The world’s richest countries typically have the world’s lowest birth rates. The highest-income people in those wealthy countries on average have the smallest family sizes.
Those two facts conflict with the broad perception, especially among lawmakers, that Americans aren’t having babies because they’re worried about how expensive kids are. So may the results of a new study out today, which finds that the more career-oriented individuals and wealthy societies become, the more their fertility declines.
“Highly work-focused values and social attitudes among both men and women are strongly associated with lower birth rates in wealthy countries,” authors Laurie DeRose and Lyman Stone write in the Institute for Family Studies paper. Later, they observe, “placing a high degree of value on work can dampen fertility desires and make them less likely to be realized.”
This all suggests, the authors say, that specific societal and individual values strongly influence birth rates in wealthy countries, not necessarily income or welfare availability.
Many demographers have argued that societal values that flatten the differences between the sexes would help boost fertility — for example, if husbands did more childcare and household chores and women had more earning power. Yet this study finds that people with so-called “egalitarian” values are less fertile than those who embrace differences between men and women.
The differences were especially pronounced among those who both expressed feminist values and prioritized work over family. Beliefs about sex roles affected fertility the least among those for whom family was their highest priority.
“Men and women who place a high value on work and expect a high degree of gender equality have the lowest fertility, whereas gender equality expectations are less predictive of fertility among men and women who see work as a less important element of life,” the authors find.
“Women who valued family over work had the most children,” the study says. In addition, the higher fertility among non-feminists “was more pronounced for women than for men: the fertility differential associated with gender role attitudes was more than twice as large among women in every category.”
Another contradiction to the argument that encouraging the same life script for men and women would increase fertility, the authors found, was that countries with some of the highest reported egalitarian values experienced a significant fertility decline, just like peer nations. These same countries with high support for so-called gender equality also offer numerous government subsidies to those who have children.
So countries with high birth welfare and very egalitarian attitudes still saw fertility drops, again contradicting common narratives about potential solutions to low fertility. Rather than government childbearing subsidies and other expensive taxpayer-subsidized incentives such as extensive mandatory paid leave, or shifts towards more feminist attitudes, what really predicted fertility, the authors find, are attitudes about work and family.
“In recent years, fertility rates have fallen sharply in many countries formerly believed immune to very low fertility,” DeRose and Stone write. “Egalitarian values and generous social welfare states had been credited with protecting the Nordic countries in particular from very low fertility rates, yet since 2008, birth rates in those countries have nonetheless plummeted.”
The authors conclude from this that “Efforts to achieve full private sphere gender equality between partners are not likely to yield large fertility recoveries, especially if they are achieved in a way that raises the salience of career-mindedness even more.”
So countries’ efforts to increase birth rates by, for example, providing taxpayer-sponsored daycare, mandating affirmative action for women on company and nonprofit boards, and other policies that attach childbearing-age women to work may actually reduce fertility by reinforcing an anti-fertility careerist mindset, the study suggests.
Sometimes politicians attempt to get around this problem by suggesting instead that governments simply hand parents cash unattached to work, such as with an expanded child tax credit or a universal basic income for parents akin to the one Democrats stuck into their latest government spend-a-thon. The IFS report also suggests this.
Yet subsidizing child production with no or a low expectation that the people who created the children stay together to parent and provide for them seems likely to have devastating consequences, such as increasing rates of criminality, self-harm, depression, and dependency. All of those are far higher among the children of unmarried parents, and so are many other social ills and private wounds. As long as Democrats would refuse to require marriage of subsidy recipients — and to suggest it is immediately to realize that would have a snowball’s chance in Hades — such programs would only increase societal misery.
Instead, the most politically useful takeaway from the report is that those who care about the nation’s ability to sustain itself demographically need to encourage pro-family attitudes, teach the young to look forward to parenthood, emphasize the value and happiness of raising a family, and oppose subsidies that work to separate mothers (and fathers) from children.
The authors used global datasets from the World Values Survey/European Values Survey. These surveys use self-reported values from survey respondents about how high they rate the importance of work and the importance of family.
Low birth rates fuel future fiscal crises for countries, like the United States, that redistribute huge amounts of money from younger working people to older, non-working people. Low birth rates also create many other national problems besides financial ones.
Aging countries are less culturally dynamic and resilient. They also face greater pressure to do things that may be not in the national interest, such as importing foreigners with low job skills and far less likelihood of assimilation.
The United States hit a record-low birth rate in 2019, and research since the lockdowns suggests 2020 and 2021’s birth rates will drop even further. Countries need women to have an average of 2.1 children each to keep their population even. In 2019, the U.S. birth rate was 1.7.