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Canada: A Childless Culture
By Anne Marie Owens/The National Post
Feb. 18, 2006

Canadian families do not make babies like they used to. A dramatic decline in fertility in recent decades, combined with an aging population, has the potential to transform every aspect of Canadian society, from schools and housing to social attitudes toward family. In this, the first of a four-part series, the National Post examines the far-reaching implications of the fertility crisis.

In a future Canada, where senior citizens drastically outnumber babies, schools will be replaced by old-age homes, neighbourhoods of single-family dwellings will make way for smaller condos and townhouses, and playgrounds will become disused relics of the past.

The sound of children's chattering voices, once common, will be rarely heard.

Baby-making may come to be regarded no longer as the private prerogative of consenting adults, and more an act of national duty.

This is what a childless Canada would look like. But it is not the science-fiction vision of a far-off future. In less than a decade, seniors will outnumber children in Canada; in just 15 years, deaths may outnumber births.

The country's population is in decline, and unless massive immigration or an overhaul of reproductive attitudes and policies compels a radical turnaround, Canada will soon reflect a lopsided and never-seen-before demographic reality where the young are drastically outnumbered by the old.

It is not that the greying of Canada has come as a surprise. For nearly 20 years, demographers and economists alike have been making projections based on the burgeoning pool of ageing Baby Boomers.

What many didn't see coming, however, was an accompanying decline in fertility levels, which has been dramatic, persistent -- and coincidentally timed so as to deliver a double-whammy to Canada's population growth.

By the year 2015, for the first time in the history of Canadian population statistics, there will be more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 15. Even the normally staid national bureau of record-keeping, Statistics Canada, declared, "This would be an unprecedented situation in Canada," when it announced late last year the critical turning point in a population projections report.

These projections, which were shaped by various growth scenarios, predicted fertility rates ranging from a low of 1.3 babies per woman to a high of 1.7 babies per woman. That puts Canada in line with the growing roster of nations beset by declining fertility: France, 1.9; Australia, 1.7; Germany, 1.3; Italy and Spain, 1.2, Japan, 1.2; Korea, 1.1.

Only the United States is conspicuous among its industrialized neighbours for a fertility rate that continues to remain above what is known as replacement level, with 2.01 babies per woman. The main reason for this difference seems to be in the fertility rate among women aged 24-29, which has been cut almost in half in Canada and many of the other nations with declining fertility, but which remains virtually unchanged in the U.S., where more traditional values prevail, says demographer Alain Belanger, the demographer behind Statistics Canada's latest projections.

What's most interesting is that the most serious decline in fertility is affecting those whom the nation would most like to see as parents. The highest-paid, highest-educated women are forgetting about motherhood entirely or seriously reducing their number of desired offspring in what has been called a revolution in fertility.

Linda Duxbury, an Ottawa academic who has been at the forefront of research into work-life balance and the impact of various workplace initiatives, has found that higher-income, professional women aren't marching with their feet to protest the dearth of truly family-friendly policies; they are responding pragmatically by first delaying child-bearing and then having only one child or remaining childless.

Other researchers have noted the disconnect between intention and reality when it comes to child-bearing, with the majority of women still indicating in surveys that their desired number of children is two, but then, for various reasons, their reality of family life is limited to either one offspring or none.

Margaret Somerville, founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, says the most profound impact of this decline in fertility may be in changing attitude. She sees the trend toward delaying or avoiding child-bearing as just another aspect of society's drift toward a culture of "intense individualism," where children are seen more as "a desirable thing to have, rather than as new individuals to repopulate the world."

In a culture driven largely by the rights of adults to reproduce on their own timeline, to have access to the technology that affords reproduction at later ages, to limit reproduction in order to better pursue a career path, what may have fallen by the wayside is the consideration of the greater good for society, Prof. Somerville says.

"Whenever we start talking about children and about families, we focus on the adults' rights to have children or to not have children -- we don't talk about our society and what it needs, whether it needs children."

Rod Beaujot, an expert in demography, helped bring together a group of academics to investigate options out of a shared concern that no one was conducting the research necessary to guide Canadian public policy in this critical area.

"There's always been this sense that we can fix this problem through immigration and avoid any population decline that way, but that isn't necessarily going to resolve it," says Prof. Beaujot, who teaches sociology at the University of Western Ontario.

He says that when the concern is the age structure -- the balance or imbalance between old and young -- immigration may not provide a solution, unless the government is prepared to target immigrants for their likelihood of reproducing.

"If you start encouraging childbearing, you're meddling in people's lives. There are pitfalls to going down this road," he says.

"There isn't much attention being paid to this by the federal government ... This is going to get into politically difficult territory."

The academic network, called the Population Change and Public Policy Research Cluster, is examining the population-based fallout on everything from the labour market and productivity, to such seeming intangibles as social cohesion and acceptance of ethnic diversity.

"This cluster will help provide the context for important policy discussions on the future of Canada," says the network. "At stake are the long-term interests of our society, including its very reproduction and the diversity that it manages to incorporate."

Just as significant in its implications for changes in society is the flip-side of this fertility crisis: Who is having babies in Canada? Nunavut's birth rate is projected to remain well above replacement level, at almost three babies per woman, and is consistently the highest in the country in a baby boom led largely by young, single aboriginal women; the visible minority population is projected to increase dramatically in the next decade, thanks largely to higher fertility levels among some groups of immigrants and to the younger age structure of these immigrant groups.

By the time Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2017, one out of every five people will be a visible minority, the highest proportion since records have been kept.

According to ethno-cultural projections released by Statistics Canada last year, the country's visible minority population is projected to increase by between 56% and 111% between 2001 and 2017, while the rest of the population is only expected to increase by between 1% and 7% in the same period.

If Canada looks to immigration to offset the combined impact of an ageing population and declining fertility, it may have to consider such potentially fraught immigration policies as campaigns targeting ethnic and cultural groups known for high fertility rates and awarding more points on immigration applications to those with young families, Dr. Beaujot says.

And even if politicians managed to enact such politically incorrect policies, he says there's no guarantee that people known for their high fertility in their home countries won't alter their "reproductive behaviour" once they assimilate into Canadian life.

Avi Friedman, a McGill University professor who considered this demographic change for his book Peeking Through The Keyhole, says the most likely policy response to declining fertility will be monetary encouragement to have children.

He says that something will have to be done to alleviate the societal impact of producing a generation of pampered only-children, who are aware almost from birth of their special status.

"If you check housing today you will notice a very interesting phenomenon -- we have smaller families but larger homes. We're increasing the level of comfort," says Prof. Friedman, who teaches architecture and whose book examines how our neighbourhoods and houses will reflect the coming demographic change.

He envisions a future where these fewer children are showered with the more plentiful resources of their families and afforded more "comforts" in their daily living, and where neighbourhoods are filled with a blend of "life-cycle" homes equipped to support people as they age, large "bi-generational homes" big enough to accommodate families and ageing parents, homes for the multiple family dwellings favoured by some ethnic groups, and clusters of condos or townhouses where good friends congregate in their old age.

"Even if you just look at housing alone, and the communities in which we live, there are going to be significant changes from this," Prof. Friedman says. "It is going to dramatically change the way we live."

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