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Once a barrier to fertility, women’s employment is now key to it.

Just not for everyone.

The question of how work influences women’s fertility has been high on the demographic research agenda for decades. For a long time, the assumption was that higher labour force participation among women was negatively associated with fertility. In recent years, however, more and more researchers argue that this may no longer be true. 

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The argument goes that the expansion of reconciliation policies and changing gender roles have decreased the opportunity costs associated with childbearing, which leads to a positive relationship between female employment and fertility in dual-earner societies. Being out of the labour force may be perceived as a cheap time for childbearing, but lacking employment in a dual-earner society can yield feelings of nonfulfillment, prevent leaving the parental home, postpone union formation, and hamper the accumulation of the resources necessary to face the costs of family formation.

In a recent article, Jonas Wood and Karel Neels, of the Centre for Longitudinal and Life-Course Studies at the University of Antwerp, go one step further. They argue that it is not enough to take different welfare state settings into account. They argue that it is also necessary to differentiate between different population groups. In their study, the authors explore the varying the effects of employment on first, second and third births by education and origin in Belgium at the turn of the twenty-first century. They expected these population subgroups (educational groups and origin groups) to exhibit different  work-family behaviour due to (a.) varying attitudes, and (b.) varying labour market opportunities.  

The analysis draws on 2001 Belgian census data combined with birth registrations from 2002 to 2005.  The authors then use discrete-time event-history models to assess the relationship between women’s economic activity in 2001, on the one hand, and childbearing in the 2002-2005 follow-up period on the other.

The findings indicate that labour force attachment is a precursor to motherhood. In general, they support the argument that employment decreases uncertainty and provides the necessary resources to leave the parental home and start a new household. Predictably, the positive employment-fertility link was strongest for first births and weaker for second births. For third births a negative employment-fertility association was found, with employed mothers being the least likely to have a third child.

Yet, the results also support the authors’ argument that employment does not reduce uncertainty and facilitate childbearing for all subgroups in contemporary dual-earner societies, and that the employment-fertility link depends strongly on labour market opportunities and attitudes. Although Belgium is regarded as a country in which work and family are relatively compatible, strong differences in labour market opportunities occur between educational and origin groups. These unequal opportunities yielded diverging preferences regarding the importance of work and family. Groups that witnessed fewer labour market opportunities or displayed less favourable attitudes toward labour force participation were more likely to adopt childbearing strategies as an alternative to a career. Meanwhile, women with many labour market opportunities or favourable attitudes toward labour force participation were likely to perceive a stable foothold in the labour force as a precondition to childbearing.

The results of this study are highly policy relevant. Policymakers in many European countries have invested strongly in reconciliation policies in order to improve work-family compatibility, but the findings indicate that more targeted investments addressing the specific needs of population subgroups may also be necessary.

The authors recognise that more research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms underlying the different employment-fertility links. If, for instance, educational and origin differences are a matter of labour market opportunities, governments may opt to invest in elevating employment opportunities and work-family reconciliation options for these groups. However, if different employment-fertility links are primarily driven by diverging preferences unrelated to labour market opportunities, enhancing the inclusive character of the welfare state may require targeted support for those women who choose not to combine work and family. 

In either case, the study clearly shows the relationship between employment and fertility is neither static nor settled, and that it deserves more attention going forward.