The cover story in yesterday's New York Times Sunday magazine was about Europe's declining birth rate. Basically, many European nations are reproducing at rates lower than the "replacement" rate of 2.1 kids per woman. Most of the concern I've heard about that issue comes from xenophobic right wingers who are scared to death at the thought of pale people losing hold of the planet. This article, however, digs into the numbers to try and figure out why birth rates in Europe are down and why they vary so much. The results are fascinating.
To begin with, women aren't having fewer kids because they just don't want to:
Maybe the most striking way to set up the issue is via a statistic that emerged from a 2006 Eurobarometer survey by the European Commission. Women were asked how many children they would like to have; the average result was 2.36 — well above the replacement level and far above the rate anywhere in Europe. If women are having significantly fewer children than they want, there must be other forces at work.Given those findings, why do birth rates vary from region to region? Again, the
findings are a bit counterintuitive:
The accepted demographic wisdom had been that as women enter the job market, a society’s fertility rate drops. That has been broadly true in the developed world, but more recently, and especially in Europe, the numbers don’t bear it out. In fact, something like the opposite has been the case. According to Hans-Peter Kohler of the University of Pennsylvania, analysis of recent studies showed that 'high fertility was associated with high female labor-force participation . . . and the lowest fertility levels in Europe since the mid-1990s are often found in countries with the lowest female labor-force participation.' In other words, working mothers are having more babies than stay-at-home moms.When it comes to birth rates in the developed world, the current champ is the United States. The best of Europe tend to be the Scandanavian countries, which provide generous state benefits for parents, particularly compared to the US. So how do two areas do so well with such divergent approaches?
How can this be? A study released in February of this year by Letizia Mencarini, the demographer from the University of Turin, and three of her colleagues compared the situation of women in Italy and the Netherlands. They found that a greater percentage of Dutch women than Italian women are in the work force but that, at the same time, the fertility rate in the Netherlands is significantly higher (1.73 compared to 1.33). In both countries, people tend to have traditional views about gender roles, but Italian society is considerably more conservative in this regard, and this seems to be a decisive difference. The hypothesis the sociologists set out to test was borne out by the data: women who do more than 75 percent of the housework and child care are less likely to want to have another child than women whose husbands or partners share the load. Put differently, Dutch fathers change more diapers, pick up more kids after soccer practice and clean up the living room more often than Italian fathers; therefore, relative to the population, there are more Dutch babies than Italian babies being born. As Mencarini said, 'It’s about how much the man participates in child care.'
But one other factor affecting the higher U.S. birthrate stands out in the minds of many observers. 'There’s much less flexibility in the European system,' Haub says. 'In Europe, both the society and the job market are more rigid.' There may be little state subsidy for child care in the U.S., and there is certainly nothing like the warm governmental nest that Norway feathers for fledgling families, but the American system seems to make up for it in other ways. As Hans-Peter Kohler of the University of Pennsylvania writes: 'In general, women are deterred from having children when the economic cost — in the form of lower lifetime wages — is too high. Compared to other high-income countries, this cost is diminished by an American labor market that allows more flexible work hours and makes it easier to leave and then re-enter the labor force.' An American woman might choose to suspend her career for three or five years to raise a family, expecting to be able to resume working; that happens far less easily in Europe.That's just a few of the highlights of a very interesting article. It also includes the divergent approaches of European cities to declining populations, from pay-for-breeding to controlled shrinkage. Well worth a read.
So there would seem to be two models for achieving higher fertility: the neosocialist Scandinavian system and the laissez-faire American one. Aassve put it to me 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.'