The church in Canada: serving an aging society

By Peter Jon Mitchell | November 1, 2010

There are the Joneses, the Duggars, and don’t forget Kate and her eight. Big families have captured our imagination and have become a spectacle worthy of reality TV. Once a common occurrence, large families are becoming the exception as Canadian families have been shrinking over the last several decades. At the same time, the median age in Canada is creeping upward as the Baby Boomer generation enters their senior years. The country is greying. Is the church prepared to respond to this demographic shift?

The average family size in Canada has declined from 3.7 members in 1971 to 3.0 in 2006.1 A significant factor is the decline in the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) – the average number of children a woman is likely to have during her reproductive life. During the height of the Baby Boom, the TFR was around 3.9, but today the Canadian TFR is 1.66. To sustain the population without immigration requires a TFR of approximately 2.1, but the Canadian TFR has not been at that level since 1971.

The large cohort of Boomers entering their senior years will consume a greater share of government funded entitlements such as pensions and health care. Fewer younger Canadians will be entering the workforce and generating income tax dollars to fund the increasing expense of entitlements. The economic consequences will mean that many of the programs Canadians have come to expect will be far less robust in the future.

What influences fertility?

A diverse number of factors have contributed to fertility decline in Canada and throughout the developed world. The knowledge based economy requires greater levels of education, resulting in young people pursuing further schooling before establishing a career, marrying and having children. Delayed marriage and later childbirth means a race to beat the biological clock for many couples, with fewer children being born as a result. Couples must also consider the financial implications. Raising children is an expensive proposition with an estimated expenditure of $168,000 by the time a child reaches 18.2

Family breakdown may inhibit fertility by interrupting the childbearing years. Common law relationships continue to become more prevalent, yet are statistically less stable than marriage relationships. It’s plausible that lower fertility may be a result.

Birth control and abortion have undoubtedly influenced the decline in fertility with over 91,000 abortions performed in Canada annually. Historian Ian Dowbiggin argues that abortion has become so prevalent in the former Soviet Union that it may be the leading factor in population decline in that region.3

Is the church ready?

The one place where it may appear that the Canadian family is not shrinking is in the church. A study found that Canadian women who attend religious services weekly are 50 per cent more likely to have a third child.4 Church leaders understand that young families are an important demographic within church life. A large portion of resources are often devoted to developing exciting children’s programs and culturally relevant youth ministries in growing churches. Demand in the church nursery or Sunday school class often exceeds the supply of willing volunteers. And yet in the next five to 10 years, Canada will enter an unprecedented period in which there will be more Canadians 65 and older than 15 and younger.5 With all the energy directed toward contemporary services and programs consumed by the early to mid-life demographic, will the church remain relevant in a greying society?

The question is not about revisiting the debate over contemporary versus traditional worship styles. But forward thinking churches will understand that the demographic shift and related economic constraints will mean more seniors with less government support. It will mean families will face greater stress and concern in caring for elderly parents.

The church is a unique community that can thoughtfully meet the tangible and spiritual needs of an aging population. As increasing pressure is placed on families to raise children while attending to the concerns of elderly parents, the church will need to be creative and resourceful in supporting the marriages and family life of this generation. But like all Canadians, communities of faith must acknowledge the demographic shift and begin planning now for the coming reality.

Peter Jon Mitchell is a senior researcher at Cardus. Originally published on November 2, 2010.

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