How to Fix the Baby Bust

The relationship among birthrates, gender norms, and work culture is more complicated than you think.

A music classroom stands empty in a middle school in Seifhennersdorf, Germany, on May 14, 2014. The state of Saxony officially closed the school after only 38 students registered.
A music classroom stands empty in a middle school in Seifhennersdorf, Germany, on May 14, 2014. The state of Saxony officially closed the school after only 38 students registered. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

According to new data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2018, the U.S. fertility rate hit a new low of 1.73. Once a country known for its high birthrates, the United States has today joined the ranks of many European nations with well below replacement-rate fertility. This is cause for concern, because low rates, as the political economists Nicholas Eberstadt and Hans Groth have pointed out, often “portend ominous change in economic prospects [for countries]: major increases in public debt burdens, and slower economic growth,” because they eventually lead to a shrinking workforce.

Birthrates may be in decline around the world, but what surprises many observers is that the lowest are found in the more conservative countries of Eastern Europe and East Asia, where traditional values and motherhood have historically been prized. They aren’t found in the most progressive countries of Northern and Western Europe, where gender equality is the norm and a high percentage of women of childbearing age work outside the home.

This implies that the relationship between fertility and gender equality is more complicated than many realize. Historically, initial efforts at gender equality have been linked to low fertility, as men and women struggle to find a new balance around work and family, but then the most egalitarian places seem to have higher birthrates. Feminism and fertility may thus follow a reverse J-curve: Childbearing may fall as equality is first embraced, but the full incorporation of egalitarian policies and norms may subsequently bring fertility back up, closer to the replacement level of about 2.1 children per woman.

In other words, the most problematically low fertility may come from an incomplete revolution in gender norms, the idea being that women are more likely to have children when they can more easily combine work and family, when they have partners who share the work of raising the next generation, and when the larger society has gotten behind such egalitarian family norms. This is what led British Member of Parliament David Willetts, in a report on the threat low birthrates pose to Europe’s pension systems, to argue that “feminism is the new natalism.” Academics, including the political scientist Leonard Schoppa and the sociologist Frances Goldscheider, have similarly argued that persistently low fertility rates confronting Japan, Italy, and others are a product of too little feminism.

This discussion may seem esoteric, but it has real-world stakes. Given falling birthrates, a growing number of countries have adopted formal policy commitments to pro-natalism. Since 1976, the share of countries that officially say they are trying to increase their birthrates has risen from under 9 percent to almost 30 percent. And it is pivotal that they pull the right levers.

It’s important to start with some basic facts. First, many of the policies favored by progressive, egalitarian, and feminist advocates are pro-natal. Generous financial support for families with children, flexible work schedules, and parental leave: These and similar proposals are popular, because they distribute the costs of childrearing. Such policies are common in highly egalitarian societies, and they have been shown to boost birthrates in some countries.

At the same time, a new report, The Ties that Bind—which two of the present authors along with Jason Carroll produced for the Institute for Family Studies—and academic research suggest that individuals in Europe, the Americas, Oceania, and Asia who hold or adopt more progressive attitudes about gender still have fewer children.

A case in point is South Korea, where women with more egalitarian views of gender roles do indeed have fewer kids. This is very typical of people in a country at the trough of the reverse J-Curve, where egalitarianism is only half-embraced. And it makes intuitive sense that they’d have fewer children. In the public sphere, South Korea is highly egalitarian, as evidenced by women’s political empowerment and presence in the workplace. But in terms of things like expressed gender attitudes and housework duties—the private sphere—it’s still pretty patriarchal. And so, as the 2012 Korean General Social Survey shows, fertility is lower for women with less traditional views of gender roles—those who might be especially inclined to chafe at the way responsibility for raising a child is divvied up.

In 2018, South Korea’s total fertility rate fell to less than one child expected per woman, a record low. South Korea is the largest country ever to have fallen below one. In the long run, such a low birthrate could cause slower economic growth, less innovation, greater inequality, less stable public finances, greater intergenerational conflict, and more difficulties integrating immigrants.

Understanding as much, since 2006, the government has tried tax incentives, expanded child care, housing benefits, special holidays for baby-making for some government workers, support for in vitro fertilization, generous parental leave from work, subsidized play dates, and other benefits. Their goal was to increase the total fertility rate to 1.6 children per woman by 2020. And while birthrates did rise as high as 1.3 kids per woman in 2012, they have fallen sharply since.

That failure—despite at least $130 billion in spending—has understandably led many policymakers and commentators to look for new policy tools, like egalitarianism. South Korea’s ongoing social campaign to induce men to do more housework is a good example. But we’re doubtful that this campaign will nudge birthrates much higher in the absence of an even more complete revolution in family norms.

Why are we so pessimistic? Because there’s another force that’s keeping South Korean society from real equality: It’s what Derek Thompson at The Atlantic has called “workism”—the idea that work is the source and summit of our lives. South Koreans have among the longest working hours of any country in the OECD, at about 2,100 hours per year. (American workers put in 1,800 hours per year, while almost all of the Nordic countries are under 1,700.) But what makes South Korean working hours burdensome isn’t just the sheer number of hours—it is the work environment surrounding them.

Consider this. Japanese businesses expect workers to be present in the workplace and available on call when out of work. Promotions are often contingent on face time with the boss, even more than in some Western workplaces. Management experiments in China have shown that allowing more flexibility to work remotely in a Chinese business can boost worker performance, but workers who worked from home were promoted less even if their performance was better. This culture of doing business in person is hard to disrupt, despite its difficult implications for worker productivity and family life.

These work attitudes, which demand extraordinary amounts of face time, make all workers less available for parenting, regardless of how much they do or do not embrace feminist attitudes about gender roles. And it’s this kind of excessive workism in East Asia that has made other policy initiatives—like South Korea’s tax benefits and expanded child care—founder.

The South Korean case shows how different approaches to egalitarianism can have different implications for fertility. Mary Brinton, a sociologist at Harvard University, and her colleagues have mapped out different cultural forms related to fertility, noting that what they define as “liberal egalitarianism” prioritizes women’s involvement in the paid labor force and rejects the idea that being a stay-at-home mother is as fulfilling as paid work. This brand of feminism dominates public discussions in the developed world, as with the columnist Katha Pollitt’s call in the New York Times earlier this year for “Day Care for All” to help ensure that mothers don’t step away from the workforce.

But there’s also what’s known as “flexible egalitarianism,” which views people of all genders as fully equal, values working women, but nevertheless believes that being a stay-at-home parent can be just as fulfilling as work outside the home.

Brinton and her research partner Dong-Ju Lee find that gender traditionalism combined with a pro-work orientation—a common pattern in East Asia—and liberal egalitarianism are both linked to lower levels of childbearing in 24 OECD countries, compared to much higher birthrates under flexible egalitarianism. This means that a society that prioritizes work as the main source of meaning will tend to have lower fertility, and the lowest fertility is in societies that prize career ambition and have highly traditional gender norms.

What this boils down to is that to revive fertility rates, many countries, including South Korea, will need to offer more choice in how to organize family life to promote births. If South Korea wants to pull its fertility above one child per woman and keep it there, it might do well to decrease the expectations on all workers and be less concerned about the gender bargain couples strike at home. Households may use that flexibility to have one parent stay at home—which is likely to result in more births—as the other works outside it, or they may use that flexibility to pursue other ambitions outside of work. But the problem to be addressed is the work culture.

A recent academic study of Germany corroborated the importance of flexibility. It showed that where broadband internet access expanded in Germany, birthrates among high-skilled women rose. Much white-collar work can be done remotely, if fast internet is available at home and employers are not unreasonably demanding of their employees’ time.

Although many feminists would favor such flexibility, it may be most apt to describe such policies as “familist.” Familism is the idea that public policies, businesses, and all people should actively seek ways to enable adults to devote more time and attention to family life.

To the extent that Japan’s womenomics policy or Korea’s new supposedly feminist approach to policymaking empower greater flexibility in the office and improve women’s work-life balance, these policies could have pro-natal effects. They’re also justified in terms of labor rights, management best practices, efficiency, and egalitarianism. But it is far from clear that the reforms in question will actually allow parents to increase the time they have available for T-ball games and family dinners—that is, if they are familist in substance and style. After all, they do not seriously challenge established norms around employee presence and face time with the boss in East Asia.

If policymakers think they can boost fertility by getting more women to value work more highly, as some schools of feminist thought maintain, they are sorely mistaken. But if policymakers pursue reforms that persuade bosses to let workers go home to their families earlier and more often—for instance, by introducing policy changes such as overtime rules, leave guarantees, or job-sharing arrangements—nurseries may soon be full again. In other words, familism may be the new natalism.

Graphics by C.K. Hickey.

Lyman Stone is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and an advisor at the consulting firm Demographic Intelligence.

Laurie DeRose is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, a lecturer in sociology at Georgetown University, and a director of research for the World Family Map Project.

W. Bradford Wilcox is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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