Policies like paid parental leave and universal childcare reinforce the commitment to work over family, thereby contributing to the decline in fertility in high-income countries, despite women saying they want more children.
A likely part of the solution to the fertility gap, the difference between how many children women say they want and how many they actually have, is to introduce cash payments for families to reduce the burden of paid work. Such policies provide some parents the option of homecare for their children instead of paid work.
The other part requires a cultural shift towards valuing children and family over work.
‘“Workism” is different from a natural desire to work hard to provide for a family, or to have a comfortable standard of living. It is an identity shift as both men and women increasingly see their personal identities tied to their value as workers.’
This is the finding of the U.S. Institute for Family Studies and the Social Trends Institute paper, “More Work, Fewer Babies: What Does Workism Have to Do with Falling Fertility?”, produced by Laurie DeRose and Lyman Stone.
That report notes that “birth rates have fallen to very low levels in many countries”, including countries with high incomes and benefits for working women with children. Universal childcare or parental-leave programs are not only insufficient to boost fertility but may also entrench what authors call a “workist” life attitude, that takes priority over family. The “workist” priority elevates work and careers as the purpose of life.
The study found high-income countries that become “workist”, with extremely career-focused attitudes among both men and women, show steep declines in fertility.
‘Solutions need to be sought in the nature of the core problem which is how to convey to young people the vital importance of the social bonds to be found in marriage and family.’
It focused on Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Until 2008, they maintained relatively high fertility rates with generous social welfare and gender equality, which “occurred first in public contexts (legal, educational, workplace), and only later in private contexts (shared childcare and domestic work).”
Since then, fertility has plummeted.
The authors say “workism” is different from a natural desire to work hard to provide for a family, or to have a comfortable standard of living. It is an identity shift as both men and women increasingly see their personal identities tied to their value as workers. The workplace becomes a place of “socialisation, friendship, public service, and status” over the close biological relationships of families. This negative impact on childbearing has been greater than the positive effects of generous social welfare and greater gender equality.
Hence, government policies aimed at boosting fertility through benefits for workers may only serve to undermine fertility by strengthening a “workist” life priority over the family.
An insight comes from a rather left-of-field Institute for Family Studies article on marriage. In it, Mary Harrington describes her transition from a free-wheeling lifestyle to married life with a husband and child. Her contrast between the modern individualist lifestyle and the demands of marriage, also provides a contrast between “workism” and prioritising family.
She writes: “inasmuch as marriage extends the state of interdependence beyond the literal, physical one of reproduction to a more metaphorical level, it’s also only sustainable to the extent that we fail as atomised individuals. Embracing [family] life in common means giving up a measure of individual freedom … We can only be absolutely free to the extent that we reject belonging to one another.”
Her core insight is that she belongs to “the first generation … raised wholly on those messages of freedom”, or radical individualism, and this generation is “sliding into unhappy, lonely and childless middle age”.
Just as she had a rethink, Harrington says it’s time for a wider rethink as the “freedom we’ve gained has been bought at the cost of meaning” and fertility.
She says that as “the engines of state collude with social norms that serve to strip meaning from citizens’ lives in the name of … freedom,” we have “to stand up for those aspects of human life, our social bonds, that create rather than consume meaning”.
“Whether that’s better recognition in the tax code (and pension law) for the contribution of stay-at-home parents, policy oriented at incentivising early-adulthood marriages, or all these, or something else, is up for discussion. But unless we can shift from treating all citizens first and foremost as separate individuals, towards a willingness to take a policy stand explicitly for life in common, the trend away from shared life towards bitter atomisation will continue.”
The IFS study came to a similar conclusion: cash allowances for families are needed to reduce reliance on paid work. “Encouraging more flexible work arrangements, rolling back strict licensure and certification rules for work, and tackling ‘salaryman’ norms could all be beneficial pro-natal strategies – not because they would give women greater equality at home and work … but because they would facilitate reprioritisation of family life over work life for all parents.”
But alone, these measures are not enough. Solutions need to be sought in the nature of the core problem which is how to convey to young people the vital importance of the social bonds to be found in marriage and family.