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More work, less family

Study ties work obsession to low birth rates


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More work, less family

Despite early predictions that the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a homebound baby boom, recent data show the global pandemic only exacerbated an already looming population crisis in many countries around the world. Record low birth rates are expected to continue, and policy makers and demographers searching for explanations and solutions.

One proposed fix is work-related benefits, including universal child care and paid parental leave. Experts argue giving tired parents more support as workers will result in more children. But a study released last month by the Institute for Family Studies pushes back on that idea, instead arguing that work-based solutions to fertility declines are counterproductive.

The report’s authors, Laurie DeRose and Lyman Stone, studied the concepts of “workism” and “familism”—the values individuals place on work and family. They found that high-income countries that become “workist,” with extremely career-focused attitudes among both men and women, experience large declines in fertility. As societies emphasize personal meaning and value through work, people find less meaning and value in families.

The study points to the Nordic nations as a case in point. Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Netherlands, and Sweden in the past were models of modern fertility success: They had relatively high fertility rates alongside egalitarian values and generous social welfare states. But they are now the fly in the ointment with plummeting birth rates since 2008 despite abundant support for working families. DeRose and Stone suggest a rise in workist attitudes in the Nordic countries is to blame.

“People’s values matter,” DeRose said during a recent presentation on their findings. She and Stone differentiate workism from a natural desire to provide for a family or even have a comfortable standard of living. Workism is more of an identity shift than a desire to put bread on the table. As men and women increasingly see their personal identities tied to their value as workers, they are having fewer babies or none at all. “The desire for meaningful or important work, not simply well-compensated work, is powerful, and has significant and negative implications for childbearing,” DeRose and Stone wrote.

DeRose told me she doubted workism contributed to last year’s pandemic baby bust but rather uncertainty in general and the economic recession in particular. Workism might have accelerated the inevitable, she said: “We would expect a COVID baby bust, but in a workist society, it might be on steroids.”

DeRose and Stone argue government policies that try to boost fertility with benefits aimed at workers may “undermine their efforts as they strengthen a ‘workist’ life script rather than a ‘familist’ one.” Benefits such as free child care and paid leave result in more work and less family. DeRose and Stone propose cash allowances, a cheaper solution than funding child care and one that gives families the option of working less instead of only getting benefits through their jobs.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, recently introduced a plan that would give U.S. parents direct payments each month. Proponents say the proposal removes the current disincentive for marriage in the welfare system and could close the so-called fertility gap—the difference between how many children women say they want and how many they actually have. In another article for the Institute for Family Studies, Stone praised Romney’s plan because it could give some parents the option to stay home with their young children instead of working.

But some conservatives argue a child allowance would have a negative effect on work, marriage and fertility rates.

“Romney has good goals, but his plan moves existing money around in a way that is anti-work and will undermine marriage,” said Robert Rector, a welfare expert and senior research fellow for the Heritage Foundation. He noted that welfare programs that gave parents larger benefits without work requirements historically led to fewer marriages and babies.


Kiley Crossland Kiley is a former WORLD correspondent.

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Russell Japan

Two decades of failed government attempts here in Japan to raise the birth rate by offering more support to workers bear out the thesis of this article.