Evolving Families

Where Have All the Babies Gone? The Unmet Fertility Goals of Canadian Women

Lyman Stone
March 5, 2023
There’s a minimum legal age for voting. You have to pass a test to drive a car. You even need a licence to get married. When it comes to having kids, however, there are no restrictions or official requirements at all. But if it’s so easy to do, why are Canadian women choosing to have so few children? More important, why are they choosing to have fewer kids than their own stated desires? Based on exclusive survey data, demographer Lyman Stone uncovers the intimate details of fertility expectations in Canada, what is driving them and what is happening to the life satisfaction of Canadian mothers.
Evolving Families

Where Have All the Babies Gone? The Unmet Fertility Goals of Canadian Women

Lyman Stone
March 5, 2023
There’s a minimum legal age for voting. You have to pass a test to drive a car. You even need a licence to get married. When it comes to having kids, however, there are no restrictions or official requirements at all. But if it’s so easy to do, why are Canadian women choosing to have so few children? More important, why are they choosing to have fewer kids than their own stated desires? Based on exclusive survey data, demographer Lyman Stone uncovers the intimate details of fertility expectations in Canada, what is driving them and what is happening to the life satisfaction of Canadian mothers.
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We use a lot of Band-Aids in our house. I have two toddlers, and we are what might be called an “injury positive household” – my kids fall down a lot. That’s partly because all kids fall down a lot, but it’s also because my wife and I don’t think our kids benefit from ceaseless monitoring. They’ll be happier, more confident, more well-adjusted for life if we let them take some lumps. Or so we hope.

A really stressful job: High-intensity parenting is becoming the norm in industrialized countries, with constant supervision and an exhausting schedule of activities for children from an early age.

I didn’t even know we believed these things about parenting until I saw how other parents monitor their kids at the park. We often see parents in our corner of Montreal hovering around their children, practically demanding that they play in a supervised fashion, or not at all. This kind of intensity stretches away from the park as well. Some local two-year olds have Google Calendars that make my work schedule look tame. Classes, lessons, sports: a constant stream of activities. The kids seem to enjoy it all, but their parents look worn down. Parenting for them isn’t just a full-time job, it’s a really stressful full-time job.

In industrialized societies around the world, high-intensity parenting is rapidly becoming the norm. Studies of how parents use their time show them spending a rising number of hours on their children, even in societies where centre-based childcare is cheap or free. A recent study released in the United States reports that 80 percent of teenagers say their parents know where they are at all times. I’m flabbergasted by that; besides my sleeping hours, I don’t think my parents ever knew where I was. Correspondingly, the same study found that teens today may make fewer bad choices (later sexual debut, less underage drinking, fewer drugs) but also pass their important milestones much later, such as learning to drive or feeling confident as an adult.

One of the reasons parenting has become so intense is that people are becoming parents later in life. It’s becoming harder and more competitive to reach socially normative “stability” these days. And for many, children have become the crowning achievement of that long slog of personal and professional development. Talk to parents today and they’ll tell you why their preschooler is in a music class. It’s not just because music is beautiful or fun for kids; it’s in the hope that their child develops a musical skill, because being musically skilled is good for school applications and scholarships. Parents are filling their children’s lives with activities not only to give their children new experiences but as part of a never-ending race to create idealized “capstone kids.”

How Many Babies?

Last year I conducted a survey for the social policy think-tank Cardus, asking 2,700 women ages 18 to 44 representing a cross-section of the country about their expectations for family life. I focused on women because the survey was mostly about plans for childbearing, which men do not report as reliably as women. The survey’s findings are striking. On average, Canadian women say they desire to have around 2.2 children. When asked how many children they expect to have, however, the answer is 1.9. Such a gap is common in fertility surveys and can be seen as evidence of the inevitable compromise between a woman’s desires for her life and the hurdles that arise in life. But Canada’s actual fertility rate is a mere 1.4 children. Not only is this significantly below the necessary national population replacement rate of 2.1 children, it means that for every two Canadian women of child-bearing age, one is likely to end up with a “missing child”; that is, a child she wanted to have, but did not.

The other fertility gap: On average, Canadian women say they want 2.2 children, but they expect to have 1.9. The country’s actual fertility rate of 1.4 means that one of every two women is ending up with a “missing child”— a child she wanted to have, but didn’t. (Sources: (photo) Kharis muhamad/Shutterstock; (graph) “She’s (Not) Having a Baby,” by Lyman Stone, Cardus, 2023)

This represents a big gap between expectation and reality. When women approach the end of their reproductive life having missed their goals, these gaps can have serious consequences. I asked women to rate their life satisfaction using a standard, well-tested question, and found that women who have more or fewer children than they said would be ideal for them are much less satisfied with their lives than women who hit their fertility goals. Overshooting (that is, having more children than desired) was the rarer of the two misses. Fewer than 15 percent of women over 40 said they overshot, whereas 46 percent undershot (had fewer children than they desired).

The life satisfaction gaps associated with either under or overshooting are not small. Ranked on a scale of 10, women aged 40 to 44 who achieved their ideal number of children reported an average life-satisfaction score of 7.2, as the accompanying chart shows. Those who overshot reported an average score of 5.4, and those who undershot 6.8. These gaps are qualitatively similar to satisfaction losses that other studies have associated with being laid off, suffering a major injury or getting divorced – a major negative life event.

Women who don’t have their ideal number of children are much less satisfied with their lives, to a degree similar to experiencing a major negative life event like divorce or a serious injury. (Sources: (photo) Pixabay; (graph) “She’s (Not) Having a Baby,” by Lyman Stone, Cardus, 2023)

While overshooting is associated with a larger individual gap in life satisfaction, we have seen that undershooting is a much more common problem in Canada. As a result, Canadian women in aggregate lose about as much life satisfaction from having too few kids as they do from having too many. And yet, government policies routinely treat excess fertility as a problem to be addressed. At the same time, falling birth rates are practically celebrated by many academics and lobby groups as a victory for education and empowerment.

The survey participants were given a chance to explain in detail what factors influenced their fertility outcomes. Out of the 2,700 survey subjects, no one volunteered an answer like, “I just realized my life without children was so happy that I didn’t want them anymore.” Despite such sentiments attracting ample attention on social media, this is actually a very rare opinion. Rather, the main reasons Canadian women gave for undershooting were related to their own feelings of self-development. Statements regarding a desire to “grow as a person” were associated with a 25 percent decline in the likelihood of having a child in the following two years.

The next most significant factors were a desire to save money and a need to focus on a career, both associated with a 21 percent decline in fertility likelihood. A belief that children require intense care was associated with a 20 percent decline. Many women said they didn’t want to have kids yet because they wanted to have more time for leisure and travel – although they still wanted kids eventually.

Unpacking the Empty Cradle

An expressed desire to evolve as a person before becoming a parent appears, on the face of it, a reasonable proposition. No one is in favor of immature parents. But there’s a fundamental problem with the primacy of self-development: it is completely open-ended. Humans never stop developing and changing, and very few of us stop wanting to. We never reach long-term stability in our lives. We are always changing. Moreover, parenting is one of the truly formative experiences of life that shapes who people are: to delay parenting until after some nebulous developmental process has been completed is to put the cart before the horse.

That said, it’s important not to pass judgment. These women are correct in their assessment of the importance of self-development to modern life. The events that provoke and stimulate maturity have been coming later and later for Canadians in the 21st century. Job market demands for higher degrees and advanced certifications mean schooling often isn’t finished for students until they are deep into their 20s or even later. As a result, the adolescent nature of student-hood is extended.

After education come internships, apprenticeships, fellowships, contract jobs and gig work. Homeownership, another practical marker of adulthood, has become ever-more expensive, with rates among the young plummeting. And so the age of marriage is also delayed, if it comes at all. Young people aren’t wrong to think they might need more development before becoming parents, because society has systematically delayed the life events and stages which facilitate the transition to confident adulthood – often starting with the “helicopter” parenting I talked about at the beginning.

Finishing education, securing a good job and buying a home are markers of stable adulthood which many think they need before starting a family, but which keep getting pushed later into life. (Source of photos except top left: Pexels)

Concerns about delayed stability and adulthood showed up repeatedly in our survey. Women who reported having unstable employment also reported 9 percent lower expectations of having a child in the near future than women with a good job. Women who said they had low-paying jobs reported 14 percent lower odds. Women concerned about housing costs had 12 percent lower odds. On the other hand, too much of a good thing was also bad, as excessively long working hours led to 15 percent lower expectations of near-term childbearing. Being in post-secondary education reduced odds by 19 percent – a similar effect to living with one’s parents. Again, this isn’t to say young adults could just “opt out” of this very delayed life course: poorly educated and lower-income Canadians have similar or even larger gaps between their desires and outcomes.

The Busyness of Modern Parenting

When young or young-ish adults finally get to a stage in life where they feel they can have kids, they do so with extraordinary levels of planning and complexity. Apps and wearable devices to track ovulation. Scheduled deliveries. Intense deliberation over the details of a birth plan. I know – my wife and I did all this, too. Such high-intensity parenting doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from the recognition that some people have advantages practically from the moment they are born and that these advantages help them get ahead in life. Modern parents want their children to have all of those advantages, and so their capstone kid will be parented with all the intensity necessary to assure their success.

Factors like housing or childcare costs do matter for family. But my research for Cardus found that these particular costs were often secondary. Financial factors are less significant to the probability of childbearing in the near future than the personal growth and career concerns mentioned earlier. The problem young people face is not just housing costs, or childcare costs, or leave time or student debt. It’s the additive effect of escalating demands for credentials and skills and costs of childrearing leading to ever-more-delayed family formation, which feeds into a self-sabotaging fixation on self-development. Factors like, “I’m still exploring who I am” or, “I’m still in school” or, “I live with my parents” appear to play a bigger role in women’s family plans than housing costs or lack of childcare. (Government family policies, however, typically focus on these latter, less-important areas.)

“Capstone kids”: When young adults are ready to have children, they do so with extraordinary levels of planning and complexity; modern parents believe a constant stream of activities will give their offspring advantages for later life.

This research suggests that Canadian fertility isn’t low just due to various direct financial barriers. It’s low because the entire modern life sequence in industrialized countries is becoming hostile to the biological timeline of fertility. Moreover, women’s fertile years are just one of several life schedules that regulate family formation. Only one of the 2,700 women in the survey reported lack of access to in vitro fertilization as a serious fertility barrier, suggesting purely biological constraints aren’t the issue.

And even if people could have kids at age 49, would it be as fun to play baseball with your 12-year-old when you’re 61 as it is at 41? Will you ever meet your grandchildren? Until we find a way to get more young people done with their education, gainfully employed, owning a home and married at age 25, fertility rates will continue to fall. As a result, parenting will get even more intense, childhood more competitive, and each generation of kids will face an even harder ladder to climb.

The end-stage of this process can be seen in places such as South Korea or Puerto Rico, where fertility rates have fallen substantially below one child per woman. The results include rising poverty among seniors as existing workers cannot sustain generous intergenerational transfers, infrastructure that is slipping into decrepitude and troublingly high levels of emigration among the remaining cohort of young people.

Fertility rates are falling around the world, with South Korea having dropped below one child per woman; the consequences include everything from declining pension stability and crumbling infrastructure to increasing inequality and a drop in entrepreneurship. (Source of graph: The RAND Blog/OECD)

The Global Context

Low fertility rates bring a lot of demographic consequences, both nationally and globally. The most popularly known issues concern the sustainability of intergenerational wealth transfer programs and national pension systems as mentioned above. But there are other, less familiar problems, such as the collapse of rural economies, rising concentrations of inherited wealth, increasing inequality and a drop in entrepreneurship. It also has implications for countries with large-scale and strategically essential armed forces, such as South Korea, Taiwan, Israel and the United States.

Some countries will be tempted to offset low birth rates through increased immigration – Canada among them. The role of immigration in fertility trends bears further attention, however. The historical stereotype that nearly all immigrant communities are prodigious producers of children is eroding fast. In the Cardus survey, white anglophone and francophone Canadian women expressed a desire having, on average, 2.1 children. In comparison, Canadian women of East Asian descent reported wanting just 1.7 children, while women of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent said they wanted to have 2.5 children.

No solution: Immigration won’t offset low birth rates, with current data showing the historical stereotype that nearly all immigrants are prodigious producers of children is fading fast. (Source of graph: “She’s (Not) Having a Baby,” by Lyman Stone, Cardus, 2023)

It thus appears that immigrant women – but only from certain communities – are currently supporting Canada’s demographic survival. India plays an outsized role here. Yet India’s fertility rate is already below population replacement, and some Indian states even have fertility rates lower than Canada’s. Future immigrants from India will probably want fewer children too, meaning this growth strategy can’t go on indefinitely. And because India’s fertility rate is falling, it will eventually face the same demographic crunch as Canada, but without the backstop of being able to rely on another country’s emigrants to save it.

Hey Parents – You Got This!

The fear factor: Worries about climate change and other global problems are another reason many cite for delaying fertility or even not having children at all. (Sources of photos: (top) JRJfin/Shutterstock; (bottom) Brian Breneman/wweek.com)

If there is a bright spot in all this gloom, it’s the reported fertility desires of Canadian women. Recall that, on average, Canadian women say they want to have 2.2 kids. If this actually became the norm, it would generate a national birth rate above the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. Women’s life satisfaction would presumably rise as well, and various knock-on economic benefits would accrue. But perhaps the greatest benefit of fertility rising to the level people say they want is simply that it’s better to live in a society where people feel able to achieve their aspirations.

So how do we get there? Scaring people with fearmongering about the future is no way to overcome low fertility – and it misdiagnoses the problem. No young couple today will be convinced to have more kids by stories of how bad the future will be if fertility rates stay low. Feeding into the catastrophist narrative of the future may reduce fertility even more, which is an argument against emphasizing the economic consequences of low fertility. Worries about climate change and other global affairs showed up in my survey as significant reasons for delaying fertility.

For those of us who care about individual liberty and not just the abstract socioeconomic indicators of interest to central planners, the individual consequences of low fertility must motivate our concern. The fertility desires of Canadian women are not being thwarted because they are making greater strides in other areas of their life. Rather, it is because of the sequence in which Canadian women pursue their goals. When having children is viewed as a capstone accomplishment to be achieved after career, financial goals and self-development, it may be deferred to the point of permanence.

Intensive parenting norms combined with this capstone effect mean that only the wealthiest Canadians appear able to achieve their desired family size. Low-income Canadian women now end up with around 1.5 kids each. Canadian women in the highest-earning households have, on average, slightly more than 2.5 kids each. An underclass of family-less young adults frustrated at their disappointed dreams, competing with a growing stream of immigrants, and seeing rich families enjoy happy and full family lives they themselves can never afford, is not a recipe for social harmony or political stability.

The eroding middle-class ideal: Low-income women now have around 1.5 children each, while women in high-earning households average 2.5. This widening gap needs to be addressed – beginning with bolstering the confidence of young Canadians that they will make good parents.

The policies that might overcome these issues are not easy to discern. Tackling housing costs, excessive credentialization, and time-to-completion in post-secondary education could lower the barriers to stable adulthood and thus lower the age of parenthood. But again, these are not the biggest issues facing potential mothers. And while no government in the world has yet found a sure-fire pro-natalist policy path, the above data suggests some small steps in how society talks about parenting.

Because the government interacts with parents at numerous levels throughout a child’s life, it is vital to consider what messages about parenting are being passed on. Any message other than “Parenting is something virtually every adult is able to do well” should be considered a discouragement. Rather, governments should promote positive and empowering messages about parenting. You don’t need to read a parenting book to be an adequate parent. You have what it takes. Society will support your vocation as a parent. Parenting is a source of wonder, joy and satisfaction, and is something that the overwhelming majority of people can do well.

An effective government response to low fertility begins by changing the narrative. And with a strong emphasis on the fact that parenting is good, worthy and, most important, actually attainable for normal people. No special skills required.

Lyman Stone is director of research for the consulting firm Demographic Intelligence, a PhD candidate in sociology at McGill University and Senior Fellow at Cardus.

Source of main image: Shutterstock.

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