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A Half Century of Change in Canada’s Labour Force

by Doug Norris, Ph.D. | Jun 26, 2013

By Dr. Doug Norris, Senior Vice President and Chief Demographer, Environics Analytics

How times have changed, particularly when it comes to Canada’s labour force. New findings released today from the 2011 National Household Survey give insights into how Canada’s workforce has evolved over the course of five decades and suggest where it might be headed.

In 1961, when John Diefenbaker was Canada’s 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% of the population had a university degree.

Sylvia Ostry, a noted economist and former Chief Statistician of Canada, documented the labour force trends in a series of 1961 Census monographs. In 1961, 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. Among men, 30% worked in white-collar occupations, 35% in blue-collar occupations and 16% in primary occupations—mostly farming. Over half of women (56%) were employed in white-collar jobs, mostly as teachers and nurses, and in clerical and sales jobs. An additional 22% were in service occupations such as housekeepers, waitresses and hairdressers.

Twenty years later in 1981, Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister for the second time and Dolly Parton’s song “9 till 5” was near the top of the music charts—an indication of how far women had come in the workplace and how far they had yet to go. 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.

Meanwhile, 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% from 29% in 1961, and women now made up 41% of the total labour force.  Two-thirds of all Canadians were now employed in the service sector.  The largest industries for employment were manufacturing (18%), retail and wholesale trade (15%) and health care and social assistance (8%).  Women who were employed continued to be heavily concentrated in health care and retail occupations.

Fast-forward 20 more years and just-released data from the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS) 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, a level that has remained fairly constant since 1981. However, immigration has replaced natural increase (the excess of births over deaths) as the main driver of population growth.

In 2011, about 74% of young women aged 25 to 34 have a post-secondary degree, certificate or diploma compared to 65% for young men. And gender differences are particularly pronounced for university degrees, where 37% of young women have a university degree compared to 27% of young men.

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% were 55 years of age or older compared to 11% in 1981. Labour force participation rates for women also have risen to 62% compared to 72% for men, and women now make up 48% 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—down about 50% from the level in 1981—and there are more workers in the retail, health care and social assistance sectors of the economy.

The new findings also indicate that education levels have continued to increase since 1981. In 2011, 21% of the adult population has a university degree compared to 8% in 1981. But the big story is the education gains made by women, particularly younger women, over the past several decades. In 2011, the education levels of young women aged 25-34 greatly exceeds those for young men. Approximately 74% of young women have a post-secondary degree, certificate or diploma (including trades) compared to 65% for young men. Gender differences are particularly pronounced for university degrees, where 37% of young women have a university degree compared to 27% of young men.

The remarkable advancement in women’s education is especially evident when comparing the educational level of the younger population between 25 and 34 years old in 2011 with that of their parents’ generation, those aged 55 to 64 in 2011. For this older Boomer generation, 22% of men and 19% of women have a university degree at the Bachelors level or higher. In other words, young women today are nearly twice as likely to have a university degree compared to their mothers, while younger men have not much more education than their fathers.

The rising education levels of younger women are clearly seen in their increasing representation in virtually all occupations, and again a comparison of women aged 25-34 to their mothers’ generation aged 55-64 is illuminating.  Young women are now a majority in occupations such as biologists and related occupations (65% for women aged 25-34 vs. 30% for women aged 55-64); general practitioners and family physicians (60% vs. 29%), veterinarians (82% vs. 25%) and lawyers and Quebec notaries (58% vs. 23%). Although not a majority, women greatly increased their representation in occupations such as engineers (18% vs. 5%) and police officers (27% vs. 10%). However, in senior management occupations progress was slower as representation only increased to 29% for younger women compared to 24% for older women.

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’.”

doug_norrisBA3D88758F9FOne of Canada’s leading experts on the Census, Doug Norris, Ph.D., is a Senior Vice President and Chief Demographer at Environics Analytics. He joined EA in 2006 after nearly 30 years with Statistics Canada, where he earned the nickname of “Mr. Census” in his role as Director General of Social and Demographic Statistics. Currently, he assists companies, government agencies and not-for-profit organizations in using census and other statistical information for planning and marketing projects.