A Focus on Families

Canadian women have the highest labour force participation rate (76%) among OECD countries and they have been responsible for one third of Canadian economic growth over the past 50 years. As these women have children of their own, do you feel we provide the necessary support for them to continue meaningful work and support their families?

No, I don’t – and I’d like to see more flexibility for both sexes to balance child care commitments with meaningful work and engaging careers. Canada really hasn’t solved the issue of ensuring that child care services are appropriate for contemporary families with two breadwinners. There are also persistent biases against women who do take time out of the paid workforce to be with children, or who elect to work part-time so they have more hours for parenting. Sad to say, we even see those biases in academia and scientific peer review.

All of this is tied into a bigger problem – the modern hamster-wheel; we all run faster and go nowhere. There’s a fair bit of evidence saying that the growth in real disposable household incomes is due overwhelmingly to the rise in the proportion of women in the workforce. While that rise represents a very positive shift toward gender parity, I do wonder at the number of hours worked by two people to reach a household standard of living that used to be achievable with one breadwinner.

Perhaps we need a broader culture change, with greater flexibility about career tracks and working hours. I used to see a lot of stressed families in my peer group of late Boomers, and that seems to be continuing today. In fact, judging from reports by universities and colleges, we have an epidemic of mental illness among the offspring of early Millennials. Is that all due to accelerating social change and digital overload of our children and youth? Or is some of it due to stressed and absent parents? Could it be that the best situation is for both parents to work part-time when their children are young or even on into their teens? If so, we need a sea-change in public policy and employer attitudes.

You mention options for families when children are young. Can you comment on the importance of the first 1,000 days of life (and how we can ensure the best outcomes for parents and children during this critical period)?

Evidence about the importance of the first 1,000 days of life has been accumulating for decades. You can start the clock with conception, and get to 1,000 days with 9 months of pregnancy and two years of early childhood. Or, if you prefer, just focus on the first three years of childhood. Either way, what happens has a major impact on brain development. We know, for example, that diffuse brain damage in utero is usually irreversible; fetal alcohol syndrome is a tragic example. We also know that, in the first 3 years after birth, a child’s brain grows and develops at a tremendous rate. Malnutrition, neglect and abuse, exposure to chronic domestic conflict, family socio-economic deprivation, and significant psychological traumas all have serious consequences for the developing brain of the small child who lives in that context.

Lots of recent science shows that the adult brain has great plasticity – or ability to adapt and change – than was ever realized in the past. However, a lot of what happens in those first 1,000 days has long-standing if not permanent effects. That’s a bad news, good news scenario: it’s hard to undo damage done early in life, but we can also give the next generation a brilliant start if we make the right policy choices.

For anyone who wants to understand this field and what those policy options are, all you have to do is go on-line and download a report evocatively entitled, The Real Brain Drain. Co-authored by the Honourable Margaret Norrie McCain and the late great Dr Fraser Mustard, it was published in 1999, and very little it says has been undercut by more recent research.

What’s alarming, however, is that so little recommended by the McCain-Mustard report has been done by any Canadian government or other agency. If we want to have a smarter nation, if we want to thrive and prosper in a very competitive world, we need to take those first 1,000 days seriously. A great start in life is vitally important not just to every child’s circle of family and friends, but to every community.

Switching from children to the other end of the age spectrum, are you concerned about the rapidly aging population? What do you think its effect will be on our overall economy?

Fortunately, the population aging process is gradual. More people are healthier for longer than ever before, and one has to be careful about confusing chronological age with biological age. However, there’s no question that demographic trends will put pressure on our economy by augmenting demand for health and social services, and by reducing the tax base with proportionately fewer people in the full-time work force. The impact will be more like a ratchet than a torrent. Remember that from 2002 to 2012, the share of seniors in the population rose from 12.5% to 14.9%, and yet their share of health spending stayed steady at around 45%. Hectic cost escalation isn’t inevitable.

Recently, it’s been projected that rising numbers of seniors will account for 61% of all health spending by 2035 – but that’s based on a straight line projection. In several European countries and in Japan, aging of the population is meaningfully more advanced, and they have not had massive cost escalation. Why? Because they have been smarter than us in procuring and paying less for drugs and biologicals, and they have invested more in home care than Canada has.

I think the bigger issue is cushioning the transition by bolstering our tax base. And for that cushion, I’d turn to immigration policy. Increased numbers of smart young immigrants, with excellent skills and high aspirations, can make a big difference. It’s not a permanent fix by any means, as new adult immigrants will age, too. However, we have the land mass and natural resources to sustain a much larger population, and a serious boost to immigration will reduce the effects of the demographic ratchet over a generation or more.

Looking to the future, what does a prosperous and stronger Canada look like?

It looks like this: Canada has a much bigger population and higher growth rate. It remains highly urbanized with careful protection of farm lands and parklands. We have the world’s smartest cities, with advanced public transit, outstanding quality of life, and low carbon footprints.

We continue to exploit our natural resource advantages, but in an environmentally-friendly fashion that reflects Canada’s new-found status as a world leader in green/clean-tech applied to natural resource industries. We have built up a massive agri-food industry, moving beyond simple bulk exports to exporting packaged and processed items.

Canada has the best-educated population in the world, and invests generously in a range of programs to ensure that healthy growth and development starts well before primary school. Whereas in 2016, we punched above our weight in research outputs but lagged when it came to producing the highest-impact science and scholarship, Canada is now a bigger player in knowledge generation. We are still too small to dominate any field, but we are finally winning more than our fair share of pinnacle prizes in all academic disciplines.

Canadian business, previously a laggard in R&D spending, has stopped making excuses and started making investments, incented by government programs that provide direct, leveraged grants. The over-reliance on R&D tax credits, so out of step with other nations in 2016, has abated, and Ottawa’s suite of innovation programs has been streamlined and modernized. The result is a big and overdue lift to productivity, propelling us past the US on a per-capita basis. The adoption of advanced manufacturing techniques that rely on intelligent automation and novel materials to mitigate other countries’ cheaper labour costs is a cornerstone of that increase in Canadian productivity.

Last, Canada has sustained its time-honoured values of inclusiveness, pluralism and civility. It is a great place to be born and educated, a great place to raise a family, a great place to grow old with dignity and meaning. It’s a north-star of social solidarity, and a magnet for the best and brightest from around the world.