It’s been more than 20 years now since former federal treasurer, Peter Costello, famously exhorted Aussie women to have “one for mum, one for dad and one for the country”.
In addition to direct pleading, Costello also tried cash handouts and a series of intergenerational reports warning of the dire budgetary consequences if women did not do their civic duty. To little avail, it must be said.
The career versus children conundrum is not what it seems.
But two decades on, policymakers and academics are finally getting a better handle on what it really takes to get women “in the mood” for more kids.
Previously, economists had two main theories to explain why women in high-income countries were increasingly having fewer – if any – children.
The first was that parents – and mothers in particular – were making a “quantity-quality” trade off, substituting having a higher “quantity” of children for a higher “quality” parenting experience of fewer kids. This included engaging in more intense “helicopter” parenting and investing higher dollar amounts in private schooling.
Working mothers want policies that support their choices.
Alternatively, economists theorised that as women’s incomes rose, they faced an inevitable higher “opportunity cost” of having kids. (Your “opportunity cost” is the benefit you forego in choosing one course of action over the next best option.)
As women climbed the corporate ladder, economists theorised this would naturally increase their opportunity cost and fewer would take time out to have kids. (Note the problematic assumption that women faced a binary either/or choice of work or kids, and not some combination of both … but we’ll get to that).
As they do, however, theories have moved on. And so too, surprisingly, has the data. That problem of higher incomes leading inexorably to lower rates of fertility? It’s not a thing anymore.
It’s true that using 1980 data, there was a correlation between countries with higher national income and female employment and lower rates of fertility.
But a recent analysis of 2000 data contained in a new paper A new era in the economics of fertility shows the relationship has more recently turned on its head.
“This relationship had reversed – fertility is now highest in countries where many women work,” the authors reveal.
It may still be true that individual nation’s fertility rates are lower compared to history, but it is no longer the case that higher-income countries necessarily have the lowest fertility rates.
Indeed, quite the opposite.
In particular, the data shows that countries which have made it easier for women to combine achieving both their career and family goals have achieved not only higher female workforce participation, but also higher rates of fertility. Jobs and babies. Win-win!
So, what policies really help women to combine both paid work and the generally unpaid labour of making and caring for babies?
The authors identify four factors: family policy, cooperative fathers, favourable social norms and flexible labour markets.
Family policies include paid parental leave and government investments in childcare, with the latter shown to have a direct positive impact not only on women’s workforce participation but also on fertility. Turns out, the choice between kids and careers is not binary at all. Women can have both, with the right support.
“If … childcare is widely available, covers all of the working day, and is affordable, women with young children have an easier time continuing to work and might be more likely to have larger families as a result.”
Men in the most fertile OECD nations – Switzerland, Iceland, Finland and Norway – do between 35 and 40 per cent of the housework.Credit:Shutterstock
Secondly, there is a clear fertility boost in countries where men contribute relatively more to childcare and housework.
“In all countries with a fertility rate below 1.5 (i.e., a low fertility rate), men do less than a third of the work in the home.” By comparison, men in the most fertile OECD nations – Switzerland, Iceland, Finland and Norway – do between 35 and 40 per cent of the housework.
That’s far from equal, of course, but enough to translate into more babies. (For the record, Aussie men do about 27 per cent of the housework.)
Favourable social norms include both general positive attitudes about women combining work and family, along with workplaces which discourage excessively long or unsociable hours and which support parents to work flexibly.
Finally, the general state of the jobs market and the availability of well-paid and flexible jobs for women to return to after birth also heavily influences fertility decisions.
Helping women to combine work and family in these ways provides a direct antidote to declining rates of fertility in advanced nations, the authors conclude.
“The clear cross-country association of fertility rates with measures of family-career compatibility shows that ultra-low fertility is not an inescapable fate, but a reflection of the policies, institutions, and norms prevalent in a society.”
Of course, the decision to have a child should always be an active choice for women. And the success of some countries in finding policy settings which both boost women’s paid work and fertility suggests a potential unmet demand in women to do more of both.
Turns out women, on average, just want what men have had for many years: the opportunity to combine a rewarding career with a happy family life.
Policies which support them to do both, including higher investment in childcare, end up paying a double budget dividend, both by boosting the proportion of tax-paying women and in generating more future taxpayers, otherwise known as babies.
Women really do want to have it all. And it’s in society’s broader interests that their needs are met.
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