The maturing of Canada’s workforce

There are now more workers in retail, health care and social assistance than in manufacturing.

OTTAWA, Ont. – How times have changed, particularly when it comes to Canada’s labour force.

The 2011 National Household Survey’s latest findings offer insights into how Canada’s workforce has evolved over the course of five decades and suggest where it might be headed.

From a time when women were marginal participants in the labour force and men worked on the farm or in factories, Canada has evolved to a place where women are more educated than men, and both genders are turning towards services industries for work.

In 1961, when John Diefenbaker was prime minister, the nation was young and rapidly growing. The 1961 census reported Canada’s population to be 18.2 million and growing nearly 3% a year. About a third of the population, most members of the baby boom generation, were under the age of 15. For over 90% of the adult population, the highest level of education was elementary or secondary school. Only 4% had a university degree.

The portrait of work in 1961 comes alive through census monographs put together by the late Sylvia Ostry, a noted economist and former chief statistician of Canada. She shows that back then, the labour force numbered 6.7 million people, of whom nearly three-quarters were male. The labour force participation rate was 81% for men and 29% for women.

For men, 30% worked in white-collar occupations, 35% in blue-collar occupations and 16% in primary occupations – mostly farming. Over half of women were employed in white-collar jobs, mostly as teachers, nurses, and in clerical and sales jobs. An additional 22% were in service occupations such as housekeepers, waitresses and hairdressers.

The 1981 census documented the rapid changes in Canada: The population had reached 24.3 million, but growth had slowed to just over 1% a year following a sharp decline in fertility in the 1960s. The large cohort of baby boomers were now between 15 and 34 years old. The older boomers, aged 25 to 34, had mostly completed their education, attaining much higher levels of education than their parents; 17% of men and 13% of women had a university degree.

The labour force had grown to 12.1 million, with over half of workers under the age of 35. Women had increased their labour force participation to just over 50%. Two-thirds of all Canadians were now employed in the service sector. Women who were employed continued to be heavily concentrated in education, health care and social assistance and retail occupations.

Fast-forward 20 more years and newly released data from the 2011 National Household Survey provides new evidence of a labour force responding to demographics and economic trends. In 2011, Canada’s population had reached 33.5 million and was continuing to grow at a rate of about 1% a year. However, immigration has replaced natural increase (the excess of births over deaths) as the main driver of population growth.

By 2011, the baby boomers were between 45 and 64 years old, and the labour force was not only much larger but also much older. The labour force totalled 18 million in 2011 and 18% of its members were 55 years of age or older compared to 11% in 1981. Women now make up 47.8% of the total labour force.

The shift in the industrial foundation of the economy is also reflected in the new NHS data. In 2011 manufacturing accounted for only 9% of the labour force – about half the level in 1981. There are now more workers in the retail trade and health care and social assistance sectors of the economy.

The new findings also indicate that education levels have continued to increase. In 2011, 21% of the adult population has a university degree compared to 8% in 1981.

But the big story is the education gains by women, particularly younger women, over the past several decades. In 2011, the education levels of young women aged 25 to 34 greatly exceeds those for young men; 73.7% of young women have a post-secondary degree, certificate or diploma (including trades) compared to 64.7% for young men.

Gender differences are particularly pronounced for university degrees, where 37.1% of young women have a university degree compared with 26.5% of young men. In other words, young women today are twice as likely to have a university degree compared to their mothers generation, while younger men have only modest increases compared with their father’s generation.

As the workforce ages in coming years, these trends will translate into women being an overall majority in a wide variety of occupations historically dominated by men.

As Bob Dylan put it, “The times, they are a-changin’.”

©The Canadian Press