National Post

Page URL:

Thursday, December 23, 1999

Families can't afford 'luxury' of kids
StatsCan study blames low incomes for falling birth rate
Elena Cherney
National Post

Canada is suffering from a declining birth rate as a result of the relative impoverishment of young Canadian couples compared with their parents and with previous generations, according to a new Statistics Canada study.

In 1997, fertility levels in Canada fell to the lowest rate ever recorded: 1.55 children per woman, a decrease that Statistics Canada researchers pin on the steady shrinking of young earners' incomes compared with those of older Canadians.

Drawing on theories put forward by economists in the United States about the economic factors influencing a couple's decision to have children, Alain Belanger and Laurent Martel concluded that financial constraints are preventing Canadians from producing enough children -- 2.1 per woman -- to replace the population as it dies off.

While the StatsCan paper, released yesterday, is the first national study linking economic conditions and fertility in Canada, other studies have suggested that money, or the lack of it, is one of the major reasons couples in industrialized countries make use of contraceptive technologies, Jack Wayne, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, said.

"The myth of the impoverished family with many kids is long-gone," said Prof. Wayne, who studies the Canadian family.

"Only those families with reasonably middle-class incomes can really afford to have a lot of children."

The new study by Mr. Belanger and Mr. Martel confirms what many experts on the family have already postulated: The old-fashioned Canadian family, which once included at least a couple of kids, is a luxury many average income-earners feel they cannot afford.

As young couples have struggled to earn as good a living as their parents did, the entrance en masse of women into the labour market has made child-bearing even less financially attractive. Men's earnings have decreased as a percentage of household income and their wives' earnings, which could be compromised by having children, have become increasingly important to a family's bottom line.

"The ordinary way of Canadian life is no longer being chosen," Prof. Wayne said. "Many people are just priced right out of the having-babies market. Canadians are hardly conjugating."

But the selfish values of the younger generation also play a role in the decision to have fewer or no children, Jim Frideres, a professor of sociology at the University of Calgary, said.

"This is the Me Generation," he said. "It's, 'I want it now, don't give me this delayed gratification stuff.' They have a 'what's in it for me?' mindset," he said.

Combined with the real economic problems faced by young Canadians during the last 25 years -- a disproportionately high rate of unemployment, three recessions and shrinking real wages -- the self-centered mentality of the post-Boomer generation has conspired to push babies off the priority spending list.

"You've got a feeling of relative deprivation, a generation who are not able to make what their parents are making -- and they don't want to wait 20 years to make what their parents are making. It leads to questions about how to pay the bills. You can do that by not having children -- or by having fewer children."

The "Me Generation" is believed to have picked up its self-centered behaviour in large part from the casual prosperity that children enjoyed in the 1960s and 70s, Prof. Frideres said. Baby-Boomers "began to experience this incredible economic prosperity as a country. There was a sense that we had this incredible wealth." Boomers' children were brought up in wealth, and grew to expect a certain standard of living, and "me-me" consciousness, he said.

The StatsCan researchers compared the average incomes of Canadian males in the first five years of their careers with the average earnings of Canadian parents aged 45 to 54.

They found that in 1971, the first year for which such data was available, the young male earners brought home one-third the household income of a middle-aged couple with one or more children.

By 1996, young men were only bringing home 16% of the older generation's household earnings. Young women with full-time jobs also saw their earnings fall relative to the incomes of older Canadians.

The researchers used census data to track the fertility and earnings trends back to 1921, and found that the numbers of children per woman has varied with the incomes of young Canadian couples for the last 80 years.

If downward fertility trends continue, the StatsCan researchers reported, the Canadian fertility rate will be only 1.3 children per woman by 2010. However, the researchers calculated, should young Canadians' incomes increase by 3% annually relative to their parents' incomes for the next 15 years, the fertility rate could sustain population levels.

Copyright Southam Inc.