Couchiching Online
nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button
History Table of Contents
1998 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1998
Rethinking Canada for the 21st Century

Meeting the challenge: In a global society in crisis and rapid change,
at what do we excel; where do we fail?

Monique Jerome-Forget, Director, Institute for Research on Public Policy

I’m going to talk to you about something that is more related to lifestyle; that is, how are we going to live in the coming century?

And I’m going to put the focus on the fact that women have entered the work force and look at the various impacts, tradeoffs and trends of this new situation.

Women are well on their way to achieving equal representation in society. By the year 2020, if women make up 50 per cent of all positions, what kind of society will we be living in? What are the implications of this change, especially for the family?

I want to talk about several inter-related trends of particular relevance: the en-masse entry of women into the work force beginning in the 1960s, the move toward professionalisation of child care, the convergence of these and other trends and the end of the "traditional" family and its replacement by a proliferation of alternative family forms.

Let's look at each of these in turn, analyzing the trend itself and then the potential trade-offs.

Women's participation in the Canadian labour force climbed throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, and has been climbing for the past quarter of a century.

In fact, no other single event has had such a dramatic effect on the consumer and employment markets at the heart of the Canadian economy.

In 1970, women represented one-third of the labour force; today they comprise almost half. In 1970, women earned a third of all bachelors' degrees; today, they are awarded more than half.

Indeed, since their historic storming of the work force barricades in the ‘60s, women have come a long way in a short while.

I guess Sheila Copps was in good company when she insisted on describing herself as, "nobody's baby."

There's been a turnaround — it's occurred and it can't be undone.

For example, when firms are recruiting on campuses now, if they really want the best, it's very often going to he women they're recruiting, because women are everywhere at the top of the class. For sure we're going to get to 50 per cent — but my question is; what does this mean, how will this affect the way we jive as a society, and how will it affect family life in particular?

What can we predict, and what will the trade-off be?

We know that fewer women marry, that those who do will marry later, have fewer children and wait longer to have a first child. We know that there will be fewer women at home and in the communities, doing traditionally unpaid labour.

We can expect the daytime frequenters of shopping malls not to include a lot of housewives; the very term sounds oddly antiquated today — because there won’t be many housewives by that, or any other name.

We know that the divorce rate remains high;: about half of all marriages will end in divorce. The Canadian divorce rates more than doubled between 197 I and 1991 and the rate is expected to remain high.

Even though the [divorce] rate appears to be levelling off; that is, it's no longer rising, this is more likely due to the fact that fewer couples are marrying in the first place, rather than to the existence of stronger or more successful marriage rate.

Some experts predict that this levelling off will turn out to be no more than a temporary lull in the trend and that the divorce rate will ultimately soar again up to 60 per cent.

We know that the transition to cohabitation, rather than marriage, has been growing since 1970 and is expected to continue accelerating for next two decades. In fact, in my province the rate is twice as high as the rest of Canada in terms of people who choose to live together, rather than marry. So. I guess in Quebec we go from one extreme to another. We stick to our personality.

We know about the rapid growth in the number of single parent families. And finally, we know that the one-person household is the fastest growing household category in the Western world, increasing from about 10 per cent of total households in 1950 to over 25 per cent today.

In some places, the growth curve is even steeper. In Sweden, for example, nearly 40 per cent of all households are now single person households.

With less marriage and more divorce and cohabitation, a variety of living arrangements will gain legal protections and societal acceptance. Many single parents now prefer to remain single, for example, because the stigma that once attended the single parent state gives way to increasing numbers of same and gradually, to greater cultural resonance and societal acceptance.

Similarly, childless couples, same-sex couples and other lifestyle choices will gain respectability. The net result would seem to be increased options from which to choose for everyone.

Of course the ultimate meaning of a trend is finally a subjective matter of interpretation, and in this tradition may be an unreliable guide.

For example the high divorce rate, though generally regarded as a bad omen, could indicate something positive: that people may now choose more easily to end a bad relationship and seek a better one, rather than being reduced to enduring a lifetime of misery.

The overwhelming trade-off resulting from the move of women into the paid labour force is a single sword with two razor sharp edges.

The good news is that as women we can now compete relatively freely in all fields. The bad news is that this freedom comes on the horns of a great dilemma: does advancing one's career mean abandoning one's family?

Certainly working Moms don't have much quality time to spend with their children. And on top of the financial burden of childcare, there's the guilt. I can assure you there’s always the guilt in women.

Moreover, given the trend to two-income families — and the fact that it now takes two salaries to provide the same standard of living that could be achieved in the ‘50s with one so-called family wage — the bottom line is a kind of two-for-the-price-of-one deal.

Now, instead of Mom at home feeling bored and frustrated and Dad at work getting ulcers trying to bring home the bacon, we've got both Mom and Dad putting in long hours at work and feeling always guiltily about the time they don't have to spend with their children.

It's as if we'd made it to the very threshold of the revolution only to find ourselves too tired to dance.

For in the brave new salve of the 50 per cent solution, there remains a stubborn fly: What happens to the children?

To accommodate the shift to women in the work force and the rise of the overburdened. stressed-out two-income family, there arises another trend: that toward the professionalization of child care.

The latest research shows that the years from one to three are even more critical for child development than previously believed.

During this period, the nervous system is still developing and environmental influences of stress in the home can become hard wired into a child's emotional and intellectual make-up.

For example, high levels of stress can leave infants with elevated blood levels of cortisone, a chemical that can inhibit brain development. Also, positive stimulation, we know, promotes cell growth in the cerebral cortex.

As far as marriage goes, perhaps there is no longer a need for a contract. People don't marry in the first place anymore. It used to be a contract: I'll do this, you'll do that, we'll have our children.

There was a kind of agreement to separate roles. Now the roles are very confused, so perhaps the idea of a contract is no longer an option. Or rather, it exists as an option but the option is making sense to fewer and fewer people.

The question remains: are children becoming surplus?

In our society there seems to be a trend, where both parents work very hard and children sometimes look as if they’ve become surplus.

There's another emerging trend and it consists basically of women saying: Wait a minute, do I really want to sacrifice everything for my career? My children are at least as important.

There's a terrific commercial that succeeds ro encapsulate this dilemma.

It shows a Mom and two young daughters, maybe five and three. They're alt seated at the dining room table. Mom is on the cell phone making business calls and the children drawing at the table. The older child suggests that the family go to the beach, but Mom says she can't, because she has a very important meeting with a very important client. The young one is answering: but Mom, can I be a client?

And, of course, guilty, guilty, guilty. She changes her mind and goes to the beach with the children.

We don't know which trend will prove the stronger. It is possible that children will become surplus, which would be tragic. But, it's also possible that more professionalized childcare could make children more legally secure, that it could lead to the consolidation of children’s rights.

In Canada, as in the United States —, indeed as in much of the Western world — the 1950s style "traditional" family has all but vanished.

In fact, the traditional family — or nuclear family as it's probably called — consisting of a Dad who goes out to work and a Mom who stays at home with the children, is not all that traditional to begin with. Like a blip on the larger screen of history, the nuclear family form peaked around the turn of the last century and has been declining ever since.

Despite our romantic notions of idyllic days at home with Mom, the fact is that most mothers work.

In 1994, only 17 per cent of Canadian families were without working wives. While the trend remains reliable, the motivational driver has changed.

In the ‘60s, women entered the paid labour force for visions of liberation and personal independence. Thirty years later, they remain in the work force in many instances for economic reasons.

The percentage of single-parent families is high and getting higher — up 41 percent over the previous decade and becoming increasingly common in all socio-economic levels.

The number of single-parent families has nearly doubled since the seventies and now stands at just under a million, representing 13 per cent of all families. Over 80 per cent of these single parents are women.

Average household size continues to decline and the one-person household is now the fastest growing household category in the Western world.

All of these factors must lead us to conclude that, yes, the nuclear family is passing.

Perhaps the news is not all-bad, perhaps it may not be such a bad thing that it does.

Most of The social problems that have been blamed on the break-up of the family are actually the products of other forces. What's important to maintain are healthy social contracts, families based on sound principles — that is, families that are healthy regardless of how the family group is constituted.

The human need for connectedness remains, which means we will see. a continuing transformation of the family in coming decades, rather than the elimination of family life, because as the traditional family fades away, new forms of family will arise and evolve.

This proliferation of alternative family forms will include blended families from serial remarriages; you’‘ll see children with many grandparents, many uncles, and many fathers; extended families, inter-racial families. same-sex couples’ families, and finally, what some sociologists call fictive families: multi-adult households consisting of people unrelated by blood who elect to live together for reasons of common need or interest.

Reorganized families will in turn lead to revamped work places, with increasing pressure on employers to provide greater flexibility in work hours and arrangements.

Even architecture, some forecasters believe, will respond to changing patterns of family life with ultra-flexible home and office furniture and even design, routinely providing, for example, for such things as walls that can be easily moved and re-arranged.

Some analysts suggest that while the traditional family will continue to decline in numbers, it may improve in quality. In other words, as the choice of lifestyle grows wider and the option of marriage becomes more of an elective, perhaps those who do choose this "old-fashioned" option will actually stand a better chance of making it work.

Similarly, while the companionship function of families is being eroded, new patterns of work and leisure are emerging, and these may ultimately afford greater potential for differentiation and self-fulfilment of individual family members.

The 90s are the first time in this country's history where there we more Canadians over 55 than under 15. Now that the baby boomers are greying, what will be the effects of this demographic trend? These are the same boomers who rushed the work force in the ‘60s, who used to play tennis and graduated to golf, who are now wearing glasses, looking for a second home for retirement, and anticipating the birth of their first grandchildren.

The first of the baby boomers will turn 65 in 2010.

Increasing life-spans mean adults wilt be living well past their childbearing and raising years, and that many of the elderly will be living alone, since male death rates are still relatively high compared to female death rates and since men tend to marry women much younger than themselves, the number of elderly women widowed will probably increase.

There appear to be some important perceptual gaps developing between actual social trends and conceptual allegiance to earlier eras.

While divorce rates remain high and alternative family forms proliferate, the commitment of both Canadians and Americans to the so-called traditional family appears unshakeable. Belief in the nuclear family as the best way to raise children remains high in both countries, despite the fact that almost half of families are now nontraditional.

What does this mess of interlocking trends and facts all add up to?

As usual in matters of human discourse, facts are cheap and opinions even cheaper. Talk about the future of the family is no exception. Opinion here stretches predictably from the paranoid bleak at one end to the Pollyanna bright at the other.

Of course only time itself will unravel the true story, ultimate fate and final significance of these various trends.

I wanted to leave you today not with a tentative conclusion, but with a solid question mark. What does the final trade-off balance sheet look like? As a society, are we winning or are we losing? The jury is still out.