The public consequences of marriage rates falling

Families are the front line of child care, elder care, and financial stability

Peter Jon MitchellSchools, travel plans, and work schedules aren’t the only things that need to return to normal after almost three years of COVID disruptions. Marriage needs to get back on track too.

Canadian marriages hit a historic low in 2020, with 33 per cent fewer marriages registered compared to the previous year. You could call it the great pandemic pause on family formation. While it’s not surprising that these numbers fell during lockdowns and other restrictions, we at Cardus are asking what comes next.

Maybe one change will be that Statistics Canada will resume regularly publishing national marriage rates. The latest numbers are the first the agency has published in about a decade. They also follow the resumption of divorce rate data earlier this year. Hopefully, this means the permanent return of this important data.

Even more significantly, the latest numbers may push us all to consider why the marriage rate has been declining for decades.

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The percentage of adults living common-law is up. Statistically, this type of relationship type breaks up more often than marriage. The proportion of adults living alone, outside of any partnerships, is up. And that includes adults at prime marrying age.

These are private decisions, of course. But they have public consequences.

For example, the 2021 census tells us 60 per cent of kids are growing up in families with married parents. But that’s down from 73 per cent in the late 1990s. Great kids grow up in many types of families. We also know from decades of data that adults’ romantic partnership decisions influence children’s lives. Numerous studies have found a correlation between stable, married parent families and their kids’ education levels, as well as less trouble with the law or teen pregnancy.

As fewer adults find partners and form families later in life, couples have fewer children. That, too, is a choice, but there’s some evidence many of us are having fewer children than we’d like.

Canada’s total fertility rate – the number of children a woman is likely to have over her lifetime – fell to a historic low of 1.40 in 2020. A country needs a fertility rate of about 2.1 to replace its population without the help of immigration. Canada hasn’t had replacement fertility since 1971.

Divorce rates tumbled 25 per cent between 2019 and 2020. Like marriage, they had already been on the decline. Fewer divorces under non-pandemic circumstances might sound good, but the decline is largely because fewer Canadians are marrying. So, while fewer divorces are good, it‘s likely a sign of fewer marriages.

All the numbers come down to this, though: Marriage matters. For all of us.

The drop in marriage and delay in family formation could mean that fewer Canadians are meeting their family and fertility desires. This can reduce personal well-being and happiness, though some Canadians are happy to skip marriage, children, or both.

Stable families are a building block of communities and society. There are growing concerns about our ability to support an aging population, both in physical care and the economic support of our generous social programs. Families are the front line of child care, elder care, and financial stability.

While economic and demographic concerns are important, we lose something as a society when children fade into the background. Our society is better because of kids.

The pandemic shock on family formation should spur us to think about the larger trends in Canadian family life. The challenges in achieving the family lives we want matter for individuals and communities.

Peter Jon Mitchell is family program director at think-tank Cardus.

For interview requests, click here.


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