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Gender + Sexuality

Smaller Families, Later: What It Means for BC

For first time since 1930, women over 40 more likely to give birth than teens.

Clark Williams-Derry 16 Aug 2010Sightline Institute

Clark Williams-Derry is on staff at Sightline Institute, a Seattle research and communication centre working to promote sustainable solutions for the Pacific Northwest. He posts to their blog, where this article first appeared.

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Chart: Sightline Institute.

Here's a bit of interesting child-bearing news: last year, and for the first time since 1930, 40-somethings in British Columbia were more likely to give birth than were teens.

The chart above is drawn largely from data provided by the B.C. provincial statistics agency (see here for data since 1987).  And if you look closely at the lower right, you'll see that the pink line (teen birth rates) has fallen in recent years, even as the maroon line (birth rates among 40-somethings) has inched up. In 2009, the two lines crossed, as birth rates for 40-somethings crept ahead of births among B.C. teens.

But that's a relatively small part of the province's overall fertility picture. Looking at bigger and longer-term trends, two points leap out. 

Changing housing market

First and foremost, the baby boom -- the era that defined "normal" for many of today's political, economic, and cultural leaders -- was truly an anomalous period in history. Birth rates simply sky-rocketed in the middle of the last century, and then fell just as fast as they rose. Because of that fall, particularly among the under-30 set, a lot of hidden cultural assumptions about what's "normal" just aren't as relevant as they used to be. 

Some demographers now argue, for example, that the demand for detached single-family housing -- the housing model that dominated the baby boom -- has more or less peaked, as baby-boomers are starting to sell their suburban homes and as people spend more of their lives with no kids in the home.

I'm sure that if you're a home builder, that's tough news to hear.

See you later, kids

Second, you can see that B.C. women are clearly choosing smaller families later in life. As of 2009, the total fertility rate" in the province stood at 1.5 lifetime births per woman. That's actually a bit higher than it was in 2003, but historically it's near its all-time low. 

The fall in teen births, relative to 40-somethings, is part of this trend, but the bigger part is the fall in 20-something births, relative to births among 30-somethings. (The blue and orange lines in the chart above crossed back in 2003.) As career and educational opportunities have opened up for women, and as access to safe contraception has widened, women have chosen to delay childbearing and to have fewer kids. And both of those trends have worked to slow the pace of population growth.

A last point of note here: in both B.C. and the Northwest states in the U.S., teen births actually rose -- slightly but unmistakably -- between 2004 and 2007. But starting in 2008 the trends started moving down again. It's hard to peg the teen birth rates to any particular political trend, since the patterns were similar in both the U.S. Northwest and in British Columbia -- two areas that have very different political cultures. But regardless of the cause, it's good to see at least preliminary news that teen births are on the wane again.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Gender + Sexuality

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