Global birth rates continue to decline faster than expected, with no end in sight. On average, people around the world want about two children. Some men and women end up with more children than they wish for. But in most – if not all – middle- and high-income countries the situation is reversed. Here, people end up having fewer children than they would have wanted. This is in countries where most families enjoy a relatively high standard of living.
“Resilient fertility” is a key component of a resilient society and is linked with ecological, social and fiscal sustainability. It means that birth rates do not fluctuate widely and that young adults can feel confident in their decisions about parenthood. To have resilient fertility is also closely linked to wellbeing and to human rights: it is about how a society enables and empowers young adults to better reach their childbearing goals, within reasonable ethical boundaries.
How do we promote resilient fertility in the European Union? So far, some governments have declared a “national emergency” over low birth rates, while others have closed their eyes. Either way, policy makers are in a tricky situation: fertility policies which used to work in the 20th century may no longer be effective. Within the FutuRes project we will study this complex situation by identifying the main drivers of EU fertility trends, and comparing these data with measures of resilience for both individuals and countries.
Luckily, there is already a body of family demographic and policy research that indicate which tactics are worth pursuing and which are not. Below, I summarize some of their insights in ten steps that could lead towards more baby-friendly policies within this decade. Many of these are not expensive endeavors. What doesn’t raise the budget at all, is avoiding the all-too-common pitfalls of fertility policy.
If European countries sincerely try new ways to empower people to have as many children as they want, this could go a long way.
- You may have heard of the number “2.1”. Please forget it.
The so-called “theoretical replacement rate” of 2.1 children per woman is just what it says: a theoretical number. In real life, mortality and migration also shape population change. To use a glaring illustration of this: whatever population gains Vladimir Putin’s Russia achieved through family-friendly policies aimed at boosting the birth rate, it now risks losing through emigration, lower life expectancy, and lives lost in battle.
Neither is there any realistic prospect within the foreseeable future of the EU returning to total fertility rates of around 2 from today’s 1.5. The current policy challenge is not “how to reach 2.1”. It is how to prevent a freefall as witnessed in many East Asian countries. South Korea’s fertility rate is 0.78.
- Forget also about a quick and easy fix
While most of us recognize that fertility decline is global, national weaknesses in family policies are still too often presented as the cause. For instance, from a UK perspective, the Nordic countries’ policies on family leave seem like a policymakers’ dream for boosting fertility. In reality, all Nordic countries – even Iceland – currently have a TFR below the current UK rate of around 1.6, with Finland at an all-time low of 1.32.
It appears that European decline is driven not by changes in specific family policies, but in family formation more broadly. Recent studies suggest aspirations to have children are fostered by social trust and individual resilience, and weakened by political polarization and other modern afflictions, including social media use. If so, there is no single ‘quick fix’ for fertility in the 2020s.
That being said: affordable, high-quality early childhood education for all families is clearly related to higher fertility. Also, investments in early childhood are never a waste of money. It is the best way to ensure wellbeing and optimize human capital in future generations. Universal and high-quality early childhood education also supports mothers staying in the labour market and child wellbeing. If your country has not introduced this yet, it should.
- Forget about coercing women into motherhood
An increasing number of governments are opting to curtail women’s reproductive rights in order to raise fertility. For instance, Iran, a former forerunner in family planning, has in recent years restricted access to contraceptive and abortions. Historical experience indicates, however, that although coercion can raise fertility over the first few years, it also increases family misery and illegally induced abortions. Romania achieved higher birth rates during its abortion ban in the late 20th century, but it also resulted in Europe’s highest maternal mortality rate and thousands of abandoned children. Politicians should not want to produce babies which their mothers do not want.
When too high birth rates were the concern, back in 1994, the United Nations Population Conference in Cairo presented sexual and reproductive rights as the way forward. And it worked. Today, low birth rates are the new concern, yet the way forward remains exactly the same: not paternalistic coercion, but sexual rights and reproductive empowerment.
Now I will move to the recommendations. In spite of all the problems mentioned above, there is, in fact, plenty of room for context-sensitive and innovative fertility policy.
- Think family friendly, and do so boldly
How would Europe’s institutions and streets look if society was baby-friendly throughout? What if aspiring to become a parent were welcomed as much as aspiring to have a career – and nobody felt they had to choose between the two? There was an intern at an EU institution who told me that she removed her wedding ring when she entered the office. She was newly married, and afraid somebody would think her marital state could mean that she will procreate and thereby ruin her career prospects. This true story perfectly captures the absurdity of our current working life.
The public sector can lead the way in promoting work-life balance. Here, the Nordic countries remain role models, showing how considerable work-life flexibility, long family leaves, and employer autonomy go hand in hand with high productivity. Partly due to this flexibility, birth rates in the Nordic countries were also highly resilient – stable or even increasing -- during the first waves of the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Think equal opportunities, also in family formation
Becoming a parent today is increasingly related to success and privilege in other parts of life. For a long time, the lower socioeconomic classes had more children than those with higher socioeconomic status, but in many parts of Europe this trend has weakened or even reversed. For instance, in the Nordic countries, childlessness has grown fastest among men and women with lower educational levels. In other words, the concern should not be that those less well-off have “too many children” – rather, it is that childbearing becomes socially polarized, and those with less economic and social resources feel they must opt out of parenthood altogether.
- Think multilocality
Think multilocality, daringly. As contemporary work culture for many is less tied to time and place, combining parenting with work can shift, too. Here, the post-pandemic shift to teleworking and living in more remote areas could benefit fertility, work-life balance, and regional development in Europe. Several regional population strategies, including the German and Spanish demographic strategies, or that of the Scottish government, are currently working on this intersection of migration and family policies.
- Let women’s bodies lead
Promoting assisted reproductive technologies is integral for reproductive empowerment and acknowledging the diversity of contemporary families. Nevertheless, over 90 per cent of babies are still made the old-fashioned way. If media and policy makers focus too much on artificial technologies, they forget the majority. Technological support also risks medicalizing pregnancy. Egg freezing and even surrogacy are already being discussed as ways to having both a career and a baby. Stem cell technologies and artificial wombs that would uncouple reproduction from living bodies altogether, are also on the horizon.
Whatever the future holds, presenting artificial technologies as “the solution” of the day favours the elite who has access to them, and promotes the illusion that everybody can have children in their 40s or even 50s. A woman’s fecundity drops sharply around her mid-30s. Society should learn to adjust to female reproductive biology, not the other way around.
- Think men and fathers
Men need to be seen as more than appendices to women when we discuss birth rates. Some European statistical offices report both male and female total fertility rates, in an elegant nod to gender equality also in the making of children. Currently men appear to want on average almost as many children as women do, but they more often remain childless, and their experiences of parenthood often differ. Policy makers should tune into the wishes and experiences of young men and fathers in various types of families. For instance, a current, and predominantly male, concern is the fear of losing contact with your children after divorce.
- Think couples and relationship skills
The baby bust is mostly driven by the trend that fewer people are having children at all. As young adults contemplate whether and when to have a child, obstacles often relate to lack of a partner, relationship worries, or disagreements with a partner over childbearing. Self-esteem and relationship skills are in high demand, perhaps more so than earlier in our internet-mediated lives. Yet relationship advice and couple therapy is rarely offered to singles or couples who do not have children. Could relationship support for young adults and couples prove to be just as relevant for birth rates as traditional family policies?
Watch out for our FutuRes research in the coming year, where we will employ the fresh data from the Generations and Gender Survey and other European fertility surveys in order to better understand the ideals, intentions, and perceived obstacles which affect young adults in Europe when thinking about parenthood.
- Teach and talk reproduction
Finally, as the global concern shifts from too high to too low fertility, the content of family planning curriculum needs an update. Educational programs and youth services could teach both how to avoid and how to achieve pregnancy, both safe contraceptive use and reproductive biology. Promising ouvertures have been made in this regard in Australia, Denmark and Sweden, with some reported effects on both fertility knowledge and intentions to have a child earlier.
At the heart of the current fertility malaise, there appears to lie a cultural ambivalence about care, dependency, and what it takes to make a new human being. We should relearn how to talk and teach about bodies, ovulation, biological differences between the sexes, how fecundity varies with age, and about voluntary and involuntary childlessness and the many shades in between.
Childbearing is not, and should not, become clean and clinical. It is messy, sexy, sweaty, painful, thrilling, whatever reproductive road one embarks on. It is not just another lifestyle choice, but literally existential.
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