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Baby bust: Victorians are having fewer kids—if they're having kids at all. Here’s why we should care.

Citing the housing crisis, climate anxiety, precarious work, and more, many in Victoria are choosing to delay parenthood or skip it altogether

By Jolene Rudisuela
November 30, 2021
Data
Features

Baby bust: Victorians are having fewer kids—if they're having kids at all. Here’s why we should care.

Citing the housing crisis, climate anxiety, precarious work, and more, many in Victoria are choosing to delay parenthood or skip it altogether

Photo: Jimmy Thomson
Photo: Jimmy Thomson
Data
Features

Baby bust: Victorians are having fewer kids—if they're having kids at all. Here’s why we should care.

Citing the housing crisis, climate anxiety, precarious work, and more, many in Victoria are choosing to delay parenthood or skip it altogether

By Jolene Rudisuela
November 30, 2021
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Baby bust: Victorians are having fewer kids—if they're having kids at all. Here’s why we should care.

Hanna Ross always envisioned her life going a certain way: finish university, get married, work for a year or so, and then have kids.

She has already accomplished the first three milestones. She graduated with a Masters degree in Environmental Studies in 2017, and got married two years later. She’s been employed in her field ever since graduating, but that’s where the plan first got sidetracked: the jobs have all been temporary and without benefit plans. Her husband, who changed his original career aspirations to go back to school for an education degree, just recently got a permanent teaching job and still has some student loans to pay off.

All that to say, Ross says they’re still living with a level of insecurity that isn’t particularly comfortable. So the timeline to start having kids just keeps getting pushed further and further back.

“I just had my 30th birthday,” she said. “And I always thought growing up that I would have kids by like 28. My mom had me at 28 so it was sort of an idea I had in my head… Anyways, it turns out I wasn’t ready.”

And those aren’t even the only factors at play. Ross and her husband currently live in Duncan in a one-bedroom apartment and plan to move into another one-bedroom apartment in Langford in the near future. They’re confident they can raise a child in a small space—after all, millions of people do it in countries around the world—but giving up her image of what a family home should look like has taken some adjustment. Envisioning the changes they will have to make to their lives and lifestyle has been difficult as well.

Hanna Ross and her husband. Photo submitted.

As a career-focused woman, Ross is concerned about the effect having children could potentially have on her career and goals. And her temporary work could mean no maternity leave, which would leave the couple to rely on a single salary.

Ross is part of a generation that is increasingly putting off having kids for longer, or deciding against having kids altogether. Across Canada, the fertility rate has been falling for decades, but in 2020 reached an unprecedented low of 1.4. And in Greater Victoria, the fertility rate has tanked to the lowest in the country at a shocking 0.95.

“Astounding,” actually, is the word Don Kerr, a demographer who teaches at Kings University College at Western University, used to describe Victoria’s incredibly low rate.

“That’s unprecedented,” he said. “I’ve never heard of a total fertility rate falling below one in any city across Canada… So what’s going on there?”

This is a question he has pondered, but he still doesn’t really have a solid answer. However, it is clear that whatever factors are leading to declining fertility rates in Canada are exaggerated in Victoria.  

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Falling fertility rates

With one of the highest percentages of people over the age of 65 in Canada (22%) and the lowest percentage of children under the age of 15 (12.3%), it’s perhaps no surprise that Victoria also has the lowest fertility rate in the country.

But Kerr clarified that the fertility rate (which is different from births per capita) is not actually affected by Victoria’s older population. The stat is calculated by taking into consideration age specific fertility and standardizing for differences in age structure.

“If a cohort of women throughout their life course had the age-specific fertility rates as observed in 2020, behaved exactly as they’re behaving in terms of fertility, then over the course of their life, from ages 15 to 49, they would have had fewer than one birth, on average, in the Victoria CMA,” he explained.

Consequences of a low fertility rate could include labour shortages and fewer people to help aging family members. The babies of today will become tomorrow’s engineers and teachers and nurses—they’ll also be the taxpayers and policymakers. Those with poor survival instincts will become journalists.

It also has a big effect on a region’s natural increase—the replacement rate (the number of new births needed to keep the population stable, irrespective of emigration and immigration) is 2.1. Canada hasn’t had that rate since 1971.

Higher fertility on its own isn’t always a great thing; some demographers have even suggested that accounting for the extra emissions per birth in higher-emitting countries like Canada, a fertility rate closer to 1.5 would be ideal.

Canadians are living longer than ever, and with fewer births, seniors outnumber children for the first time in Canada’s history. By 2056, people 65 and older are projected to make up a third of the country’s population.

Victoria makes those surprising numbers look positively mundane. Seniors outnumber children under 14 two-to-one. There are more people over 80 than there are kids, and the number isn’t going anywhere. With 2,842 births and 3,687 deaths in 2020, Greater Victoria once again saw a negative natural increase. In fact, the region is the only CMA in the country where there has been a negative natural increase in the population every year for the past two decades.

In Canada as a whole, there are still more births than deaths each year, but signs in the data show that as the baby boomer generation gets older, the country’s natural increase could fall below zero.

Greater Victoria’s population continues to increase, however. Since 2001, the CMA has grown by 25.5%, due primarily to migration from elsewhere in Canada and the world.

“The thing that a lot of people don’t quite understand is that international migration does not have a very large impact upon this aging because people move into Canada of all ages—typically young adults, but also older ages, and so on,” Kerr said. “And then once immigrants get here, they age themselves, right? So immigration is no solution to this problem of population aging.”

So we know what’s happening. Now the question remains: why?

‘Life gets in the way’

The average age of first births has also been steadily increasing in the country—an indicator that priorities may be changing for young Canadians.

According to Statistics Canada, the average age of first-time mothers in BC is the highest of any province at 31.6 in 2016. The national average in 2016 was 29.2. That trend has been steady since the 1960s: according to Statistics Canada, the youngest that new Canadian moms have been since the Second World War was in 1966, when the average was under 24. It has inexorably ticked upwards since then.

“People are going to school to an unprecedented extent, going on to college, on to university, then they’re trying to establish themselves in a career, which can be quite a challenge,” Kerr said. “Women in particular are trying to establish themselves in a career; young men are trying to establish themselves economically as well.”

With spiking costs of housing and living, it also takes longer for people to feel financially stable enough to afford a family.

Robin and Chris, who spoke to Capital Daily on condition of anonymity for privacy reasons, are both 28. Robin says they were open to having kids when they first started dating 10 years ago, but as time has gone on, they have started leaning more and more towards not starting a family.

The couple have a variety of reasons, from not wanting to make the necessary lifestyle changes to never getting the urge to start a family. But for Robin, her career is a major factor.

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“I would actually say probably the most compelling reason that I have for not wanting kids is the gendered aspect of it,” she said. “Where like, even if you have a partner who would be willing to max out on their parental leave, and even if [Chris] were to take on some kind of major parenting role, and even if my career were the one that were prioritized in the relationship… even if that was the case, I think my own career would take a major hit, just for having a child, just the disruption it causes.”

Kerr said that for many, dual incomes are essential to being able to afford a family, so getting established in a career is important.

However, fertility decreases with age, so the longer having kids is delayed, the more peoples’ ability to have children declines, particularly into the late 30s.

When Kerr asks his students how many kids they would like to have, some say none, a few say one or three, and the majority say two—“the average is well over replacement,” Kerr said.

“But if you compare that with actual fertility, the total fertility rate, it is consistently lower than the intended fertility. People end up, in Canada, having fewer kids than they actually want to have because life gets in the way.”

As Ross gets older, she is acutely aware of the big 35th birthday looming half a decade away—the age at which fertility is believed to start to decline more rapidly.

Affordability

Ross grew up with two siblings, and her husband grew up with three, so they have both imagined having at least two children. She’d like to have more but knows costs increase with each kid. She also knows that they would need to upgrade to a bigger space, which they may not be able to comfortably afford, given current rental prices.

And then you add in the fact that neither Ross nor her husband have family in the area, so child care costs need to be considered in the overall budget.

Grace Lore, MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill, says issues of affordability for families first motivated her move into politics. As a parent of a seven and a five year old, she has dealt with some of these challenges herself.

In her view, the increasingly unaffordable housing and rental market, coupled with a lack of family-sized and appropriate housing options is keeping families from having kids—or it’s pushing away those who want to.

“People should be able to stay in their communities and to have and raise their families in this beautiful city I feel incredibly grateful to,” she said. “And so the issues and focus on affordability and child care and housing are part of the solution to that.”

Lore has long advocated for more affordable child care, and said there have been 889 provincially funded child-care spaces created in the City of Victoria since 2018, with 162 spaces that are a part of the $10-a-day pilot program. Certain families can also apply for BC’s Affordable Child Care Benefit that gives money to large families, families who have special needs, and lower-income families. There is also funding available for child-care operators and early childhood educators.

However, according to the latest Vital Signs report, just 21% of respondents said they have excellent or good access to affordable child care. The South Island has 13,703 licensed childcare spaces—a small increase from last year—but this is only enough for a quarter of the South Island’s kids.

Quebec, which already has 212,497 subsidized child-care spaces, is committing to accommodating every child in the province by 2025. Kerr points to Quebec’s child-care system as a possible factor in Quebec’s higher-than-average birth rate.

Housing is also becoming more and more out of reach for families, in terms of cost and size. Kerr notes that the three CMAs with the lowest birth rates in BC—Victoria, Vancouver, and Kelowna—also have some of the most unaffordable housing markets in the country. And this likely isn’t a coincidence.

More and more people are moving to Westshore communities to start families because of the lower cost of housing.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps recently told the Capital Daily podcast that the Victoria Housing Strategy will include measures to incentivize the construction of family-sized units.

“You know, right now, we don’t have an incentive policy to have two- and three-bedroom units built for families,” she said. “Another big project that’s going to be happening in 2022 is rental incentives more generally. There are lots of other cities who are way ahead of Victoria in terms of incentivizing rental development so that there’s more rentals built than condos.”

The goal is to create a city that doesn’t push families away. Lore says that Victoria has a lot of features that make it a great place for raising kids, but if families are choosing to leave because of its affordability, the fabric of the community is altered.

“We can think about the disconnection that happens there or the loss of those neighbourhood relationships and neighbourhood knowledge and what people offer their community,” she said. “I think there’s a lot to be [lost].”

Climate anxiety

Amy and Scott Janzwood still aren’t sure if they’re going to have children. And as 31 year olds, they know it’s a decision they will likely have to make in the next five to eight years—which, they note, lines up fairly closely with the timeline for 2030 emissions targets.

The couple has multiple reasons for the delay in their decision: they love the lives they’re currently living and aren’t ready for the fundamental changes that come with having children, and they are already involved in helping with the children of their friends and siblings. But climate change, and the uncertainty of what the world will look like in the coming years, is also a big factor.

“Even if we, as a species, defy the odds and manage to rapidly turn things around in the next few decades, it’s going to be very tough for these kids living in a climate-constrained world,” the couple wrote in a letter to Capital Daily.

“It’s sometimes hard for us to process this stuff and to find hope. And it terrifies us to imagine what it’s like for a kid to learn about the prognosis for our species and our planet.”

Amy and Scott Janzwood. Photo submitted.

Amy and Scott both acknowledge their privilege as a well-educated, white, Canadian couple, and that any children that they may have would likely be swaddled by the same privilege.  But learning about the state of the planet, the inequality, and baked-in effects of climate change has made them pause and think about their own actions.

Kerr says this is something he has heard from his own students. Increasingly, more young people are taking climate change into consideration when making this decision.

“I mean, how many young adults are thinking to themselves, ‘Do I really want to bring a kid into this world?’” he said.

BC itself has perhaps seen the most visible effects of climate change out of the Canadian provinces. This year alone, multiple cities in the province, including Victoria, set new heat records during the heat dome over the summer, while a state of emergency was enacted due to wildfires. And now unprecedented flooding is harming the lower mainland.

For Elise Cote, climate change was a serious consideration when deciding whether to have a second child.

Cote’s first kid was born in 2014 while she was attending university, and at the time, she was wracked with guilt about her carbon footprint and worry about the reality of climate change.

After going to therapy and learning more about the significant impact that industries and government decisions have on the world, she has focused more of her time on living as sustainably as possible and lobbying local governments to build the infrastructure for food production and other climate-conscious practices. And she decided to have the second child in 2018.

Elise Cote and her two children. Photo submitted.

“I wish that we would have more of these conversations actually about how are we preparing for the future," she said. "What kind of future do we expect our children to have? And how are we preparing them for that?”

Cultural shift

While some of the reasons for the cultural shift in having families are becoming more clear, Kerr still isn’t sure why these reasons are more pronounced in Victoria. He notes that Victoria and Vancouver’s ultra low fertility rates are also observed in some regions of East Asia like Hong Kong (1.05), Taiwan (1.07), and Singapore (1.1), but also on the east coast of Canada in St. John’s (1.14) and Halifax (1.1)—“Something in the ocean air?”

Something else in the air—COVID—has also had an effect on births, and Kerr is curious to see whether there is a rebound once we’re through the pandemic. Between 2019 and 2020, there was a 3.6% decrease in the number of live births and the lowest number of births in any year since 2006, according to Statistics Canada. Reduced job security and more people working from home may also affect the number of children born in 2020 and 2021.

“Some people speculate that there’s going to be a rebounding in the number of births,” he said. “But I’m sort of skeptical of that.”

None of the people who talked to Capital Daily for this story were surprised that Canada’s birth rate is dropping, and many said their own choices and the choices of their friends are mirroring this trend.

Landa Fox has never wanted to have children. She loves kids as she works with them every day, but she has never been interested in having her own—and she says she shouldn’t have to have a reason for making that decision.

She says the dropping rate is a heartening shift that will hopefully decrease the pressure to start families.

“I would hope that people are feeling like they have more reproductive choice,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that there are a total of 889 provincially funded child-care spaces in the City of Victoria, when in fact that is the number of spaces that have been created since 2018.

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