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Unveiling the unintentional pronatalism of Nordic family policies

Rannveig K. Hart and Cathrine Holst examine policy documents spanning three decades in Norway – to gain insights into policymakers’ reasoning: Did they consider fertility effects as they were formulating family policies?

Source: Antoni Shkraba / Pexels

The Nordic countries have received much attention for their family policies, even though their impact on fertility levels is debated. But what has been unclear up to now is whether there was ever a direct intention to increase fertility through these policies. In a new paper, Rannveig K. Hart and Cathrine Holst examine policy documents spanning three decades – to gain insights into policymakers’ reasoning: Did they consider fertility effects as they were formulating family policies?


The Nordic countries have long been seen as a successful model for combining high levels of maternal employment with high average fertility among working women. In national public debates, politicians have celebrated the relatively high number of births and linked it to family policies. At the same time, Nordic family policies, unlike those in France, for example, are not considered "pronatalist" because they do not deliberately aim to raise fertility rates. In a new paper, Rannveig K. Hart (Norwegian Institute of Public Health) and Cathrine Holst (University of Oslo) question this distinction. They examined the argumentative patterns in Norwegian official reports on family policies over more than three decades to understand how policymakers considered potential fertility effects in family policies. 

Their findings show that all policy documents referred to potential natalist effects of family policies. The researchers identified in the texts a relatively consistent conclusion that these potential natalist effects are difficult to measure, but probably exist. The reports also pointed to welcome side-effects of relatively high fertility, such as a more stable population and age structure. One Commission, in 1984, was explicitly mandated by the Norwegian government to find solutions to declining fertility. However, the Commission was reluctant to conclude that policies should actually be used to increase fertility.

The study also explored related questions on how potential fertility effects of family policies were dealt with in the reports. The authors found that arguing about individual-level concerns, such as the possibility of citizens not realising their own fertility intentions, were consistently emphasised over country-level concerns, such as future labour supply and public finances. This was also the case for reports that started from macro-level concerns. 

They have also identified a striking inattention by policymakers to the fact that individual concerns and macro-level objectives are two different narratives that do not necessarily complement each other. The intentional focus on individual concerns allowed an expectation that family policies could have a positive effect on fertility levels, without these policies being seen as an inappropriate intrusion into the very private sphere that is fertility choice. However, macro-level effects are not absent from the documents analysed in this study and have often been used to justify public spending on family policies. 

The dual earner/caregiver model is central at the policy documents, i.e. policies have been designed to enable women in partnerships to work and care for their families. There is little discussion of the different needs for policy support for women who prefer larger families and shorter working weeks, or who have a strong career orientation. This is consistent with the Nordic-style welfare regime, as emphasised by the Institutional Theory. 

The authors coin the term "unintentional pronatalism" to describe their main finding: a situation in which policies that are assumed to be fertility-enhancing are justified, at least in part, by reference to productivity and other macro-level effects, but not explicitly, or only reluctantly, by reference to their expected fertility-enhancing effects. 

This limited explicitness has certain drawbacks. It may hinder the comprehensive analysis and evaluation of family policies, which are a significant component of total public expenditure in the Nordic countries. It also leaves important and sensitive issues and assumptions unaddressed. This concerns both the potential role of immigration in coping with population decline and the tailoring of policies to the different preferences and needs of individuals and families.

Additional Information


Rannveig K. Hart and Cathrine Holst

Authors of Original Article


Kaldager Hart, R & Holst, C. (2024). What About Fertility? The Unintentional Pro-natalism of a Nordic Country. Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society, jxad033,