Want bigger families? Let women work

Posted on in Child & Family Debates

TheGlobeandMail.com – Globe Debate
Apr. 04 2015.   Doug Saunders

Do you want to live in the kind of country where families are big, the population is young, kids are valued and couples have all the children they want? Or do you want to live in the kind of country where most women are pursuing full-time careers, where daycare centres and Planned Parenthood offices pepper the streets, where marriage isn’t considered important and where society is obsessed with birth control?

It turns out to be a false dichotomy: These two sentences describe exactly the same sort of country. The way to have more and better families today is to get far away from “family values.”

This has been a dramatic, and largely unnoticed, change. Today, the most “feminist” countries, the ones that do the most to get women out of the home and into the economy, are the ones with the healthiest fertility rates. “The new relationship between women’s employment and fertility” is how François Héran, a professor with the National Institute of Demographic Studies in France, describes his latest research, which he recently presented in Ottawa.

A generation ago, it was taken as fact that getting women into the work force – and letting them control their reproductive choices – meant having smaller families and fewer babies. In 1980, the countries with the fewest women in the work force and the least birth control were generally the ones with the highest fertility – Greece, Spain and Portugal, for example, all had less than 50 per cent of women working, and had the highest fertility rates in Europe.

In 35 years, that pattern has reversed itself completely – today, those more religious “family values” countries are experiencing the lowest reproduction rates in Europe (all below 1.4 children per family). The largest family sizes are all clustered in places such as Britain, France, Belgium, Scandinavia and the United States, where more than 70 per cent of women are working and where child care, birth control and maternity leave are all widely and freely available. Even the uncontroversial availability of abortion correlates with a higher reproduction rate: The phrase “every child a wanted child” turns out not to be just a rallying slogan.

And countries that allow the most “flexibility of family structures” – those that permit same-sex marriage and child rearing, those where a majority of children are born outside of marriage (as is the case in France, the Baltics and much of Scandinavia) are also the ones with the highest fertility rates.

Or, as Dr. Héran says, “Le familialisme est anti-nataliste” – family values are anti-childbirth. Another way of putting it might be that feminism makes babies.

This is important, because a great many countries (including Canada, with its 1.7 children per family) are trying to get family sizes larger to stave off the economic damage from falling populations. There are now 41 countries, covering 13 per cent of the world’s population, that have adopted “pro-natalist” policies aimed at increasing their fertility.

At the same time, many of those countries are also trying to increase female work-force participation rates. It turns out that these goals, if backed by robust sex equality and work-life balance policies, actually reinforce rather than contradict one another.

In other words, the traditional family is the enemy of the successful family. This was confirmed in another recent study, by Australian scholars Peter McDonald and Helen Moyle, which notes that the European countries with “very low fertility” are generally “conservative” countries that “hold more to the ‘breadwinner’ model of the family,” whereas those countries with “sustainable fertility” rates are all “social-democratic countries [which] seek higher levels of gender equity within the family and the workplace.”

The Australian study looked at fertility in English-speaking countries and found that some of those countries – notably Britain and Australia – had introduced policies in the late 1990s and early 2000s to encourage women to enter the work force (by subsidizing childcare, requiring flexible work schedules and offering maternity leave). In those countries, such policies marked the beginning of a big rise in fertility and family sizes over the past decade and a half.

Canada, they noted, remains an outlier: Its fertility has been stuck at a middling 1.7 children per family for a long time – in part because immigration keeps the working-age population from collapsing, but also because Canada has not followed its Commonwealth neighbours in introducing national child-care strategies and other such programs designed to increase the participation of women in the work force. Now that we know those policies will produce a lot more tiny Canadians – something we could really use – we have two very good reasons to start making them a reality.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, April 5th, 2015 at 3:40 pm and is filed under Child & Family Debates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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