August 10, 2005


The Northern America Fertility Divide (Nicholas Eberstadt, Barbara Boyle Torrey, August 9, 2005, Policy Review)

Canada and the U.S. are more similar to each other than any two other large countries on the planet today. We share a language, a continent, and a colonial history. Our two affluent and resource-rich countries, moreover, have forged the largest trading bond in the modern world.[1] Since the implementation of NAFTA in 1993, of course, the volume of U.S.-Canadian trade has steadily increased; this economic integration is drawing the two economies ever closer.

Yet for all their similarities--and the unfolding forces pressing for still greater homogenization--Canada and the United States are remarkably distinct from one another. In recent years, government policies in these two similar countries have diverged recurrently, and conspicuously, on a number of issues: Think of Iraq, missile defense, lumber, gay marriage, and marijuana. And these highly visible differences may not be the biggest ones. A quiet and as yet largely unrecognized divergence may be even more fundamental. Its indicators are found in the relatively new but steadily increasing differentiation of demographic trends in North America.

Twenty-five years ago the population profiles of Canada and the United States were similar. Both were younger than their European allies, and their societies were more heterogeneous. In 1980 their populations had almost the same median age, fertility rates, and immigration rates. In the years since then, small changes in demographic variables have accumulated, ultimately creating two very different countries in North America by the end of the twentieth century.

Canadians now have half a child fewer than Americans during their lifetimes--their fertility level is roughly 25 percent lower than that of their neighbors south of the border--and they are living two years longer. Both populations are growing at about the same rate, but the components of growth have diverged. Immigration is relatively more important in Canada’s growth rate, and fertility is more important in the United States.

Canadians marry later and less often than Americans. They enter common-law unions more often and their children are increasingly likely to be born out of wedlock. Canadians and Americans have similar labor force participation rates, but Americans work more hours per year. They have higher incomes but less leisure. And even though Canada’s birth rate is now substantially lower than America’s, the Canadian government provides more child services and benefits than the U.S. government. [...]

[T]here are clues to why there is such a divergence in fertility between Canada and the U.S., but there are no definitive answers. The levels of Canadian and American long-term trends in age of first marriage, first births, and common-law unions are consistent with the divergence in total fertility rates in the two countries. But the divergence in none of these proximate variables is large enough to explain the much larger divergence in fertility. Higher unemployment rates and lower incomes in Canada may also be consistent with lower fertility rates in Canada than in the U.S. But the more generous cash and maternity benefits in Canada would tend to offset some of the U.S. economic advantage. And the longer working hours in the U.S for women are inconsistent with their increase in fertility since 1980 according to the role incompatibility hypothesis.

Finally, changing values in the U.S. and Canada may be contributing to the fertility divergence. The stronger notional role of men in U.S. families and the greater religiosity of Americans are positively associated with fertility, and the latter is also a strong predictor of negative attitudes toward abortion. Increased total abortion rates per woman in Canada may be the result of changes in values, which are also reflected in the changes in the Canadian legal context. An increase in Canadian abortions can explain 35 percent of the fertility divergence with the U.S. The decline in the U.S. abortion rate combined with the Canadian increase would explain more.

The divergence in fertility may continue to increase in the near future. But once the delay in age of fertility in both countries stops, as it inevitably will, then there may be a slight increase in fertility, at least in Canada, because of what is described as the tempo effect. This is because the calculation of the total fertility rate does not accurately reflect the outcomes of delays in births, and therefore underestimates fertility while the transition to births at later ages is in process.

What declining fertility does do in societies such as Canada’s is make them age more rapidly. Canada is becoming an older country than the U.S. because Canadians have fewer children and live two years longer. In 2000, the median age in Canada was 36.9; in the U.S. it was 35.2. But in 25 years the difference will be larger (43.5 vs. 39.0). That means that Canada will have an older labor force and relatively more people 65 and over. In 2000, 12 percent of the Canadian and American populations were 65 years old or older (12.7 vs. 12.4). But in 25 years there will be an increasing divergence (22.9 percent vs. 19.6 percent in 2030). The aged dependency burdens will be higher, but the total dependency burdens will not. The aging population will put more pressure on the Canadian health care system than on the U.S. system. But the higher fertility rates in the U.S. will put continuing pressure on school systems, especially since school-age children are becoming increasingly diverse ethnically.

As countries age at different rates the financial flows between them may be affected. An aging society is likely to save more, both privately and through pension funds, and therefore have more to invest. Younger countries with lower savings rates may offer better rates of return. But there is no evidence of this kind of movement yet in developed countries. And between Canada and the U.S. there is already so much cross-investment that the aging differential may have only a marginal effect.

Ultimately, the differences in fertility rates between Canada and the United States may say less about the future than they say about the present. The societies of these two countries are becoming different at the same time as their economies integrate and become more interdependent. The basic rhythms of private lives are diverging as women in Canada enter common-law unions more often, wait longer than American women to marry, and have children later and less often. Abortion is the one demographic trend that is converging, but this accentuates the underlying difference in fertility rather than reducing it.

Funny how Democrats and pundits assume we'd get along better with the rest of the West if only George Bush weren't president, when, in fact, we're diverging rapidly.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 10, 2005 10:08 AM

I'm struck by all these articles like this, that say how the "government provides more money, benefits, and services" to people, but never bother to mention where the government gets the money in the first place.

That's kinda like trying to make my family more prosperous by doubling my wife's allowance.

Posted by: ray at August 10, 2005 4:22 PM

"Abortion is the one demographic trend that is converging, but this accentuates the underlying difference in fertility rather than reducing it."

Wait a sec--the article (at least the quoted part) says that in Canada abortion is increasing, and in the US it is decreasing. So where is the convergence?

Posted by: b at August 10, 2005 4:44 PM


Theirs was lower.

Posted by: oj at August 10, 2005 4:46 PM

Canadians marry later and less often than Americans

Hmm. Do you think "Marry early--marry often" is what we Canadian conservatives should be touting? Maybe not.

Posted by: Peter B at August 10, 2005 8:26 PM

Peter, how about "Cast your seed to the winds"?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 11, 2005 12:47 PM