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Counting up Canada’s missing kids: Lyman Stone on why half of women are falling short of their fertility desires

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This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Lyman Stone, a senior fellow at Cardus specializing in demographics, family, and fertility. They discuss his recent report, “She’s (Not) Having a Baby: Why Half of Canadian Women Are Falling Short of Their Fertility Desires.”

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Lyman Stone, a senior fellow at the Cardus Institute focused on demographics, fertility, and the family. He’s recently authored a major report for Cardus, entitled “She’s Not Having a Baby: Why Half of Canadian Women Are Falling Short of Their Fertility Desires,” which finds that Canadian women are having fewer children than they say they want. I’m grateful to speak with him about the research, its key findings, and their possible policy implications. Lyman, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the report.

LYMAN STONE: Thank you. It’s great to be with you, and I’m glad to see the report making the rounds and being part of the conversation.

SEAN SPEER: This isn’t our first conversation, actually. I interviewed you in August 2021 for The Hub about your work on the gap between idealized and actual family sizes in countries around the world. In this new report for Cardus, you extend your analysis to Canada. Before we get into the report itself, though, let’s start with a refresher on the basic concepts for our listeners. What does it mean for there to be a gap between idealized versus actual family sizes, and what’s a missing birth, or an excess birth for that matter?

LYMAN STONE: That’s a great question. This report, the challenge we had, is there’s the demographer language and then there’s the language real humans speak. So when we talk about fertility, we’ve got a couple of different indicators that we think about. One of them is a very common one that most people have encountered called the total fertility rate. This is basically an imaginary family size that a hypothetical woman would have over the course of her life if current birth rates by age, as they are right now, stayed the same for her whole life. It’s a really crude, blunt indicator. It’s not terribly accurate, but it’s a nice synopsis of how things are going right now for fertility.

Then we have a different indicator, which we can think of as completed fertility, which is how many children have women truly had by a certain age. That’s not the same as total fertility because total fertility is just a hypothetical estimate, whereas completed fertility is an actual one. So it’s only really meaningful at a higher age, like 45 or so. For younger women, the timing of birth changes.

But then we have the indicators that are really of interest to our report, and that is basically fertility intentions and fertility preferences. So these are answers that women—they are surveys of women, for a variety of reasons. Basically, most of the research on this topic focuses on women for a variety of reasons. And then secondly, women are the ones gestating a child, so they’re carrying a unique load; they suffer the largest work penalties for having kids, and also, men tend to misreport their fertility. And some men are not aware of all the children they have, or they do not acknowledge all the children they have, even if they’re aware. So, men are kind of a troublesome survey group.

So, anyways, fertility preferences are what a lot of this report’s new contributions are, including how many kids do people want to have? We ask about fertility preferences using several different question wordings. I’m not going to bog down on them too much, but basically one of those wordings asked people to think about in their ideal world, how many children would they personally want to have? And then the other question basically asked, “Okay, but realistically, how many children do you actually intend to have?” I want to be clear. There were a small number of women who intended to have children they did not want to have. And the reason for that is very simple. Their partner wanted the kid. So it’s important to understand intentions are actually not statements about desires, intentions, or statements about how your desires crash into reality and you try to make the compromise between the two.

So, when someone says, “I intend to have two kids,” that’s not actually telling you anything about what they want to have. They might want five but have had a lot of adverse experiences in life that have made that hard. Maybe they couldn’t find a suitable partner until they were 37, right? So that’s why we ask separately about your ideal personal desires and then also your intentions. And what I can tell you is in longitudinal data, both intentions and these abstract desires do strongly predict behaviours. Women who say they intend or want more are actually more likely to have more. And we found that as well. We also asked a question of like, “Are you actively trying to become pregnant?” And women who said they desired more or intended more were much more likely to say they were actively trying to become pregnant. So these things are actually predictive behaviours.

So, these are the terms we’re looking at. We ask about personal desires, personal intentions, and then also this like, “Do you actually expect to have a child in the next two years?” Very short term. These are the indicators we really focus on. So, then we get into these undershooting and over-shooting or missing and excess children because a lot of women will say, “Ideally”—and particularly for this, we’re looking at women over age 40, right? And they’ll say, “Look, personally, I wanted three kids, and we have two.” So we call that gap a missing kid or fertility undershooting. Some women will say, “In an ideal world, if my life had worked out perfectly, I would’ve had two kids, but I actually have three.”

Now, it’s important to understand those women are not saying they don’t love that third child. Often, what’s going on is they’re saying, “Look, in an ideal world, I would’ve got married to somebody, had two kids. We would’ve lived happily ever after. Instead, I got married to them, we had two kids, they committed adultery with someone else. We got divorced, I got married a second time, and I had another child with that partner. My life didn’t work out the way I ideally wanted to, but I made the best of it I could.” So, this is not an expression of regret about having children; it’s not they don’t like their third kid.

But what we do find is that whether women have excess kids or missing kids, they do report lower life satisfaction than women who hit their goals. Now, women who have excess kids have a bigger loss in life satisfaction than women who have missing kids. So individually, like pound for pound, an excess child is more disruptive to a woman’s life than a missing child, which no surprise, kids are a lot of work, but only about 15 percent of women in their 40s report excess kids. Whereas, about 46 percent report missing kids. So, although kid for kid, an excess kid is more disruptive, there are so many more missing children that these two things across all of Canadian society. Women lose about as much life satisfaction for missing kids as they lose from excess kids.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a great scene-setter for the paper. But I just want to ask one more contextual point because, for me, one of the most fascinating insights in the report is that you have data going back to the 1960s on women’s ideal number of children and their own intentions. You observe that in and around the 1990s, we start to see a gap emerge between preferences and actual outcomes. Do you want to elaborate on these trends in order to help contextualize the paper’s findings?

LYMAN STONE: Sure. So you undersold us a little bit. We actually have surveys on fertility ideals going back to the 1940s. Nineteen forty-five is the oldest survey that we could find of Canadian fertility ideals. And what we find talking about ideals is that in the 1940s and ’50s, Canadian women reported wanting about 3.5 to four kids. Sometimes few people would be like, “Well, how can you want 3.5 kids?” This is an average. Some people said three, some people said four, some people said five, some people said two, okay? So, on average, 3.5 or four kids in the 1940s to ’50s, but by 1970, desires have fallen to about 2.5, and they remained stable at about 2.5 until about 2015, 2018, something like that. But then in our survey, we found desires around 2.2 or 2.3.

Which is to say, we have these high desires in the past and then, for a long time, these moderate desires. And then, just in the last two to five years, it does look like there might have been a decline to slightly lower desires. Now, over time, Canadian fertility rates have also fluctuated. In the report, we didn’t explore how the implied gap has changed over time, but what we do find, our report is the first one to show fertility intentions below two. So there’ve been three prior surveys of fertility intentions in Canada. They all found fertility intentions around 2.1 or 2.2 kids per woman. And we find approximately 1.9. Which is to say, Canadian women today do not even intend to have two kids each. Now, they do still want to have two kids each, two or a little bit more, but realistically, they don’t actually expect to be able to do that.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah, that brings us directly to the findings in the study. Why don’t you unpack those insights? What did you find? Are Canadian women indeed having fewer kids than they say they want?

LYMAN STONE: The simplest way to do this is—I mentioned that total fertility rate, this current now casting of Canadian family size. Right now, in Canada, it’s about 1.4, which means if current birth rates remain stable, Canadian women will have about 1.4 kids. Now, that’s not really what’s going to happen. Fertility rates will keep falling on the whole, but as women age, higher age fertility rates may rise. It’s a complicated thing to forecast what completed fertility will actually be. If you take 1.4 at face value, young Canadian women today say they personally desire to have about two kids. You’re only likely to have 1.4. So, they’re going to be missing 0.6 on average. Canadian women who are in their 40s today say that they wanted 2.4 kids. They’re only likely to have about 1.9. Actually, they only currently report having 1.9, which is to say they’re missing on average about 0.5 kids each. So that is to say every other Canadian woman in her 40s is missing a child she wanted.

Now, it’s actually not quite that simple. Some women are missing two or three kids they wanted to have; some women have excess, but we’re talking averages here. I see that as a real concerning thing, but I do want caveat, it might not be concerning. There might be good reasons for this. So you can imagine a world where the reason women are not having the kids they say they want is because other things in life became so good, so wonderful, so exciting, and desirable that they just no longer felt it was that important to have kids, right? So you can imagine that. Now, I’ve already told you one problem with that theory, which is that we have the life satisfaction of these women, and women who undershoot actually have lower. So that’s not wildly plausible. The meat of this report really was in exploring that question more deeply: Why do women under- or overshoot?

SEAN SPEER: Yeah, we’ll come to that because, as you say, Lyman, it gets to the heart of this issue, which is, if there are obstacles standing in the way of women having as many children as they say they want, it prompts the question, what is the role for public policy to address those obstacles or impediments? And I promise we’ll come to those insights in the paper. But before we get there, do you want to talk a bit about the various ways in which you cut the data, including age, race, income, and provinces? Do any of these different lenses produce noteworthy results?

LYMAN STONE: I think they do. I mean, just running through some of the graphs in the report, which—I mean, look, I got to toot the horn of Cardus here. They did a great job laying out this report. It’s really an attractive report to flip through. It’s like they’ll look at the graphs. They’ve done a great job. I can’t take any design credit. I basically gave them—sorry, I basically gave them some Excel spreadsheets, and they made it beautiful. So if we look by province out in the Prairie Provinces, which for our purposes is Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, they have the highest fertility preferences. 2.4 kids desired personally on average. They’re also the only place in Canada where women still intend to have more than two kids. They intend to have 2.1.

So what’s going on there? That’s probably a difference in religiosity. Worldview orientation could also be a—rurality could be a factor there. I actually was a little bit surprised that this difference wasn’t even bigger, but it is noted that the Prairie Provinces are the only places in Canada where women think they might have, so to speak, replacement rate fertility, population stability. The lowest fertility preferences in Canada, and this was surprising to me, I didn’t expect this because, I guess, I don’t know Canadian regional stereotypes very well, was in Atlantic Canada. In my head, it was going to be British Columbia. I had in my head that B.C. was going to be the real low-preference place, but actually Atlantic Canada. So, for our purposes, that’s Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick.

These places, women had their ideal family size as 1.7. Their intended was just 1.4. This is really, really low. This is unusual. I can tell you there are not a lot of places in the world where women will report ideals of 1.7. That’s what we measure in Mainland China. That’s where we find numbers like that. I don’t think any U.S. state has a number that low. So that’s really interesting to me. Again, I don’t know; I’ve never been to Atlantic Canada. I can’t give you a deep, insightful explanation on why that is, but it’s really striking and really, I think, pessimistic, bearish about the population future of Atlantic Canada, to be quite honest. So I think those are the two big standouts regionally. Yeah, I guess, I wonder—I mean, you looked over the report. You might know better than me. Do you have any speculations on what stood out to you about the regional split? Because I just said, “Wow, that’s interesting. I don’t know what to make of it.”

SEAN SPEER: I share your surprise about the low intentionality in the Maritimes. There’s a tendency to think about Maritime culture as more solidaristic, more communitarian, and so one would think that there would be a greater tendency towards family and larger families. I suspect—this is obviously conjecture—one of the findings in the paper is that there’s a relationship between income and number of children. And it is the case, of course, that Western Canada is richer. So it may be that those two, for lack of better term, intersectionalities are related. But I would say, as you said, Lyman, that listeners ought to dig into the data because, besides the headline numbers, there’s fascinating analysis along regional, age-based, and income lines.

LYMAN STONE: Maybe it’d be worthwhile to highlight on that income thing because I think that’s a big part of the story, especially when we get to why women are postponing is because we found a really weird income split. This is one that—I’ll be honest. I mean, I study this stuff in a lot of countries, and I don’t often see what we found in Canada. So if you’re familiar with U.S. or European discourses about fertility at all, then you know that the stereotype, which there’s some empirical basis for it, is that poor people have bigger families. Stereotype, it’s not 100 percent true, but there’s some empirical basis for it. That is not what we found in Canada. What we found in our data was that the higher income you were, the bigger a family you reported desiring.

So, for example, women with under $25,000 in family income reported only ideally wanting two kids. Whereas women with over $200,000 in family income reported wanting 2.6. And the same difference showed up for intentions: Women under 25,000 only in—actually, women under 50,000 really only intended 1.6 kids. Whereas women with over $200,000 in family income intended 2.2. This is a really remarkable grading. And we found that it showed up in actual children ever born as well. It showed up in near-term fertility expectations, all these things.

So what we found is that Canada’s a place where fertility is uniquely, positively correlated with income, which is nerd speak for Canada’s a place where family is a sign of wealth and social class. If you’re rich, you can buy the right to have kids. It’s a place where—I mean, this is like a classic. This is exactly the kind of thing you would expect if economic barriers are a huge factor limiting fertility, causing people—and not just short-term economic barriers. Like, “Oh, right now costs are high.” Deep economic structures that are shaping people’s expectations and ideals about their future. Because we see that difference in desires. This is not just women saying, “Oh, I’d like three, but I’m not going to have it.” This’s women saying, “I can’t even fathom that life.” This is a big thing. To me, that says Canada’s a place where there’s a really deeply entrenched set of economic and social structures that are making people associate family size with material ambition, career, and success.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah, that’s a fascinating finding, which is maybe somewhat counterintuitive for some listeners because, of course, we have pretty generous means-tested child benefits. When I read that Lyman, I wondered, given that so much of our population is concentrated in a small number of major cities with some of the highest housing costs in the industrialized world, if that has an effect on women in those cities and their aspirations for family size.

But if I can zoom out a bit, because you mentioned a couple of times global context. You’ve done similar research spanning various other countries. Can you place your finding of an average of 0.5 missing children in that broader research? Is Canada’s gap bigger or smaller than peer jurisdictions in say the United States or parts of Europe?

LYMAN STONE: Actually, it’s very similar. It’s going to be very similar to what you find in other Anglophone countries. It’s bigger than what you find in France. I’d have to check what the Nordics look like right now. But it’s very similar to other Anglophone countries like the U.S., Australia, U.K., stuff like that. So I wouldn’t say it’s exceptionally big; it is strangely distributed, this income pattern. But actually, fertility undershooting is endemic across the high-income world. And in fact, the low-income world as well, there’s a very large share of Africa where the women have fewer children than they say they want. Not because they’re having very few kids, but because they actually want big families. There are a lot of places in Africa where women report wanting six or seven kids, and they on average have four or five.

And, of course, United Nations, population demographers, and family planning experts say, “Oh, this is a crisis of disempowered women.” It’s like, “Well, they said wanted five kids.” There might be disempowerment, but I’m not sure it’s working in the direction you think it is. That’s a whole different beast right there. But yeah, Canada’s overall gap wasn’t unusual. I think that the patterns we see in Canada, Canada has a lot of uniqueness to it that I think we really tried to explore and highlight. So, for example, our sample is strange because we had to translate our whole survey into French because we wanted to have a really large French oversample because we wanted to make sure that we were capturing the possibly very big differences between Anglo- and Francophone Canada. And that also because Canada has such a big growing diverse immigrant population, we really had a pretty elaborate set of native language, mother tongue, ethnic origin questions. And we had an oversample of immigrants as well because we wanted to make sure we were capturing the really unique diversity of Canada. That makes it a very different beast from other countries. Nonetheless, while Canada is different in a lot of ways, the human capital-intensive development model that Canada has is shared across a lot of countries, and a lot of them have a very similar problem.

SEAN SPEER: One final question before we dig into the implications of your analysis: If Canada’s fertility rate is roughly 1.4 children per woman, what does it mean that women are having on average 0.5 fewer children than they say they want? Does it mean that we’d actually be close to the replacement rate if we were able to close this gap?

LYMAN STONE: If every woman in Canada had exactly the number of children that she says she personally desires, Canada would have replacement rate fertility. Canadian women report wanting replacement rate fertility. That is their stated desire. Now, you can make of that way, you will; maybe you have caveats; maybe you think, “Oh, is surveys really the right way to measure that?” Whatever. But that is what they say they want. So you can either listen to what women say they want or you can think you know better than them. Personally, I feel that if I told my wife, “You say you want X number of kids, but actually I know what you really want,” I don’t think it would be a great thing for me to say.

In practice, this is what policymakers do. They say, “Oh, surveys show you want this, but do you really? We think we know better what you really want.” But yes, Canada would have replacement rate fertility, which, I guess, we haven’t defined that term, but it means the fertility rate at which population in the long run with no change immortality will be stable even without immigration. Now, Canada also gets tons of immigration. So if you had a replacement rate fertility and your life expectancy improving, and you had all his immigration, the pathway to a hundred million Canadians or 150 million Canadians would be a straight shot at current rates of change. I think different people have different views of what’s desirable for Canada’s future.

Do you want to pilfer language from across the pond? Do you want great Canada or little Canada? And I think people will have different views of that, particularly when it comes to questions about environment and ecological sustainability and crowding and housing, things like that. My bias, I’d like to see a billion Americans and if we have a billion Americans, I’d love for our Canadian neighbours not to feel too put upon. So you should probably get like a hundred million or something, just to have a fair distribution. So I’d love to see a great and mighty Canada, but there will be differences of views on that.

SEAN SPEER: One of the reasons why this research is so important is that it challenged the notion that our declining fertility rate is merely a function of personal preferences. And as such is not really responsive to public policy interventions. What, according to your survey, are the factors behind the gap between idealized and actual fertility rates?

LYMAN STONE: The story that you would want to find if you wanted to justify some public program to tackle fertility is that the number one reason that people aren’t having kids is some specific, concrete financial cost. “Childcare costs too much. That’s why I’m not having kids.” That’s what you would want to find. That is not what we found. The story you would want to find, if you want to say, oh, it’s all just—people don’t really want this, it’s just changing preferences is you’d want to see that people only report desiring 1.8 kids. That’s not what we found. What we found is a much more nuanced story of an interaction between changing material costs and changing values, norms, and attitudes. So we asked women, basically, the question we asked was, thinking about your family planning or your—I forget the exact wording, but basically, as you think about the decisions you make about your family, what factors have influenced it?

And then we gave them a couple of simple options: Finances, work-life balance, a couple of these very broad things. And then, if they said, “Oh, financial issues,” you said, “Oh, what kind of financial issues? Was it housing? Was it childcare? Was it—your job doesn’t pay enough?” Whatever. And we gave them all these details. And then we also gave women an opportunity to just write in whatever they wanted. We got tons of responses. Very few women selected only one reason, only one factor influencing their family decisions. And then what we did is we said, “Okay, if we compare women who gave a given reason to women who didn’t give that reason, how do their fertility expectations differ?” And what we looked at is their expectations in the next two years, because academic research suggests that’s the most accurate survey response.

But actually, I can say we also tested this against their intentions to ever have more. And we found the same thing, and we tested it against their personal fertility ideals, and we found very similar responses too. So this actually applies to all of our indicators, but we focused on the next two years because that’s the most academically well-founded indicator. So what we found is that the number one reason that Canadian women report—the number one concern influencing their fertility plans—is that they really want to grow and develop more as a person before they have kids. So you have to ask, what does that mean? Is that an economic barrier or is that a change in values and attitudes? And I would answer this is both. So on the one hand, there’s values and attitudes about what it means to be a fully developed and mature person, right? Those change.

That might include a lot of self-exploration. Maybe you need to travel to Thailand a few times to really find your inner self. So there are values and attitudes, norms, competing consumption standards, that’s all. There is a value in attitude, but there’s also an economic factor there. How does a person discover who you are? Well, you discover who you are by hitting major life milestones that trigger considerations about life, considerations about yourself, adoption of new behavioural sets that mature you. So finishing education, getting married, owning a home, having a stable job. These kinds of milestones mature you, right? Once you have a home, you learn to take care of it. Once you have a job that requires you to be there, you develop the habits of a stable person going to a job. Once you are no longer in school, you stop being a child, and you learn to do some adulting.

And as school has extended well beyond legal adulthood. We have legal adults who are still thinking that someone is going to give them a syllabus about what’s expected of them in life. Now, not condemning Canadian young adults for this; these are rational things. It’s not like if you just drop out of school your life goes great. But my point is, economically, structurally, we’ve created a society where the life events that provoke self-development come later and later and later and later. So there’s a values change about what it means to be developed and also an economic structural change about when people hit their major milestones. And I can tell you, if you just go through the top reasons that people gave for factors influencing their family plans, wanting to grow and develop as a person is the biggest one, then you get the desire to save money, especially for retirement.

Let me be clear: The generalized abstract desire for savings was a bigger factor than housing costs, childcare costs, insufficient salaries, low wages, unstable employment. Just this nebulous, “I just want to make sure I’ve got enough of just a pile of money for general purposes.” “The need to focus on career. “I need to get ahead in my career before I have a kid.” The belief that children require intense care, and that’s one to come back to. The lack of a suitable partner, the desire for leisure consumption and travel, the desire to have leisure and freedom, still living with your parents, still in school; these are the top reasons. After those reasons, there’s a major break, and then all the other reasons are small. Those are the big reasons people give. And those are mostly life course. “I just haven’t hit the stable career point yet. And then I do want them; I just haven’t gotten to the stable career point yet. I want kids; I still live with my parents. I want kids, but I’m still in school. I’m just not there yet.” That’s the main reason. And that is both about values, attitudes, and economic structures. There’s an avenue for policy tackling those economic structures, and there’s an avenue for policy thinking about how we engage with those values and attitudes. But those are very different policies, and some of them are very weird.

SEAN SPEER: Lot of insight there. The subject of delayed family formation is something that we’ve talked about on the podcast, and not just because I’m a 40-year-old father of a two-year-old and a seven-week-old, but because, as you say—

LYMAN STONE: Yeah, how’s your back feeling?

SEAN SPEER: [Laughter] But because, as you say, this is increasingly the experience of a lot of Canadians, and the consequence, to come back to the paper, is the net effect is that we’re having on average 0.5 fewer children than we say we want. I know the report isn’t a policy paper. It’s supposed to situate an informed future policy research by Cardus, but you yourself are a serious thinker and scholar on family policy, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask. What are two or three areas that Canadian policymakers might focus on if they wanted to try to close the gap between desired and actual family size?

LYMAN STONE: So I’d point to three broad realms to frame our thinking. So the first thing is I do want to emphasize this paper. You’re right, it’s not a policy paper. What it really is is a shot across the bow. To say this is an issue. We need to be thinking about policies for this because, the reality is right now, no country has rolled out a set of generalized policies that successfully launched a fertility revolution. Actually, let me roll that back. Two countries have, but they’re unique cases that are not going to replicate easily. But the point is nobody’s just found a silver bullet policy that will fix everything, which means we need experimentation, we need very open dialogue about how to help families achieve the things they want for their life, and we need some experimentation. So that’s the main call. This paper is just kind of like, “Let’s start throwing some stuff at the wall and see what sticks.”

So when we think about things to throw at the wall, it can fall in three big buckets. Kind of a mixed metaphor. Okay. The first one is the direct costs of having kids. So this is stuff like a child allowance or a baby bonus, or childcare subsidies. It’s like we’re just throwing money at—it costs money to have kids. There’s a ton of research on these policies. A lot of countries do that. They do work a little bit. You throw money at it, you get a little bit more babies. Okay. So that’s the first bucket.

SEAN SPEER: Can I just interject for one second because one of the most interesting findings in the paper is that—and it speaks to your point about the nuanced nature of a policy response tackling both the economic as well as the value-based drivers behind these developments, is Quebec often characterized as having a pro-natalist or pro-family set of policies, including its highly subsidized childcare system. And yet you find that fertility intentions have fallen more there than anywhere else in the country. So all this, to say, those policies are no doubt useful and important, but they aren’t—

LYMAN STONE: But they’re limited.

SEAN SPEER: —a silver bullet, yeah.

LYMAN STONE: They’re not a silver bullet. We talk about childcare costs, but that wasn’t one of—I think that that’s maybe number 18 on the reasons that women cited in this survey or something. But I do want to emphasize the question about generalized savings came up a lot; that was a big one.

SEAN SPEER: Which is odd of course, right? Because it’s not reflected in Canadians’ own behaviour.

LYMAN STONE: Well, I think a good way to think about this is maybe we should think about, and I don’t know Canada’s current system on this. So Canada might already have something about this, which case is called to expand rather than invent, but childcare, retirement credits. And what I mean is in a calculation of public pension benefits, you should get bonus points and bonus pension money if you have babies. If you took time off work to raise your kids, or maybe if you didn’t take. Just if you had kids, you get more money in retirement. This is a big worry people have. And also, the nice thing about it is the costs of this would be way down the line, and that is if you stimulate people to have kids, by the time you’d pay the cost in their parents’ retirement, the kids are earning. Financially, it’s easier to swing than an immediate child allowance. But the point is it might be something to think about because this is something people say that they care about. There is some academic research showing that retirement-based interventions do impact family formation. So it’s could be a productive idea. But that’s one set is these, like basically fiscal transfers.

The second is what we can think of as economic structures. So this is stuff like, “Are we regulating the housing market inappropriately or do we need to change the regulations so that we can build more housing? I think that’s a very productive idea; there’s a lot of research showing that more liberalized zoning and more rapidly growing housing supply leads to more babies. If people’s mortgages randomly decline for some reason in terms of their monthly payment, a lot of the saved money goes into making babies. There’s some very nice research showing that using really high-quality data. So housing reform. But another one is thinking about educational reform.

I think it would be worthwhile to have a commission that randomly looks at public job postings and looks at them and says, “You say this job requires a college degree. You have proof. What is the skill that the college student is going to learn in college that this job requires? Show it to us. And if it doesn’t, then we’ll be expecting you to hire some number of non-college graduates for this job.” And I know that sounds very like nanny state-ish, but at the end of the day, we have to think about occupational licensing. Some jobs have formal occupational licensing that prohibits people from doing a job until they have the right piece of paper. And look, if it’s a surgeon operating on you, that makes sense. If it’s an interior decorator, that doesn’t make sense. So we should be thinking about licensing that is not for health and safety purposes and whether it’s necessary. And I got a spoiler for you. Most jobs that say must have college degree it is not a health and safety concern. It’s just about signalling that you’re a smarty pants. Okay? So I think we need to think about that on the labour market side,. Can we find a way to nudge companies into doing more careful analysis of job candidates and actually looking at their skills rather than just using degree- and certification-based signals?

Beyond that, I think we need to think about educational timelines. Can we incentivize schools to get four years of college done in three? Can we do that? Quebec has slightly higher fertility than the rest of Canada. The conventional story on this, it’s because of childcare. I’m skeptical because, if you actually look what’s really going on in Quebec, is that on average they have children about a year and a half earlier than the rest of Canada. And that explains the whole difference. Why do they have children a year and a half earlier? It’s CEGEP. It’s a fact. In Quebec, people finish their high school a year earlier, and then a lot of them go to CEGEP, and they finish their quote-unquote “higher education” two years earlier. And then some go on to university and finish at the same time.

Quebec has a system that gets a lot of people done with school a year or two faster. The result is they have babies a year or two earlier, and the result is they have 0.1, 0.2 more kids by the time they’re done. That’s the story. That’s what’s happening. I think. I can’t prove it, but I think. So finding a way to get school done faster is important. We want to help people hit those life development milestones quickly. Again, and I want to emphasize this, the point of this report is not women shouldn’t go to college, they should stay home and make babies. The point is, let’s try and get them all their degrees, all their certifications faster, get them the career they want at 25 instead of 30, so that they can feel stable so that they can use their mat leave when they are healthier and have lower miscarriage risks, and don’t have to pay for IVF. That’s the goal here. The goal is not get in the kitchen. The goal is have it all. And if you want to stay home, great. Love it.

SEAN SPEER: Or even have the number of kids that you want to have, right?

LYMAN STONE: Yes, exactly. Exactly, the goal is to have the life you want.

SEAN SPEER: Yes, this may be a good segue to a final question because you write that “Canadian fertility rates are too low in the paper,” which is arguably an empirical and normative statement. But in a way, the research isn’t making normative judgments about how many children Canadian women ought to have. It’s zeroing in on the fact that Canadian women are having fewer kids than they say they want to have.

LYMAN STONE: There is a normative framework in this paper, and it’s one that—we can look under the hood here a little bit that we discussed a lot on the editing of the report. Because, look, most of us associate with Cardus, is not a secret, are broadly religious people who have normative values that are not just generic liberalism. We might be committed to liberalism, but this is not the sum of our values. That’s not the normative framework of this paper. The normative framework of this paper is liberalism. People say they want this, therefore we believe it is a positive good for government to help them achieve it because the purpose of liberal government is to enable human flourishing as defined by individuals themselves. This paper has a normative framework. That is it.

Is that the normative framework that I use to guide my life personally? No, it is not, but it’s the framework of public discourse in the liberal pluralistic society that we all inhabit. So we think it’s a compelling one. But I do want to get to my third bucket of policies because it’s the fun one. So I mentioned there are two countries that have had successful pronatal policies there. Israel and Georgia Actually, there’s a third one, Romania, but they did it through savage totalitarianism that led to a lot of dead and orphaned children as well. So no one wants that one. So bracketed or ignoring Romania. Bad example. No one wants it. The other two are Israel and Georgia. The Israeli case, it has a lot to do with the uniqueness of being a jeopardized and threatened country surrounded by countries that want to kill you and having a religion with a distinctively pronatal position—all this stuff.

Georgia’s the one I want to focus on because in 2007, the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which is 90 percent of the people, did a big campaign to encourage more fertility. I won’t bother you in all the details, but the point is he had a huge, highly publicized campaign to try and convince people to have third kids. It worked. The fertility rate went from 1.5 to 2.2 in 18 months. It started nine months after his announcement. It has remained near replacement for 15 years now. This guy, he has personally baptized something like 50,000 third-born children in Georgia since this campaign began, which is like 30 percent of all third-born children in Georgia. The increase was driven by third-born children to marry Georgian Orthodox couples, which was, those were the people eligible for the special benefits and stuff. And it didn’t cost a penny; it was an ideological intervention.

So when we think about ideological interventions, they’re hard to frame in a liberal society where our government is somewhat committed to some degree of neutrality. Now, there are some ideologies our government actively promotes—good government, democracy, yada yada—but family size—okay. So what ideology can there be? And I’ll say this: Every time the government interacts with a family, which is a lot—healthcare, schools, education, all this stuff, child services—something is communicated about parenting, good parenting; there is an unspoken message. Usually, the message is, you really need to try hard to be good at parenting and learn more and do more, and it’s complicated. And here’s a list of what you should do to be a good parent. And this gets to a big theme of the report, which is intensive parenting. We found Canadians really believe that being a parent is so, so hard. It’s so much work. It’s not just a full-time job. It’s a stressful, full-time job. You get the sense it’s not super fun for a lot of these respondents. For me personally, it’s a lot of fun. My kids—they’re totally crazy. They’re weird, but it’s fun. It’s work, but it’s fun work. It’s hard work, but it’s fun work.

I think the government should consider that when you have a baby and a 600-page manual is put in a parent’s hand, that is an act of ideological communication about how to be a good parent. And the answer is: do your research. That is a bad message. Now, look, I’m not saying you should just like, “Oh, whatever. Who knows how to care for my kid?” Yeah, you should read the manual. But that’s probably not the best message for helping people achieve their goals. We need to find a way or in every interaction that a government has with families to communicate: “You can parent; you have what it takes. This is something virtually all humans do.” Or at least it used to be that virtually all humans did this. And in the vast majority of cases, they did a fine job of it. Like, is everybody the best parent? No, almost everybody’s an adequate parent, and you can be too. And you know what? Is it a lot of work? Yeah. But it can be a lot of fun work. You can do it with people. Society will come around you and help you and support you.

You don’t need to be stressed out of your mind about this. We’re going to help you with this. You have what it takes. You’ve got this, and it’s going to be a crazy ride, but it’s going to be fun. That is the message our governments need to communicate. Not “We’re a baby-friendly hospital, which means we’re a mom-unfriendly hospital.” We get on this like, “Oh, we’re kid friendly.” Which means we expect the parents to do 57 hours of volunteer work to be part of this daycare, okay? It’s insane. We need to find a way for the government to counterprogram the extremely high-intensity norms of modern parenting. You don’t have to put your kids in 57 classes. If you want to, that’s okay. That’s fine. But you don’t have to. It’s okay. You don’t have to learn a specific parenting style and memorize a set of key phrases that will trick your child into becoming an empathetic person. You don’t have to. It’s okay. They might end up a little bit messed up. Everybody does. That’s why we have counsellors. We just need to have a little bit more like take the parenting wars down and chill out. The vast majority of people are fine parents, and that’s fine. And that is the ideology of pronatalism.

SEAN SPEER: It’s been a fascinating conversation on a fascinating and highly important topic. The report is, “She’s Not Having a Baby: Why Half of Canadian Women Are Falling Short of Their Fertility Desires.” Lyman Stone, senior fellow at the Cardus Institute, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

LYMAN STONE: My pleasure.

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