Transcript: Andrea Mrozek
My interview with the Cardus Family fellow
In recent weeks, on the Lean Out podcast, we’ve been exploring the issue of declining fertility in rich countries. And Canada is not exempt from this trend. Canada’s fertility rate has been dropping for years, and is now at 1.4 births per woman — well below population replacement levels. My guest on the program today argues that these statistics represent a world of hidden personal pain. The think tank she’s a fellow at recently conducted research that found that “nearly half of Canadian women at the end of their reproductive years have had fewer children than they wanted.”
Andrea Mrozek is a senior fellow with Cardus Family.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Andrea, welcome to Lean Out.
AM: Thanks so much for having me.
TH: So nice to have you on. You and I first began corresponding after I spoke at a Cardus event. We met in person recently at a Cardus panel that you sat on in Ottawa. I have to say, this panel has really stayed with me. The panel was on fertility in Canada, and both you and the demographer Lyman Stone were referencing a recent Cardus report. I was surprised, there’s very little up-to-date data on women’s fertility in this country. So, this report is pretty significant. To start today, walk me through the broad strokes on the state of fertility in this country. What do we know at this point?
AM: Right. So, globally we’re seeing the dwindling fertility trends, something you’ve touched on quite a lot on this podcast. In Canada, we have the book Empty Planet speaking to that, from Ibbitson and Bricker. Basically, Canada is no different on the dwindling fertility front. Several decades ago, the 40s to the 60s, the ideals around childbearing were three or four children. That dropped to two or three children in the 1980s. And then by the 90s in Canada, you’re seeing that intentions are well below ideals. Women are saying they want to have two or three children, and are not actually doing that. So, with the Cardus survey, which we partnered with Lyman Stone on, we asked women specifically about their fertility desires and intentions. And what we found is not terribly surprising, I suppose. But it is also an unspoken topic. It’s not really talked about in these terms, but 50 percent of women — so, half — would like to have more children than they’re currently having. We did ask a broad group of women, 3,000 Canadian women, some born in Canada, some not. And that was the result.
Canadian fertility is really at the lowest it’s ever been, at 1.4 children per woman. Replacement is of course 2.1, which every developed country would now be striving for. A different way of putting that is that for every two Canadian women you meet, one is likely to end up with a so-called missing child — a child she would’ve wanted to have but did not have.
And then further, the survey is filled with data — breakouts by ethnicity and geographic representation across the country. But we also did correlate that with unmet happiness goals. So, the happiness hit is actually highest for women who say they had more children than they wanted, but that’s just a very, very thin sliver of women in Canada. The larger percentage is quite obviously these women who say they’d want to have more children, and don’t. Unfortunately, today just talking about that is controversial. Usually the popular consensus is that low fertility is a matter of women’s choice and this is what we want. This is a good thing; it’s progress. It’s broadly viewed as being progressive. We can talk about that a bit later. But those are the survey results, in the broad strokes.
TH: It’s really interesting because it fits quite well with what I hear anecdotally from women all the time — that women are not having as many children as they’d like. There’s a lot of reasons for this. Now, I would assume that both the housing crisis and the precarity of work would be driving this. But you identify a number of other reasons. What are some of the reasons that you looked at behind this trend?
AM: So that was a key question in this survey. We asked about factors that are influencing women’s fertility. We asked women who want to have children why they say they won’t in the next two years. It’s such a diversity of answers that came out through that question. There’s just a lot of complexity. I do agree, most people would turn to economic constraints. We would think it’s a lack of benefits, perhaps, childcare money.
But I’ll just list the top five. That’s probably the easiest way of diving into the conversation. The top five influences on not having kids when you say you want them in the next two years are — the number one reason was wanting to grow as a person. Certainly very broad. The desire to save money; a need to focus on career; the notion that kids require intense care. Then, the fifth reason was the inability to find a suitable partner. And then rounding out the top 10 would be things like a desire for a leisure; living with parents; still in school.
So, it’s really a mix of what we might call life course factors, lifestyle. I put trying to find a partner in that category. But then, of course, there’s the education factors. We’re in school for so long these days. That partners with — to my mind, anyways — the desire to save money. Which is clearly a financial factor. So, it’s not one thing that’s preventing women from having the kids they want. It’s a whole host of things that culminate in a kind of life course. Missing life script factors, is the way I see it.
TH: I do want to talk about this “cultural life scripts” idea, because I think that’s such a powerful one. Certainly when I think about the women of our generation, the new script that we have, it really concentrates too many life events in the early thirties. The idea that you would have finished school and paid off loans, and be pushing super hard in your career, and then also, at the same time, finding a partner and getting married and establishing a home and caring for small children — it’s no surprise that this is really difficult to achieve. Walk us through what the cultural life script currently is. I think it’s helpful to name what it is, and then how you see that not serving women well.
AM: So, the cultural life script was once — for better or for worse, not too long ago — that you finish school, whatever level that might be, get married and have kids. Usually in that order. Today, one could even say we don’t have a life script anymore. If we do, it goes from finishing school, which can take forever and then fades out — so you’re kind of left developing yourself for any amount of time, a long period of time. Once you finish the school, you’re paying it off. The life script is really altered very dramatically. With that, I think, left a lot of the markers into adulthood that would help us move forward and out of adolescence into lives of our own. Markers into adulthood can be having kids, getting married. But it can also be other things that are missing.
Fertility is tied to religiosity, for sure. And we aren’t a religious culture anymore. You used to have a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah, or a confirmation, that said, “You’re not a kid anymore, you’re entering into adulthood.” So, extended adolescence is a thing. Life scripts these days for women of our generation — I’m born in the late 70s — involved a whole lot of schooling. A supposition that family will just happen, but really career is what you want to work on. And growing as a person, most consequentially, appeared to exclude family life. So, you see so many women saying, “I need to grow as a person.” As a woman in my late 40s, I’m thinking family life is a key way to grow as a person, but we kind of exclude those two things. And there’s other aspects too, with the lack of a marriage culture. Fertility becomes quite a different discussion.
You quite obviously want to be talking to teenagers about not getting pregnant, but there is no point at which we switch from discussions of birth control into fertility as a cultural good, as something that is broadly positive. As something that everybody can do. So there’s a lingering sense of fertility as pathology, which is an interesting theme — something we need to fix and very tightly control.
But yeah, the life script is so drastically altered as to be possibly non-existent. The benefits are that we get endless choices, and then the drawbacks are that we get endless choices. And it can be really hard to navigate all those choices.
TH: For sure. This idea of personal development is really interesting. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms until I was sitting at that panel and listening to what you all were talking about. This idea that we need to work on ourselves. That if we are not emotionally evolved, we’re not ready for marriage or children. And that this is some sort of reward for “doing the work.” Can you talk a little bit about that idea? Because that is so prevalent, but it does not really get articulated.
AM: Yeah. We’re talking about the notion of kids as capstone — something you do when you’re ultimately very, very ready. I’m more familiar with this idea in the marriage domain. There’s quite a lot of marriage research and literature talking about marriage having become a capstone item in life. Nice to have, but not necessary — a little bit of a luxury good. And of course it sounds quaintly conservative, old-fashioned, but marriage and fertility, stability in partnership and fertility, are still very linked.
I think when we come to view marriage as something that you only do when you’re perfectly ready, we are, in effect, delaying our fertility options as well. Everything in the life script today that exists says you need to take a lot of time on some of these aspects of your life. Fertility, of course, is for women more tightly delineated in a specific timeframe that cannot be done all at once — as you properly you outlined at the beginning. It’s a very difficult task, anyway, to do that all at once.
But yeah, I view the capstone kids idea as being linked to the capstone marriage idea. The loss of marriage culture, in short, is specifically contributing to our loss of fertility. Because we want to be partnered with someone stable, someone who is sticking around, before we enter into the project of having children.
TH: Marriage, in our lifetime, has collapsed. Particularly for the working class. It seems to have held more steady for the economic elites. What does it mean when marriage, and family, and children, and connection, becomes a luxury good?