I know Paul Martin is a busy man. But a recent news item in The Globe and Mail is worthy of his attention: “Birth rate falls to historic lows.” Martinshould pay attention, if for no other reason than his policies as financeminister contributed to the crisis.

According to Statistics Canada, the crude birth rate dropped to 10.5 livebirths for every 1,000 population in 2002, the lowest since records werestarted in 1921. It’s a 25.4 per cent drop in just the past 10 years. Thefertility rate, the average number of children that women aged 15 to 49 willhave in a lifetime, is now at 1.5 children per woman.

This is a demographic time bomb (2.1 children per woman is the replacementrate). Canada is not alone. The U.S. rate is considerably better than oursat 2.0, but Italy’s crisis is greater, with a fertility rate of 1.3.

The Stats Can study doesn’t account for this dramatic development, but otherstudies and reports suggest one major explanation: The conditions of work inthis country have become so onerous and stressful, and the economic securityof families so tenuous, that many couples are deciding not to have childrenat all, or are delaying the decision for as long as possible.

For millions of Canadians, the conditions of work and the impact of thoseconditions on their families are now so difficult that a Health Canada studyhas called the pace of work in Canada “completely unsustainable.” TheNational Work-Life Conflict Study, released in July, 2002, states that adecade ago, approximately 38 per cent of the work force was “highlystressed;” by 2002, that number was 55 per cent.

The details make for disturbing reading. One in four Canadian workers is nowworking more than 50 hours a week. Many employees are so terrified of losingtheir jobs that they “voluntarily” work millions of hours of unpaid overtimeevery year. The report, based on a survey of 31,000 workers, stated that forworkers, stress and burnout are increasing, and so are reports of sickness.

The study confirms that families are delaying in having children, and whenthey do, they choose to have fewer of them. Families are also relinquishingthe care and guidance of children to day care and extended school programs.Family life is limited or non-existent.

On a national level, the study reports, birth rates are falling, influencingjust about everything from local school and hospital viability to thecapacity of the future labour force to fulfil what is expected of it.

The falling birth rate is clearly a complex problem, both cultural andeconomic. And it includes highly-paid professionals and executives who arealso under pressure to perform. But the pressure of the workplace is a hugefactor for ordinary workers — and here it is a direct result of allCanadian governments’ promotion of a concept called “labour flexibility.”

Increasing labour flexibility means loosening labour standards, such asremoving maximum hours of work per day and per week, and removing safetynets that would otherwise encourage seasonal workers to stay in theircommunities. Martin made labour flexibility a key part of his economicstrategy in the 1990s. His Purple Book produced in the fall of 1994 toprovide the rationale for his draconian 1995 budget highlighted theimportance of labour flexibility with many references to labour market“rigidities” and “disincentives” (everything from safety standards tounemployment insurance — those traditional government policies that triedto guarantee full employment and a strong social safety net, and gaveworkers too much power). Increasing labour flexibility meant reducing suchimpediments and creating the conditions for more investment.

Paul Martin expanded on Brian Mulroney’s savage unemployment insurancereforms so that fewer than 40 per cent of the insured qualified. Then herepealed the Canada Assistance Plan, freeing the provinces to gut theirwelfare programs — with the result that workers who were fired or quitcould rapidly find themselves sleeping in their cars. Then there is the NonAccelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU), which guidedMartin’s fiscal and monetary policy for nearly nine years. The NAIRU policysaw Finance and the Bank of Canada deliberately maintain unemployment at ahigh enough level (for years, it was between eight and nine percent) to keepinflation at from one to two per cent.

Nothing cools labour’s demands for better working conditions more than along bout of high unemployment. But it also, for those affected, puts anythought of having children on the back burner.


Murray Dobbin

Murray Dobbin was rabble.ca's Senior Contributing Editor. He was a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for over 40 years. A board member and researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy...