April 22, 2024

The demographic dilemma: in Quebec, fertility is on the decline again

demographic dilemma in Quebec

Should we see a problem or a solution?

From global warming and inflation to the housing crisis and even the nuclear threat, gray clouds are gathering on the horizon. To the point where some hesitate to give birth to a child, or even refuse to do so. In Quebec, fertility is on the decline again. In a world that now has 8 billion people, should this be seen as a problem or a solution?

A declining birth rate

In the Western media in recent years, many young people have expressed their intention not to have children, overwhelmed by concern about the future, mainly climate.

A large survey conducted by British researchers among 10,000 young people aged 16 to 25, from 10 countries, showed that 39% were reluctant to have children. This figure matches that of a survey conducted by the firm Léger in March 2019 in which 37% of the 1,519 Canadians surveyed were of the opinion that having fewer children is a good solution to improve the fate of the planet. In Quebec, 28% of those questioned thought so.

That year, climate activist Emma Lim, then a student at McGill University, launched the No Future, No Children (#NoFutureNoChildren) campaign online. Within weeks, more than 5,000 people had pledged to give up having children until drastic action was taken to tackle the climate crisis.

demographic dilemma in Quebec
For 50 years, the synthetic fertility index (ISF), the measure most commonly used by demographers to assess fertility, has varied between 1.3 and 1.7 children per woman in Quebec.

How will this fashionable discourse leave its mark on Quebec fertility? It is still early to assess the impact. For 50 years, the synthetic fertility index (ISF), the measure most commonly used by demographers to assess fertility, has varied between 1.3 and 1.7 children per woman in the province. The ISF reached its lowest level in 1987, at 1.36 children per woman. Since reaching 1.7 children per woman in 2008, the index has been falling.

Various reasons can explain this decline. There is the pandemic, of course. According to the COVID-19 social survey and well-being carried out by Statistics Canada in the spring of 2021, the most frequent change observed in relation to fertility intentions was the postponement of the childbearing project (14% of people of childbearing age interviewed). From 2019 to 2020, the TFR fell from 1.57 to 1.52 in Quebec and then rose to 1.58 in 2021.

Although full annual data for 2022 has yet to be released, there is no indication that this slight uptick has continued. From January to October, there was a drop in the number of births in Quebec compared to the average for the past 10 years. “If the trend continues, it will be a rather low year,” confirms Frédéric Fleury-Payeur, demographer responsible for demographic projections at the Institut de la statistique du Québec (ISQ).

The weight of uncertainty

If, for the demographer Benoît Laplante, the positive effect on fertility of the implementation, in 2006, of the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan (QPIP) is beyond doubt, it has not managed to curb the decline, also observed in most industrialized countries since the financial crisis of 2008.

How can we explain why fertility did not start to rise again once the economic recovery was complete? The expert in social demography and full professor at the National Institute for Scientific Research (INRS) shares this hypothesis, which he defines as “common”, although “difficult to prove”: “Until 2008, in In most developed countries, the birth rate rose when the economy was doing well and fell when it was bad. Decisions were made based on immediate economic conditions.”

It seems that now, the decision to have a child is made according to what we believe that the economic conditions will be in the medium or long term and it seems that the most widespread evaluation is rather negative.

Benoît Laplante, full professor at INRS

demographic dilemma in Quebec
The number of children per woman, from 1915-2021

Rising housing prices, inflation, and the fact that income growth is not keeping up with the cost of living could thus lead people to fear that they will not have the resources necessary to have a child.

Although they refrain from making forecasts, the demographers of the Institut de la statistique du Québec (ISQ) take into account in their analyzes various factors that could influence the future fertility of Quebec women. Among them, the economic context, the increase in female education, the social policies in place, the valuing of parenthood in society and confidence in the future.

“We can include the environmental dimension,” says Frédéric Fleury-Payeur. “I think it’s real, you can see it. This is one of the limiting factors, but there are others, such as the return to the regions [where fertility is higher there than in urban centres] which is another emerging phenomenon and which could have the opposite effect. Just like telecommuting, touted for its beneficial effects on work-family balance.”

It is therefore difficult to predict whether climate-related concerns will really result in a renunciation of offspring.

“In the polls, there are always a lot of people who ask themselves the question, and it’s normal to ask it, I asked myself it, but there are not necessarily so many people who take the plunge and who give up on children, observes the Frenchman Emmanuel Pont, author of Should we stop having children to save the planet?, published last February. In any case, today, it is very difficult to measure.”

Benoît Laplante analyzes the results of surveys and qualitative studies on this subject with caution. “Is this really the reason why the person does not want to have children? he asks. Or is she using this conventional speech to avoid revealing the real reasons?”

The example of the atomic bomb

In the 1950s and 1960s, we feared the end of the world by the atomic bomb, recalls Mr. Laplante. However, no study has demonstrated the effect of this fear on fertility during this period.

Spontaneously, I have the impression that it may be the same for eco-anxiety, that is to say something that is talked about a lot, but what will remain as an understanding of the evolution of the rate of fertility will be something else.

Benoît Laplante, full professor at INRS

So what future for fertility in Quebec? None of the demographers we consulted wanted to risk predictions.

“We don’t have a crystal ball, even with a degree in demography,” says Alain Bélanger, professor at INRS.

And even when you are responsible for the Institute’s Demographic Simulations Laboratory. Nevertheless, the demographer tends to believe in a stabilization of completed fertility, i.e. the average number of children that women of a given generation have had at the end of their fertile life, at 1.6 children per woman.

This number also represents the base scenario used by the ISQ to make its projections.

“Quebec has been in a modern fertility regime for about forty years, with lower fertility, but overall average fertility compared to the average for Western countries,” underlines Frédéric Fleury-Payeur.

And if the decline continues, how far could it go? “No idea, replies Benoît Laplante, but it could happen. He cites the example of South Korea, which is experiencing a birth crisis with a fertility rate of 0.81 children per woman.

Have more or fewer children for a better future?

demographic dilemma in Quebec

We are now 8 billion on Earth. According to UN projections, the world’s population will reach 9.7 billion in 2050. Should we be happy with a drop in the birth rate in the country, when Canada is among the 10 main emitters of greenhouse gases?

Reaching this new global population threshold at the end of last year brought to the fore voices that blame population growth for environmental peril and that advocate limiting global population. In an opinion piece published in Le Monde on November 9, the French association Responsible Demography called for new solutions to reduce human fertility.

This is a dangerous discourse for Emmanuel Pont, an engineer by training, who examines the subject in his essay Should we stop having children to save the planet?

In 2016, think tank Club of Rome came under fire after promoting the idea of a one-child policy for industrialized countries in a book called Reinventing Prosperity.

In his transdisciplinary essay which combines demography, politics, ethics and the environment, Emmanuel Pont recalls the slippery slope represented by population control. He also presents the limited effect that, according to his calculations, the introduction of a one-child policy in France would have.

“The population takes a long time to evolve,” he said in an interview with La Presse. “There is a strong demographic inertia, simply because people live 80 years. So we have to wait almost 2100 to divide the population by 2 compared to the scenario where there would not have been this policy. Compared to objectives such as carbon neutrality in 2050 of the Paris agreement, we are far.”

Although he recognizes that population growth is one of the great factors of the ecological crisis, he believes that we must focus more on the economic system, our way of life and the consumerist culture that governs countries. industrialized.

An opinion shared by the French demographer Jacques Vénon, author of Should we be afraid of the world population? published in 2020.

We must not hold the population responsible for everything that goes wrong, but add the effects of “lifestyles” and “technology”, which are just as determining, into the equation, recalls Jacques Vénon, demographer in an interview with the French media 20 minutes.

The risks of a low birth rate

Also the decline of the population in industrialized countries poses challenges related to the aging of the population, he recalls.

For a country, the demographic ideal is to have a birth rate close to the generation renewal threshold set at 2.1 children per woman, notes Alain Bélanger, demographer and professor at the National Institute for Scientific Research (INRS). However, in most Western countries, the birth rates have been below this threshold for many years, which leads to the aging of the population that we know today with its challenges linked to the shortage of labor. implementation, the financing of public programs and the pressure on the health system.

“If the fertility rate continues to decline over the next few years, Canada could join the countries with the lowest fertility rates, a situation associated with rapid population aging and increased pressure on the labor market, work, public health care systems and pension plans,” also noted Statistics Canada analysts Ana Fostik and Nora Galbraith in the article “Changes in intentions to have children in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 19” published in December 2021.

Over a long period, we can also fear depopulation if birth rates are not offset by immigration. Since 2020, South Korea, which has the lowest fertility rate in the world, has seen its population decline.

“The only real demographic solution [to population aging] is to have more births,” noted Alain Bélanger, professor at INRS.

“Migration does not have a marked impact on the age structure of the population, even if immigrants do indeed arrive today younger than the average Canadian because the average Canadian is very old [41.7 years old].”

In Quebec, the issue of language preservation is also to be considered, underlines Alain Bélanger, who chairs the linguistic situation monitoring committee of the Quebec Office of the French language.

“The integration of newcomers has an impact on language and culture. If linguistic and economic integration does not take place at the level of the demographic weight of the two official linguistic groups, the weight of French necessarily decreases.”

Birth control: a slippery slope

While some advocate the adoption of antinatalist policies, others claim the opposite: do everything to encourage more births. An equally slippery slope, according to essayist Emmanuel Pont. “I have the same discomfort with this instrumentalization of the population because often it is the same people who worry about overcrowding in others and underpopulation at home. »

Among demographers, the freedom of couples to choose the number of children they will have is generally considered fundamental. The ideal is to ensure that “families manage to have the number of children they want, without forcing”, explains demographer Frédéric Fleury-Payeur, of the Institut de la statistique du Québec. To achieve this, he says, the state can offer them “support to facilitate the realization of the desire for a family.”

According to the most recent data on the desire for children from Statistics Canada dating from 2011, 48% of Quebec women wanted to have two, while 32% wanted three or more. Figures that suggest that Quebec couples would not have all the children they want.

A decade later, will concern about climate change influence this desire? For some, bringing children into the world when the future is uncertain will remain a selfish and irresponsible decision.

On this subject, Emmanuel Pont quotes Pablo Servigne, French agricultural engineer, author, theoretician of “collapsology” and father, for whom having children was “the choice of the future and of hope”. A choice he also made, after writing his essay… “You may have heard our baby cry?”

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