Tuesday, July 1, 2008

One Way to Higher Fertility Rates: Support Working Mothers

Posted by John J. Edwards III

Yesterday’s New York Times magazine ran a fascinating and disturbing cover story about the deep decline in Europe’s birthrates, which threatens to leave its countries economically stagnant and socially moribund in coming decades. As the article lays out, the entire continent is below the “replacement” birthrate of 2.1 on average per woman, in some places far below. Among the many possible reasons for the baby bust, particularly interesting is a combination of differences in government support for working mothers and social mores about motherhood.

In short, the more juggle-friendly the country, the higher the birthrate tends to be. The article, by Russell Shorto, notes that Scandinavian countries have a relatively high birthrate of 1.8, while southern European countries have some of the world’s lowest rates — 1.33 in Italy, for example. In Norway, the government guarantees 54 weeks of maternity leave and six weeks of paternity leave, plus a payment of €4,000 (about $6,300) upon the birth of a child. In Italy, there’s less state child-care support, and only 50% of women work outside the home, compared with 75% to 80% in Scandinavia, the article says.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has a healthy birthrate of 2.1, despite offering relatively little government child-care assistance. The key here seems to be the flexibility of our labor market and workplaces, coupled with social mores that increasingly encourage fathers to take an active role in child rearing, says the article. Motherhood is thus more attractive to women in the U.S. than in the more economically rigid and socially traditionalist Europe.

Arnstein Aassve, a Norwegian sociologist quoted in the article, sums up the situation this way: “You might say that in order to promote fertility, your society needs to be generous or flexible. The U.S. isn’t very generous, but it is flexible. Italy is not generous in terms of social services and it’s not flexible. There is also a social stigma in countries like Italy, where it is seen as less socially accepted for women with children to work. In the U.S., that is very accepted.”

Readers, what’s your take on this theory and how you’ve seen it play out in your lives and communities? I’m especially curious to hear from readers who’ve lived and worked in Europe, or are there now.