Canada's birthrate ballooned from the end of the Second World War until about 1965, thanks to improving economic conditions and a related trend over the same period toward larger families. The result was a 20-year bulge in the population known as the baby boom, a generation whose demographic influence has shaped Canada's economy and society and continues to do so as its members age and move into retirement.

The Birthrate Rises

Although an official definition of the baby boom does not exist, it generally describes a period of increased birthrates lasting from 1946 to about 1965. The Great Depression of the 1930s had prolonged the decline in Canada's birthrate (see Population), as it had in most Western countries. The low point in Canada was reached in 1937, when the gross birthrate (the annual number of live births per 1,000 inhabitants) was 20.1. Improved economic conditions caused a recovery that began to accelerate during the Second World War. By 1945 the birthrate had risen to 24.3; by 1946 it had jumped to 27.2, and it remained between 27 and 28.5 per 1,000 inhabitants until 1959, after which it began to gradually decline.

More Marriages, More Children

The baby boom began with the children whose birth their parents had postponed during the Depression, but two other factors also contributed to the boom.

First, a larger proportion of adults married, and those who did had more children. Women born between 1911 and 1912 had an average of 2.9 children, whereas those born between 1929 and 1933 had an average of 3.3. These two generations are separated by 20 years. Between the older and the younger, the number of children per woman increased by 13%.

Second, more than half of baby-boom births can be attributed to what demographers call "timing phenomena." More adults began marrying at a younger age (the median age for a woman's first marriage was 23.2 years in 1940 and 21.1 years in 1965), and between the end of the Second World War and 1965, young couples tended to have their children during the first few years of married life.

The annual number of births in Canada rose from 253 000 in 1940 to 479 000 in 1960, but dropped to 419 000 in 1965. Over this period of 25 years, the baby boom produced about 1.5 million more births (there were about 8.6 million overall) than would otherwise have occurred, an increase of more than 18%.

By 1965, however, people were marrying at a later age and were waiting longer to have children, partly because more women were entering the workforce, and partly because there was general access to better methods of birth control. (See Women in the Labour Force.)

Aging Population

Canada's population is predicted to exceed 40 million people by 2036. In 2012 there were approximately 1.4 million people aged 80 or over, and by 2036 this could increase to 3.3 million.

"As of July 1, 2012," reported Statistics Canada in 2012, "the median age of the Canadian population was 40.0 years. That is, half of the population was older and half younger. In the past 20 years, that is between 1992 and 2012, the median age in Canada has increased by 6.4 years."

The aging of the population is projected to accelerate rapidly as more of the baby-boom generation turns 65 and as that happens, the number of senior citizens could exceed the number of children for the first time in Canada's history.

Long-Term Effects

Baby boomers caused a swelling in the demographic curve that has been constantly on the move -- likened to a rabbit swallowed by a snake and moving along the snake's body. Within 20 years after the end of the boom in 1966, the "rabbit" reached ages 20-39 and its members had moved into the labour force. In 2011, the oldest members of the "rabbit" had reached 65, the traditional retirement age. Until 2031, large further additions to age groups in retirement are expected. (See Aging.)

However, the changing economy, changing attitudes and expectations toward lifestyle, and longer life expectancy are redefining this generation's approach to age and retirement. Retiring baby boomers are creating a need for workers to fill vacated jobs, many of which require specialized skill sets. This may create a need to retain older workers and delay their retirement, or to find workers from other countries.

As more members of the baby-boom generation enter their 60s, the labour force comprising older workers will increase. By 2036, the senior population in Canada (65 years and over) is expected to more than double and is estimated to then represent 23% to 25% of the total population compared to 14% in 2009.

Appearance of Generation X

The "baby-bust" generation, or Generation X (1966 to 1974) corresponds to the drop in the birthrate after the baby boom – the result of baby boomers having fewer children than their parents. Generation X, a term popularized by author Douglas Coupland, started entering the labour force in the late 1980s. Generation X-ers were greeted by high unemployment and unfavourable income distribution giving them no incentive to produce the next baby boom. Conceivably, the baby bust would have been even more severe except for the effect of the baby boom echo (babies born due to the large number of mothers, not because the average mother had many children.

In 2011, the children of baby boomers (the cohort then aged 19 to 39) comprised 27% of the total population; this group was referred to as Generation Y or the “echo of the baby boom.” The drop in the fertility rate of the generations that followed the baby boomers was influenced by societal changes including increases in separation and divorce rates, female labour force participation and rapid technological change. The children of the echo generation, named Generation Z or the Internet generation, are individuals born since 1993, or after the invention of the Internet, and refers to more than 7.3 million people born between 1993 and 2011.

"War of Generations"

The baby-bust additions to the labour force beginning with the late 1980s were small and resulted in a pronounced change in the proportions of the population producing the national income, versus those consuming it. The number of pensioners or retirees could rise from 1 per 5 members of the labour force, to 1 per 2. Some analysts have suggested a potential "war of generations" as a consequence, including conflicts over how to pay for public services, and how to afford the rising social welfare costs of an increasingly older society. (See Marxism and Keynesian Economics.)

Shifting Demands

The baby boom generation that was once young is aging: the historical highs in median age experienced during the 1980s and 1990s (34 in 1994) adjusted to a median age of 40 in 2012. Even if there are no further declines in the fertility rate per woman, there will be declines in the total number of births to well below the annual 400 000 number, and increases above the annual 200 000 deaths until there are more deaths than births.

In 2012, there were nearly 5.2 million Canadians over aged 65, an 11.6% increase from 1992. As baby boomers become senior citizens, economic and social demands will increasingly shift from the needs of schools, for example, to the needs of the elderly and the costs associated with an aging population, including health care and income security.