Canada’s births are still way below replacement level, as our census has just shown. For every 100 Canadians in this generation, there are fewer than 80 children in the next generation.
Is this baby bust a cause for rejoicing or concern? It depends ultimately on what we value: How much do we treasure the lives we live? Are Canadians on average so miserable it would be better if fewer of us were born?
As fewer children are born every generation, the number of young people shrinks, Another generation of baby bust, for example, will give us a Canada where there are more people aged 65 than any other age. This graying of our population has several consequences. There will be a lot fewer workers to support retirees with the Canada Pension Plan, for example, so that the premiums each worker must pay will more than double — the so-called “pension crunch.”
Consequences of Fewer People
Even more important, perhaps, are the social consequences: A population with far fewer young people might have far less joie de vivre. The list could go on and on. Not all bad, of course; there would be less crime and noise as well as less exuberance, other things being equal. There would be more open spaces, as well as fewer CDs and novels.
But the disadvantages of a shrinking population may outweigh the advantages.
Many people might point out the troubles I have not mentioned: global warming, ozone holes, starvation, wars; our troubles are endless. Even when we fix these problems, there will be new and unimagined ones to take their place.
With a stagnant or decreasing Canadian population, however, many of these problems would not be any better, and some of them would be worse.
For example, could we carry on as much research that produces solutions to so many of these problems? After all, Canadians, and wealthy countries generally, produce a disproportionate amount of the research that solves these problems.
Better off with Fewer Canadians?
Would the world really be better off with fewer Canadians?
Perhaps the most important issue of all is one that is so basic that social scientists are embarrassed to talk about it. It’s not a statistic or a rate, it’s simply a question of what we value and cherish.
Suppose, for example, we had a birth rate above replacement, with every 100 adults leaving behind 125 children, instead of the current 75. That means 50 more children, 50 more lives lived, that much more sorrow and tears, and that much more joy and laughter.
It would take a dedicated pessimist to claim the pain outweighs the happiness in the life of Canadians as a whole. So we are left with perhaps the greatest benefit of all from a growing population — more life, more love and laughter.
This point eludes many who don’t quite “hear the music,” so to speak. But for those of us who do hear the music — the music of children’s laughter, even several generations into the future — it is worth pursuing this point: In the feast of life, what counts is how many are enjoying the meal as well as how big each plate is.
We need to take a really hard look at our values.
It is a given that our population cannot grow forever. We still have to decide when to level off — right now, or in one or two hundred years, for example. The timing is crucial.
For example, just try a very simple thought experiment to test whether we should have aimed at zero population growth a generation ago. Suppose everybody’s parents, including yours and mine, had decided to have one fewer child. Would that have been a good thing?
If you grew up in a family of desperate poverty, the answer might well be “yes.” But nearly every Canadian I ask says instead, something along the lines of, “heck, I wouldn’t even be here,” or: “If you knew my youngest sister, you would realize what a hole that would leave in the fabric of life.”
Zero Population Growth: Still a Bad Idea
If zero population growth was a bad idea a generation ago, then maybe it is still a bad idea. After all, the carrying capacity of the world is rising even faster than its population.
Our average levels of nourishment and health and per capita income are much better than 50 or 100 years ago — worldwide. And the prospects of this happy trend continuing into the foreseeable future are bright.
It is equally important to understand why this increasing prosperity has occurred, and will very likely continue.
It is simply human ingenuity.
Our resourcefulness has produced, for example, better ways of growing food, of recycling, of public health and medical care. With only half our population, we might have fewer problems, but only half the people to solve them — Pasteur but not Banting, Edison but not Bell, Mozart but not Beethoven.
It’s hard to argue that we would be better off with fewer people. The coming trend of population decline foreshadowed by the Canadian census is something we might therefore want to reverse.
It is possible, given the almost irresistible social forces of modernization that produced it?
Yes, I believe it will happen — when we build a society that encourages our young people to understand that the most creative and challenging and loving thing that most of us can do in our lifetimes is to raise our children. For deep-down, bone-crunching this-is-what-life-is-all-about satisfaction, nothing beats raising an exuberant next generation.
Tom Wannacott teaches statistics and demography at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario. This article first appeared in the Toronto Star. Reprinted with the permission of the author.