Over to You

LET’S BE BABY-FRIENDLY

SUSAN MCCLELLAND September 9 2002
Over to You

LET’S BE BABY-FRIENDLY

SUSAN MCCLELLAND September 9 2002

LET’S BE BABY-FRIENDLY

Over to You

SUSAN MCCLELLAND

It’s no wonder Canada’s birth rate has fallen to a new low. Parents need help.

FOR THE FIRST TIME in the five years I had known him, Paul, who is typically the life of the party, was upset. The 34-year-old, who owns a small business, and his wife Karen, a 37-year-old computer specialist, had been told that they may not be able to have children. Karen had just been diagnosed with endometriosis—a condition in which the tissue that normally lines the uterus grows in other areas of the body. Doctors said the couple would have had a greater chance of conceiving if they had tried earlier in their lives when it was likely the illness wasn’t as advanced. “When we were in our 20s, everyone told us to wait and have children,” said Paul, which is not his real name. “Get a good education. Get good jobs,” he added. “Then start our family when we know we can support them. We did everything we were supposed to do.”

My conversation with Paul—and a lot of other friends—came to mind recently when the 2001 census statistics were released. Not surprisingly, they confirmed what we reporters have been writing for years: the population is aging. By 2011, about 43 per cent of us will be over 45, compared with 37 per cent now and 31 per cent in 1991. Experts are quick to point out the ramifications: as the large population of baby boomers retire, there won’t be enough young people to take their places in the labour force and support them in their old age. A solution to this impending crisis, as endorsed by one thinker after another, is to fortify the projected labour-force gap by increasing immigration. That’s fine. Yet little attention is being paid to a root cause of the problem: the number of children being born in Canada has decreased over the last two decades, reaching an all-time low of 1.52 kids per woman in 2001.

Paul describes Canada as “baby unfriendly.” He adds: “You’re a fool if you have kids when you’re not ready financially. And you’re a fool if you wait too long.” As a new mother (I gave birth to my

daughter Lauren in March) in my early 30s, I can certainly see there are barriers to having kids today. Much of it originates with the increasing necessity for a household to have two full-time salaries—a rare phenomenon in the decades when the baby boomers were born.

Yet despite the feel-good rhetoric of many corporations, the business world is still modelled on a mid-20th century style of labour in which the breadwinners separate business life from family life by leaving the home for upwards of 40 hours a week. Most Canadian governments and businesses are sorely behind in implementing child care systems and flexible work schedules to support the double wage-earning family. So in addition to making sure that there is enough money coming in to pay the bills, families are doling out anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars each month to pay someone else to watch their kids.

The hard-headed modern business climate doesn’t help. Layoffs and job insecurity abound. Employees often don’t feel

their companies are overly interested in their welfare. And if people don’t feel secure, chances are they won’t try to start a family until they do. That’s how it was for Paul and Karen. Two years ago at Christmas, the company Paul had worked with for six years laid him off when it downsized. “We’d just bought a house and we could barely pay the mortgage, let alone think about having kids,” says Paul.

Women are also hesitant in taking the plunge into motherhood for they risk not only their salaries, but their careers, too. Most moms I know have told me that the partnerships, the promotions and the raises are almost always put on hold once they announce they are pregnant. “All the successful women in my business are single,” a mom of two young children, who works in the banking industry, told me recently. “No matter how hard I work or how many extra hours I put in, the perception is that I am not as dedicated as the woman who has no kids.”

But governments are also to blame. Family building incentives, like the baby bonus (yes, it still exists), have been slashed. Federal maternity benefits are usually such a small fraction of the salaries parents make in the workforce that many couples just can’t afford to take the time off to have a baby. The maximum pre-tax entitlement is $413 a week, or $20,650 over 50 weeks, and only a limited number of Canadian employers top up the benefits to approach pre-maternity levels. As a dad-to-be, whose wife will soon be giving up her $70,000-a-year salary as an educator to raise their child, said to me: “You can tell how much our society supports families. We’re raising a future taxpayer on subsistence rates.” And don’t get him started on how the tax system hits a single family income harder than a double one.

Increasingly, children are seen as luxuries reserved for the wealthy. Some people have even described children as liabilities for the middle class and downright mistakes for the poor. No matter how you look at them, though, they are our future. They are the ones who will pay into the retirees’ pension plans, they are the coming consumers, they are the labour force of tomorrow. They’re also pretty nice to have around. I?]

Associate Editor Susan McClelland is on maternity leave. smcclelland@macleans.ca