The 2011 National Household Survey's latest findings, released Wednesday, 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 three per cent a year. About a third of the population, most members of the baby boom generation, were under the age of 15. For over 90 per cent of the adult population, the highest level of education was elementary or secondary school. Only four per cent 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 per cent for men and 29 per cent for women.
For men, 30 per cent worked in white-collar occupations, 35 per cent in blue-collar occupations and 16 per cent 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 per cent 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 one per cent 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 per cent of men and 13 per cent 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 per cent. 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 one per cent 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 per cent of its members were 55 years of age or older compared to 11 per cent in 1981. Women now make up 47.8 per cent 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 nine per cent of the labour force down 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 per cent of the adult population has a university degree compared to eight per cent 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 per cent of young women have a post-secondary degree, certificate or diploma (including trades) compared to 64.7 per cent for young men.
Gender differences are particularly pronounced for university degrees, where 37.1 per cent of young women have a university degree compared with 26.5 per cent 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.
The rising education levels of younger women are clearly seen in their increasing representation in virtually all occupations, and a comparison of young women aged 25 to 34 to their mothers' generation aged 55-64 is illuminating. Young women are now a majority in occupations such as biologists, general practitioners and family physicians, veterinarians and lawyers and Quebec notaries. Although not a majority, women greatly increased their representation in occupations such as engineers and police officers. However in senior management occupations progress was slower as representation only increased to 28.9 per cent for younger women compared to 24.4 per cent 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 Norris is the chief demographer for Environics Analytics and a former senior official at Statistics Canada.