Low Fertility Nations Have Fewer Working Women, Not More

The United States public has just awakened to a world problem: declining fertility rates. As is their habit, Americans are behaving as if it is all about them and only about them. And the dialogue is quickly devolving into their too-familiar Salon-versus-Fox, reductive mud-slinging.  One side is already screaming they won’t go back to the kitchen and the other is quickly trying to dismantle every social program ever devised.

It’s not that simple.  The evidence actually points toward a solution that helps women work and bear children, not a return to old gender norms.  But you have to take a global, long-term perspective, something that is rare in those kinds of conversations.

The women in a population must produce 2.1 children, on average, in their lifetimes if that society is to replace itself.  That way, the population neither grows too quickly nor too slowly, is neither too young nor too old, as all such patterns have unique problems.

If you take the global data and pull out the nations with fertility rates clearly below replacement–let’s say 1.8 or below–you can see right away that very nearly all of the 27 or so countries are in Europe. The lowest fertility is in eastern and southern Europe, countries that also have very low female labor force participation rates and overly traditional gender norms. So turning back the clock is definitely not indicated.

Let’s focus for a moment on France, Germany, Italy, and Great Britain.  I have added Norway and Sweden to represent the Scandinavian approach, where there is relatively more support for families.  Scandinavian countries also rank at the top of gender equality lists compiled by the UNDP, World Economic Forum, and so on.


As you can see, all of these countries except Sweden have been experiencing declining birth rates since 1960.  Sweden’s birth rate has been relatively stable, but they started with a lower birth rate than the others. The birth rate is simply the number of births per 1,000 people in any given year.  It is more sensitive to short-term influences like recession and focuses on the current generation of mothers, while fertility is a more long-term measure that looks at all the adult women.


This dichotomous set of observations has led even Goldman Sachs (not exactly a “socialist” institution) to call for these countries to start liberalizing their policies toward working women–on the argument that the nations who make it easiest for women to work and have children are getting the benefit of female labor and maintaining replacement. Thus, they would maximize productivity while also keeping the population stable, if they would just get their  s – – t  together.

The problem is that France, the UK, Germany, as well as the United States, only maintain their fertility rates because they have had immigrant populations who mask the decline among “natives.” All these countries are experiencing decline among the educated, native born middle class.  Immigrant populations in the US and the UK are now also having fewer children.  So the end of replacement rate is now in sight and the specter of “brain drain” also looming.

However, that still does not mean we turn back the clock and send all the women home from work.  Based on the experience in the rest of Europe, returning to old gender norms will not solve the problem–and it would exaggerate the negative effects of an aging population by actually reducing the number of workers for the next twenty years. In Eastern Europe, the declining labor population caused by the combination of declining fertility, few women workers, and net migration is enough to take your breath away.

This is not to mention that potential parents–young working couples–are not likely to have more children if they are forced to give up an income. That’s because another thing behind declining fertility is the astronomical cost of raising (and, especially, educating) children, along with the super stress of working motherhood.  So, one side of the equation has to be reducing the stress and the other needs to be either decreasing the cost of child-rearing (not just infant care) or increasing incomes.

Increasing incomes?  Yes.  Because another piece of this puzzle is that the countries who are already well down the tubes on this issue also don’t pay their women fairly.  And the US, the UK, France, and Germany all still have a substantial pay gap between men and women, even for similar work.  If you closed the gender gap in pay (and remember it is illegal to pay women less for the same work in all these countries), you would increase family incomes. Norway and Sweden, as well as the other Scandinavian countries, also have a pay gap, though it is very much smaller (and nonexistent in some measures).  And they have higher labor force participation. Yet they are maintaining fertility at replacement levels.

So, counterintuitive as it may seem to some, the way to get more women to have more babies is probably to (1) help them work and (2) pay them more.

In the bigger picture, America actually looks pretty good.  They don’t do much to support working mothers, compared to the Scandinavian countries, but they are less gender-retro than Japan.  Their birth rates have been coming down for decades, but they were high to start in 1960.  The UK and its English-speaking former colonies–America, Australia, and Canada–tend to track together in their approaches to family and gender. And they tend to come out pretty well on gender rankings, below the Scandinavian countries, to be sure, but better than most of Europe.


Wow.  So it turns out that this fertility issue could actually work to the advantage of women’s economic empowerment.  But that is only going to happen if we understand very clearly what the variables are, take a global and long term view, and keep our heads.

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