We have a baby-making problem

By Peter Jon Mitchell,
Program Director,
Cardus Family,
Courtesy of Troy Media.

Wedding industry vendors are reporting a boom in bookings, or at least south of the border according to the Associated Press.

Couples who waited out the pandemic are booking their big day, as are those who married during the pandemic but are now planning celebrations with family and friends.

The increased bookings are likely due to a pandemic backlog rather than an increase in couples seeking to marry. Still, like other aspects of life during the pandemic, it may be too early to tell how COVID-19 will influence social trends.

Before the pandemic, the proportion of married-couple families in Canada had been declining for decades. At the same time, greater proportions of unmarried couples are living together just as more and more young adults living life alone, according to the recently updated Canadian Marriage map.

In short, Canadian young adults are increasingly living alone. And when they do marry [or find a life partner], they’re doing it later in life.

There are several reasons why declining marriage is a concern, including the correlation between healthy, stable marriage and a host of better social, economic, and health outcomes in our lives.

But another pressing concern is the connection between marriage; partnership and babies.

As we outline in a new policy brief, Canada has a baby-making problem.

The majority of children in Canada are born to married couples. Like marriage rates, the fertility rate in Canada has also declined for decades. In fact, just before the pandemic, Canada reached a historic low total fertility rate of 1.47 children per woman, well short of the replacement rate of 2.1. While marriage and fertility rates are linked, this doesn’t mean that a drop in one necessarily causes a drop in the other. There are complex social and economic trends contributing to both, but it’s difficult to see a reversal in fertility if fewer people are forming lasting, stable couples.

The pandemic hasn’t helped matters. Globally, we’ve seen women delaying or forgoing children during the pandemic. Early provincial markers suggest births have declined in several Canadian provinces during 2020. It is plausible that Canada’s already worrisome fertility rate took another hit during the pandemic.

How concerned Canadians should be is a matter of debate. Canada has largely managed the issue through immigration, but this may not always be possible in the future. Declining fertility has implications for labour supply and the ability to finance our social safety net, especially elder care as our population ages.

Certainly, economic barriers play a part in the decline of partnership and fertility in that they make stable family formation and childbearing more difficult. Increasing house costs, unstable job markets, and the need for increased education and certification to compete in the job market can result in delayed partnership and fertility.

As Canada emerges from the pandemic it is time to start having a substantial discussion about the country’s sugging fertility rate. A healthy pluralism respects that marriage and childbearing aren’t for everyone, not should the government be playing matchmaker. But there is still a role for government.

Governments can tease up fertility through generous supports, but they often struggle to maintain funding levels over the long haul. Demographer Lyman Stone argues governments must address specific obstacles to marriage, family formation, housing and educational attainment.

There are complex social and cultural contributions to low fertility that governments are less equipped to address. Still, we should be inquiring about the family life young adults aspire to, and identify the barriers that prevent them from realizing these aspirations.

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