When we talk about how to address falling birth rates, it’s not surprising that the conversation usually centres on young women. After all, it’s quite tricky to influence birth rates without them. But according to a growing body of research, this demographic is already doing about as much as they can. A more fruitful policy target may in fact be men.
In the year 2000, there were 22.5 people aged 65 and older for every 100 people of working age in OECD countries. This year, the ratio is estimated to have climbed by almost half to 32.4. Over the same period, the female labour force participation rate climbed steadily from 59 to 65 per cent, and the gender pay gap for workers in OECD countries shrunk from 18 per cent to just under 12 per cent.
The coinciding trends present a conundrum: at a time when some governments are fretting about declining birth rates, the number of women navigating the fraught trade-off between flourishing professionally and having children has never been larger.
A comprehensive new study suggests it is time we stop defaulting to the assumption that job vs family is a trade-off solely for women, and start paying more attention to the role men can play in facilitating simultaneous advances in both birth rates and female employment.
The old wisdom that the more women pursue a career, the fewer children they bear, has long been shown to be false. In the 1980s, it was true that the higher a country’s female labour force participation rate, the lower its fertility rate. But a decade later, the relationship had flipped: the higher a country’s female labour participation rate, the higher its fertility rate. In some countries, the probability of having a second child is now highest among the professional classes and lowest among the lowest-skilled.
Several factors have contributed to this reversal, including improvements in state provision of and support for childcare, but among the biggest shifts has been the increase in paternal contribution to childcare and housework. This makes the trade-off for mothers much less steep.
Having a child is usually dependent on both partners wanting one. Research shows that agreement tends to be much higher where men do relatively high shares of childcare. In societies where male contributions are minimal, large numbers of women say they do not want another child despite their partner’s wishes. The result is that in countries where men do a third of childcare and housework, total fertility rates are roughly a third higher than in those where they do just a fifth.
If a young woman knows that having a baby will mean either eye-watering childcare costs or giving up multiple days of work per week — and probably her chance of a promotion — she would be right to think twice about starting a family. But if she and her partner halve the burden and opt to lose one day apiece, then assuming their employers’ policies and corporate culture are fit for the 21st century, those smaller, shared steps are unlikely to result in as big a professional setback.
For decades, the assumption has been that when it comes to the workplace, out of sight is out of pocket, but the pandemic has shown otherwise. The new era of flexible working makes the equalisation of parental childcare more feasible than ever.
What’s worrying is that in parts of the west, men have not just been slow to act on this, but the trend has been in the opposite direction. In the US, between May and December 2020, fathers spent 50 minutes per day in which their primary activity was childcare. During the first year of the pandemic this fell to 46 minutes, while mothers’ daily childcare commitments rose from 88 to 101 minutes.
And the “new normal” beginning to take shape has seen US mothers’ labour force participation rates fall, reversing decades-long trends. The participation rate for fathers of young children dipped from 95 to 93.4 per cent in 2020, before recovering slightly to 93.9 last year. Mothers, meanwhile, have fallen from 66.4 to 65.8 per cent in 2020, labour participation rates slid further to 65.6 per cent last year, while in the UK female participation has also dipped slightly.
Change is needed on multiple fronts. Government and company policies must offer more flexibility for all parents. Britons need far more help meeting the country’s world-leading (in a bad way) childcare costs. And men must take their own step back from the office and join their partners in pulling their weight at home. Everyone must shoulder the burden of raising the next generation.