Research Brief – Changing Nature of the Family

Jeff Carr
Policy Research Initiative
Government of Canada

Jeff Carr is a policy research officer with the Government of Canada’s Policy Research Initiative.


This article provides a brief look at how Canadian families have changed over the last few decades. Three dimensions are examined: union formation, the number and timing of children, and employment behaviour.

This report uses data and projections from the LifePaths model1 designed and maintained by Statistics Canada. LifePaths is a dynamic, longitudinal microsimulation model of individuals and families. Using behavioural equations estimated from a variety of historical micro-data sources, LifePaths creates life histories from birth to death that are representative of the history of Canada’s population. The model simulates the entire lives of these synthetic individuals and allows us to examine both past and future trends.


Union Formation

Union formation has changed dramatically in Canada; the fact that this section is titled “union formation” instead of “marriage” is indicative. Surprisingly, one factor that has remained almost completely unchanged is the fraction of the population in a union. While a constant fraction of 60 percent of the population2 has been involved in a union at any given time over the past 35 years, the nature of those unions has varied dramatically, with the fraction of married individuals falling from 60 percent of the population to 49 percent while the number of individuals in common law unions following an opposite trend rising from one percent to 11 percent of the population.

The fraction of married individuals is largely a historical artifact. In terms of new union formations, the trend toward common-law unions is far more pronounced. In 1970, there were about five marriages for each common-law union formation, by 1987 the ratio was one to one, and now, in 2005, there are two common-law union formations for each marriage.

This trend toward common-law union formations is accompanied by a trend toward a greater number of lifetime union formations in general. Whereas individuals from birth cohorts prior to 1930 could expect to form one lifetime union, more recent cohorts can expect to form significantly more unions, reaching almost two per individual on average for the 1975 birth cohort.

Finally, the timing of union formation is changing dramatically. Each generation after the 1945 birth cohort is waiting later in life to form the first union. One possible explanation for this is the theory that women postpone union formation until education is completed and their career is established. However, both sexes have seen similar increases in their age at first union formation so women alone do not explain this trend. An interesting fact is that the timing of first union formation fell dramatically for birth cohorts between 1900 and 1935 and, despite recent increases, individuals still enter their first union at younger ages than individuals born in the early 1900s.


Figure 1
Fraction of Population by Marital Status

Fraction of Population by Marital Status


Figure 2
Union Formations per 1,000 Canadians

Union Formations per 1,000 Canadians


Number and Timing of Children

A second key family dynamic is the timing and number of children born to Canadian women. The baby boom, the large cohort of individuals born in the 20 years following World War II, is a well-known fact, though the driving forces behind it are not always well understood. Figure 5 depicts the two key forces that combined to create the relatively large size of the baby boom cohort. First, there was a sharp rise in fertility for women born between 1915 and 1930 causing a large number of babies to be born between 1945 and 1965. But more important, there was a steep decline in fertility for subsequent cohorts causing it to fall well below the baby boom level, as well as the historic level of fertility in Canada.

Many factors are undoubtedly responsible for the rise and subsequent decline in fertility, but one issue is the timing of the birth of children. Age of the mother at first birth is an important indicator of lifetime fertility. Figure 6 shows the average age of women at the time of the first birth by birth cohort. Not surprisingly, during the period of rising fertility, the age at first birth declined and during the subsequent period of falling fertility, age at first birth rose significantly. The fact that individuals wait so much later in life to begin families is also an important factor to consider when thinking about the life courses of individuals and the changing life experiences of both the parents and their children due to delayed fertility.


Figure 3
Average Number of Lifetime Union Formations

Average Number of Lifetime Union Formations


Figure 4
Average Age at First Union Formation

Average Age at First Union Formation


Figure 5
Average Lifetime Number of Children per Woman

Average Lifetime Number of Children per Woman


Employment Behaviour

A final aspect of the changing nature of the family is the labour market behaviour of families. Figure 7 shows a dramatic change in this relationship. Whereas the one-earner family used to be the predominant structure, two-earner families are now twice as common as one-earner families. Furthermore, these trends have been strong and constant over the last 35 years and show no signs of slowing down. This has significant implications for work at home. If historically, one individual did not enter paid employment and instead focused on work at home, how is that work being performed with two individuals in the paid labour force? Are individuals performing this work on top of their paid employment, or is there some substitution taking place with paid services being increasingly used to perform the domestic tasks that used to be the responsibility of the non-employed spouse?


Canadian families have changed dramatically. There has been an evolution in the nature of union formations, the timing and number of children, and the labour market participation by family members. Overall, there seems to be later and less attachment to “family” life and greater commitment to the labour force. How does this new dynamic alter the experiences of Canadian families? Is there a need for a changing relationship between governments and families? Are these trends driven by personal choice or economic necessity? This article sought to provide an evidence base to help formulate these questions and provide a platform for future research.


Figure 6
Average Age at First Birth (Mothers)

Average Age at First Birth (Mothers)


Figure 7
Fraction of Population by Economic Family Type

Fraction of Population by Economic Family Type



  1. For a more detailed description of the LifePaths model please consult the Statistics Canada web site at <> and “Fragments of Lives: Enabling New Policy Directions through Integrated Life-Course Data” an article in Horizons Volume 6 Number 2 by the PRI at <>.
  2. Population aged 15+.