body of evidence suggests that millennial and Gen Z women are having fewer babies than anyone expected, and that the pandemic will suppress the birth rate even further. Crashing fertility rates will accelerate population decline in this century, with many countries seeing their population cut in half.

Canada is not immune to such decline. Our fertility rate is low; the crippling economic recession that we face could force it down even more. And closed borders make it impossible to bring in the hundreds of thousands of permanent residents this country counts on each year to make up for its missing babies.

The good news is that once the border reopens, we will be uniquely situated to bring in the brightest and the best from around the world, even as the United States and Europe close their doors. The next million new Canadians could be the most important immigrants of all.

If, that is, we can prevent nativism and xenophobia from depriving us of the people we need to expand our economy and stave off the worst effects of an aging population.

The alternative is an impoverished country with too few young to look after the old.

In our 2019 book, Empty Planet, we argued that the human population will not climb from 7.8 billion today to 11 billion by 2100, as the United Nations and other population alarmists predict, but will top out around nine billion in the middle of the century, then start to go down.

Thanks to improved education and access to contraception, each generation of women is more empowered than the last, and empowered women invariably chose to have fewer children than the generations that came before. “Once a woman receives enough information and autonomy to make an informed and self-directed choice about when to have children, and how many to have, she immediately has fewer of them, and has them later,” we wrote.

The latest research trends toward our side of the argument, including a new study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and published last month in The Lancet, which shows the human population peaking at 9.7 billion mid-century, then starting to decline.

When the fertility rate of a given country drops below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per mother, the country’s population eventually starts to go down. The Lancet study predicts that by the end of this century, the global fertility rate will be 1.66. By then, 23 countries, from Thailand to Spain, will have lost more than half their population.

“Once global population decline begins, it will probably continue inexorably,” the report concludes.

Even the Lancet estimate may be a bit high. One reason is that the research was conducted before the pandemic locked down almost the entire planet, with people forced to shelter in place and to keep their distance from each other, leading to severe recessions in many countries.

It won’t surprise you to hear that when times are tough, young couples often decide to delay having a child. The recession of 2008-09 depressed the fertility of the millennial generation just as they were entering their peak child-bearing years.

This recession will be far worse. The Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, predicts that up to 500,000 American children will not be born who otherwise would have been as a consequence of the pandemic. “The COVID-19 episode will likely lead to a large, lasting baby bust,” their study concluded. The Brookings study also found that once a woman or a couple decides to delay having a child for financial reasons, they are unlikely to increase the number of offspring later on, when times get better. A baby not born during a downturn stays unborn.

There is another, more encouraging reason why this generation’s fertility rate is lower than the ones that came before. In Canada, the U.S. and Europe, women in minority communities tend to be poorer, to be less educated, to be less in control of their lives and to have more babies than their more affluent, white counterparts.

But things are changing. The gap between white and Hispanic and Black college enrolment in the U.S. is steadily closing. As women from racial minorities become better educated, they too are able to exert greater control over their lives and futures. Both the Black (1.9) and Hispanic (2.0) fertility rates have dropped below the replacement rate. The white fertility rate is 1.6. The fertility rate for Indigenous people in Canada has also declined steadily. Today it stands at 2.2 children per woman, essentially the replacement rate. Though still higher than the overall fertility rate of 1.5, this suggests that First Nations, Métis and Inuit women are also acquiring greater education and power.

The result: Millennial women are having fewer children than their Gen X and boomer counterparts. The Pew Research Center reported in May that 55 per cent of all millennial women aged 22 to 37 have given birth, compared with 62 per cent of Gen Xers and 64 per cent of boomers who had become mothers at a comparable age.

This is certainly true of Canada and other developed nations. But the effect is even more profound in the developing world.

China will lose 48 per cent of its population – 48 per cent! – over the course of this century, going from 1.4 billion to 732 million, according to the Lancet study. And that assumes that its fertility rate remains stable at its current level of 1.5. The Asian giant’s smaller neighbours – South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and, within China, Hong Kong – are flirting with fertility rates around 1.0. If China eventually matches them, it could lose even more people over the next 80 years.

Brazil, with 212 million people, already has a fertility rate of 1.8, below replacement rate, and will lose almost 50 million this century. As a result of the COVID-19 denialism practised by its President, Jair Bolsonaro, that country has reported more than 2.8 million cases, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, second only to the U.S. The economic costs for the already troubled economy could be grave. As times get even tougher for Brazil, the birth rate could drop even lower.

India, with almost 1.4 billion people, will soon pass China as the world’s most populous country. It is grappling with 1.9 million COVID-19 cases, the third most after the U.S. and Brazil. The Indian fertility rate has reached 2.1 and is likely to continue falling. As a result, the Lancet study predicts India’s population will be down to 1.1 billion by the end of the century. The pandemic may lead to even fewer babies in what will remain the world’s most populous country.

Sub-Saharan Africa continues to experience high fertility rates – Nigeria is expected to become the world’s second most populous country by 2100 – though rates are coming down there as well. But in most of the rest of the planet, the pandemic could further suppress fertility rates that are near or below replacement in countries from from Poland to Malaysia, in both the developed and developing world.

There are all sorts of reasons to cheer for a smaller human population, especially on the environmental front. Fewer people means lower emissions of carbon dioxide, which will help in the fight against global warming.

Urbanization is also a big factor in declining fertility, because children in the city are more of an economic liability than children in the countryside, where they can be put to work. As a result of the continuing flight from rural to urban in the developing world, more subprime farmland will revert to bush, which will act as a carbon sink, further helping the planet cool.

But the economic impact of fewer people could be severe. As with other developed societies, Canada is aging. Five years ago, about one person in six was over the age of 65. A decade from now, it will be one in four.

Life expectancy continues to increase, but not healthy life expectancy. A report released last month by the Canada-United Kingdom Colloquium, which studies issues of common concern to both countries, noted that “in recent years the overall trend … has been that increasing life expectancy has brought smaller increases in healthy life expectancy.” (John Ibbitson was a participant in the conference that led to the report.)

An estimated three-quarters of all the care for the elderly is provided by family members, usually women, at no charge. If fewer people have children, then fewer family members will be available to provide care, forcing the state to devote more resources to it. The cost to government of providing long-term care is expected to triple over the next 30 years. And that assumes we continue with the current, often inadequate, levels of care. Many Canadians discovered to their horror this past spring what people in the industry have known all along: that poorly paid personal support workers provide much of the essential care in long-term care facilities. Those workers must often take shifts in several facilities to make ends meet, which contributed to the deadly spread of the coronavirus among the elderly. Eight in 10 COVID-19-related deaths in Canada occurred in nursing homes.

Reduced fertility, compounded by the pandemic-induced recession, will lead to fewer young people to look after the old, fewer young taxpayers to support the growing numbers of the elderly and frail, more stress on the long-term care system and more tragedies. But Canada, almost uniquely among major developed nations, has the means to mitigate the impact.

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New citizens take their oath of allegiance at a virtual ceremony held this past Canada Day.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

Unlike the U.S., which has restricted immigration under President Donald Trump, and the United Kingdom, which has withdrawn from the European Union in part because of rising anti-immigrant nativism, Canada continues to have a robust tradition of welcoming newcomers. The federal government had set a target of 341,000 new permanent residents this year before the pandemic forced the borders to close.

As of June 30, just 84,000 had been granted permanent resident status, according to data provided to The Globe and Mail by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. But Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino remains committed to meeting the government’s three-year targets, which could mean adding those not brought in this year to future years.

So, on the one hand, it has never been harder to recruit immigrants to take up the slack created by unborn babies, because of closed borders; on the other, it has never been easier, as a result of closed minds in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere.

Canada has both means and opportunity to profit from rising nativism elsewhere by bringing in the very brightest and the very best from around the world to fill labour shortages, increase the tax base to serve an aging population and fuel entrepreneurial innovation.

“In addition to the economic contribution immigrants make, they contribute to our social fabric,” says Lisa Lalande, chief executive of Century Initiative, a non-profit that advocates for policies that would increase Canada’s population to 100 million by 2100. “They bring new perspectives, innovation. They bring a cultural vibrancy we all benefit from.”

Her organization would increase Canada’s immigration intake from just under 1 per cent of the population a year to 1.25 per cent.

But Canada is not immune to rising resentment toward newcomers. The Quebec government is cutting back on immigration, even as it imposes restrictions on religious minorities. There are anti-immigration elements within the Conservative Party. And though Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, which supported reduced immigration, scored an embarrassingly low 1.6 per cent of the popular vote in the most recent federal election, a more effective leader could generate greater support.

“The restrictionist opposition isn’t as big as it is in Europe or the U.S., but it is still there,” says Eric Kaufmann, a Canadian political scientist who teaches at University of London and whose book Whiteshift explored the resentment of some white citizens toward non-white immigrants.

“For those who are opposed to increased immigration, they see change as loss and difference as disorder,” he said in an interview. Ignoring such resistance, he warned, could lead to increasing political polarization and the rise of populist third parties that might be more effective than Mr. Bernier’s failed attempt.

Open this photo in gallery:

Illustration by Hayden Maynard

If there are hazards to immigration as a counter to an aging society, the alternatives are much less palatable. Governments can, and should, improve parental supports, such as child care and parental leave, so that couples who do want to have children are able to with the least possible disruption to the mother’s career. But these programs are expensive, and even Sweden, with its long history of crafting social programs designed to increase the population, has a fertility rate below replacement rate.

A variation is to bribe couples to have children. This is how Viktor Orban, the populist, authoritarian Prime Minister of Hungary, is tackling the problem. “Migration for us is surrender,” he told his country’s parliament, even though the population is expected to decline by more than half in the coming decades.

To avoid that fate, the Hungarian government now offers loans that don’t have to be repaid if a couple has three children, and a lifetime exemption from income tax for those who have four. The government is spending just under 5 per cent of GDP on natalist policies, which it predicts will eventually result in a marked and sustained increase in the number of births. We’ll see.

Or we could simply accept an end to growth. We could embrace with grace a future in which we grow fewer by the year. Such grace might be tested, however, as the tax base shrinks, pension plans fail, and the frail elderly face a life of loneliness at home and crude warehousing when they are forced into care. No one wants that. In a future darkened by societal aging and the economic fallout from COVID-19, immigrants aren’t just the best solution; they’re our only solution.

Once we could have grown our way out of the staggering debts our governments have incurred, as we did after the Second World War. But we were young then. The median age of a Canadian in 1950 was 28. Today it is 41 and rising. We don’t have the young people to pay taxes that we used to.

We believe Canada may be able to escape the worst of the nativist tides afflicting the U.S., Britain and elsewhere simply because we have so many foreign-born here already. As we have observed before, no party can win a federal election without the support of the huge swaths of suburban ridings in Greater Toronto and Greater Vancouver – ridings that all have large immigrant populations.

Canada may have reached escape velocity, welcoming so many new Canadians that they outnumber those who want to shut the door. In any case, says Prof. Kaufmann, “while there is polarization on immigration, that doesn’t mean the populists will win.” He points to the strong support for diversity among young people as an encouraging long-term trend. We can only hope. Because in the years to come, we’ll need all the young people we can get.

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