Stephen J. Shaw is a mild-mannered Brit. He is also a demographer, and in analysing global birth data he noticed there is a collapse in births coming. His response was to create a documentary called The Birth Gap, parts of which are now available free online.
If you watch the documentary, you will notice an important aspect of this demographic decline that is most often entirely missed or rebranded in any discussions of fertility. This is the sadness of women who are struggling with the loss of children in their own lives. There are women whose husbands are immature playboys, women who experience divorce and have to start afresh, women who cannot find partners—all while the biological clock ticks on. Of course, not every woman feels this way, but a good portion does. After all, having children is a human universal, something once taken for granted.
So the question is why does this angle on fertility receive so little attention? Why do the voices of these women go unheard? A recent column by John Ibbitson in the Globe and Mail sums up the received wisdom. When women are educated, he says, they by default desire fewer children. “When women in any given society acquire the power to decide how many children they are going to have, they choose to have fewer,” he writes. He assumes broadly that, while there might be negative social consequences, on an individual level—the one that really matters for him—low fertility is a good thing.
But what if we actually asked, rather than assumed, what women want?
Cardus wanted to know precisely how Canadian women felt about their own fertility ideals and intentions, so we asked them. In a survey done by demographer Lyman Stone in conjunction with Angus Reid, we found that nearly half of women at the end of their reproductive years have had fewer children than they wanted. As we go about our lives, we should know that one in two women at work, in stores, and jogging on the street, wish to have more kids, and were unable to fulfill this. The survey also shows how unfulfilled fertility goals come with a discernable loss in life satisfaction. (So too do “excess births”—it’s just that the number of Canadian women experiencing that problem is vanishingly small when contrasted with those who experience missing births.)
That women choose a lower ideal family size today in contrast with bygone decades might speak to Ibbitson’s point about increasing education translating into lower fertility, except that he does not provide evidence of this being desirable, simply that this is what happens. Our survey points to multiple and diverse reasons for women who want (more) children deciding not to have them. Included in the top five are “wanting to grow as a person,” “desire to save money,” “kids require intense care,” need to focus on career,” and “no suitable partner.” Each would deserve its own discussion but the bottom line is that by the end of a woman’s reproductive life, half of women say they wished for children they do not have. To neglect the sadness associated with this is to do half of Canadian women a disservice.
Further on the point about education levels consistently facilitating lower fertility: If we take income levels as a proxy for education, in that higher income women most likely have higher education levels, the survey shows that regardless of income, fertility ideals are higher than fertility intentions. Ideals are the dreams we have for our fertility. Intentions are what we actually think we will do. And in Canada today, both ideals and intentions are higher than Canada’s low and getting lower fertility rate.
There are actually plenty of uncontroversial ways to support a higher fertility culture, in which women can get an education, work, and have the number of children they desire. Some of these may include more family-friendly workplaces for parents and public policy that recognizes the desire to form families. It almost certainly involves cultural change; a different public narrative that doesn’t place motherhood in opposition to fulfillment and a media culture including movies, television, commercials, and yes, newspaper columns, that don’t abide by outdated visions that pit motherhood against satisfaction in a variety of areas of life. It may also include women speaking to the sadness of family foregone. But any and all change starts with accepting the data: “missing” children are a far greater problem for women today than “excess” children.
In his documentary, Shaw says a shrinking young population means “taxes are destined to soar, pension systems will become unsustainable while our health-care systems will not be able to cope with the ratio of old people to take care of compared to the shrinking number of taxpayers. Businesses will struggle to find workers to hire, school closures will accelerate while social care will continually be slashed.” Yes. It also means diminished life satisfaction for all women.
So many Canadians are rightly thankful for their kids. It’s well past time to give a thought to those who hope to have (more) children and find they cannot. In an emptying planet, it’s time to stop reciting decades-old myths when it comes to women’s fertility ideals and intentions.