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What the decline of birth rates in the Nordic countries means for family policy, part 1: A demographic paradox?

By Nicole Hiekel

Contrary to expectations, better gender equality does not seem to directly result in terms of higher fertility rates. Does this mean that the related policy challenges were wrongly framed? There is no doubt that gender equality continues to positively shape the opportunity structures for women and men to have children while pursuing careers.
Someone's feet next to a laundry basket

A fair distribution of household chores can help people realise their family goals. Photo by Cottonbro Studios/Pexels

For a long time, Nordic societies, with their comparatively higher levels of gender equality, also had more stable fertility rates than other European countries and were often held up as models of successful family policy. The recent and somewhat dramatic decline in fertility rates in the Nordic countries suggests that the societal diffusion of egalitarian gender attitudes may not have been the main driver of fertility. But is this really the right conclusion, especially given gender attitudes are actually more ambivalent than expected?

Rather than discussing the issue at the macro level, we looked at the micro level: we analysed individuals’ attitudes towards gender equality based on their responses to survey questions in the Generation and Gender Survey. Approximately 15,500 women and men from Denmark, Finland and Norway were asked whether they would assign public roles (such as political leadership or a professional career) and private roles (such as caring for children) typically to men, women, or to both sexes equally.

Based on their responses, we identified three main groups of respondents: the egalitarian group (who assign both public and private roles equally to women and men); the non-egalitarian group (who assign public roles more to men and private roles more to women); and the public-private ambivalent group (who assign public roles equally to men and women, but assign roles within the family clearly to women). While the egalitarian group is composed more of people with tertiary education and women, the other two groups are dominated by men, people with lower education and without children. 

Do respondents with each of these three gender role attitude profiles differ systematically in their intentions to have children? They do not if they are already parents. However, there is a clear link between gender equality attitudes and intentions to have a first birth, with non-egalitarians having higher fertility intentions (37%) than public-private ambivalent (30%) and egalitarian (27%) groups. In particular, the 10% lower proportion of egalitarians reporting fertility intentions is significant, as only 1 in 5 of all respondents reported any fertility intentions at all. The lower importance of parenthood among egalitarians is a main driver of the differences we find. Also, satisfaction with the division of housework between partners is more strongly linked to fertility intentions in the egalitarian group. These results can be considered robust as we found the same patterns when we look at different age groups and different partnership statuses (i.e. single or with a partner) of respondents.

What are the policy implications of our findings? Even in the most gender equal countries of the world, a remarkable proportion of people hold non-egalitarian or public-private ambivalent gender role attitudes (30% of all respondents). Therefore, the push for gender equality is something that policy makers should continue to take seriously. 

Furthermore, even though those with non-egalitarian or ambivalent gender role attitudes have higher intentions to have a child than egalitarians, their fertility behaviour will not reverse the downward trend in fertility rates in these countries. As far as the egalitarian group is concerned, we have to recognise that for these, typically well-educated women, fertility intentions seem less driven by the high gender equality standards in their country when it comes to fertility intentions. While a sizable portion of the (childless) population in Scandinavia may be satisfied with the division of housework at home, they do not necessarily prioritize parenthood as their main life objective.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that gender equality continues to positively shape the opportunity structures for women and men to have children while pursuing careers. Conversely, it continues to be true that people are less likely to realise their family intentions as long as they view parenthood as incompatible with other life goals. 

Policies meant to increase fertility rates will fail as long as governments do not fully commit to the wellbeing of the children who are already born - and to the people who care for them. A side effect of this may be to alleviate concerns of those who doubt having children in the first place.

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This text is based on Dr. Hiekel's presentation at the Tuesday Dialogue Series in March 2024.