Saturday, June 30, 2007

Birthrates again

I promised to post some thoughts about the Economist fertility article so here goes. Remember, I am NOT a social scientist; but I am an employed mother of one child who has traveled widely.

There are several assumptions in the Economist articles that I do not believe are proven by the facts they presented alone. First off, the fact that some European countries have higher birthrates than others (e.g. Spain, Italy and Germany) may not be because marriages in the first group of countries are more egalitarian or that their laws and workplaces are more friendly toward mothers. Look at this table of estimated 2007 global fertility. Mali, Niger, Uganda, Somalia and Afghanistan are the top five. High fertility does not represent egalitarian treatment in any of those countries.

The Economist states that France and Sweden experienced a recent uptick in birthrates and concludes that it is due to mother-friendly laws in both countries and more egalitarian marriages in Sweden. On what basis can they make this claim? Has anyone asked women why we do or do not have children?

(They rule out immigration effects by showing that; in France, if immigrant women are excluded, the birthrates would be lowered only slightly, but still remain higher than those in neighboring countries. They also rule out Catholicism because Spain and Italy have abysmally low birthrates.)

Germany has the most childless women in Europe. Let's use the way-back machine to the summer of 1983. I was an exchange student staying with a family in Germany with three kids and a professional mother. Germany is the country cited in the Economist article as having the most childless women in Europe. How did my host mother do it?

She did it by marrying a much older man when she was an university student. My host father told me that she was incredibly beautiful and all the men in their apartment complex were after her, but she wouldn't give any of them the time of day. He told her that, if she married him, he would quit work and stay home with the kids. Moreover, he had quite a large sum saved up and would build her a live/work situation in the location of her choice. He was a man of his word.

Each morning, she prepared a cold breakfast and ate with us before heading downstairs to work. Then I walked to school with the eldest daughter, a girl slightly younger than me. (No need to chauffeur any of the kids if one lives in an urban village.) Her husband stayed home with the two sons that were too young for school. Her mother lived in the apartment above hers if he needed any help. A cleaning lady came in once a week to clean, do laundry and stock the pantry. She walked upstairs for lunch and returned downstairs to continue work; she joined the family for good at dinnertime.

All was not perfect, though. Back then, Germany had strict laws about when stores could be open. Thus, shopping is nearly impossible for working people. Yet, I never saw the father shop for groceries or household goods. (Come to think of it, I never saw him clean or do laundry either. He was very involved with the kids though.) One morning, she noticed that I was up early (jet lag) and she told me to go with her. We walked to the grocery store right at opening time. I helped her carry the groceries home and put them away. I watched as she prepared breakfast for everyone as the household slowly awoke and came to life. I could see that she had a very long workday.

It worked for that family. However, marrying someone 25 years your senior and with lots of money is not an option for all women. Germany needs to come up with something better than that.

After I said good-bye to the German family, I took the train to Sweden to spend two weeks with the family of an exchange student that had previously been at my high school back in California. I sharply recall the conversation at the family Sunday lunch with the parents and all three children. The eldest daughter lived with a boyfriend who worked at the same office she did, in a slightly more senior position. They had lived together for several years and the parents were asking her why she didn't marry her boyfriend. I could tell this was a frequent topic and she didn't want to discuss it again. The guy in question just sat there at the table, not helping her deflect her parents' attack. Why did he say nothing? Why didn't she want to marry?

Fast forward to 1993 when I met a couple who married after 10 years of living together. They had met at the office. The recent bride told me that getting married after living together for so long is just getting "permission to have children". Then I realized why my friend's sister didn't want to marry the guy who wouldn't stick up for her.

She didn't want to signal intention to reproduce to her employer. Previously at the lunch, she had already discussed the difficulty of getting challenging assignments at work. Marrying a slightly older, slightly more successful, male version of herself--one who works in the same office--would be career suicide. (I can say this with authority because I did just that.)

Perhaps the reason that so many Swedish children opt to have children out of wedlock is because of workplace discrimination against married women. Unlike the US, they are not penalized in figuring pensions or child support if they do not marry the father of their children. Hence, marriage offers Swedish women no carrot, just a stick. No wonder so many children are born out of wedlock there.

For Sweden, the forecasts say the population will grow by about a fifth. Some of this is the result of immigration and rising longevity but, according to David Coleman, a demographer at Oxford University, the recovery is also the result of older women having more children “almost sufficient to compensate for the sharply reduced birth rates of younger women”. This is exactly what was hoped for, but does not seem to be happening yet, in the Mediterranean and eastern Europe.

If you take account of late childbearing, you find that 16 European countries, with a total population of 234m, now have fertility rates of 1.8 or more. [snip] They are rare examples of bucking the trend that, as countries get richer, their birth rates fall.

Why? There are no obvious answers. The French run policies to increase the birth rate; the British do not. Most high-fertility countries are high-tax, high-welfare ones (France, the Netherlands, Scandinavia). But so is Germany, and its fertility has been declining for decades; whereas Ireland is not, and its population is growing. Maybe Ireland and France are responding to Catholic teaching on big families? Hardly. Remember Italy and Poland.

Though it is hard to be sure, the most plausible explanation is that some countries have struck a successful balance between life and work that enables parents to raise children without sacrificing their careers, and that this encourages child-rearing. If the explanation is right, it does not matter that France doles out presidential medals. But it does matter that it has an excellent, state-subsidised system of creches, to which mothers are happy to entrust their offspring.

How do they know that the late childbearing by Swedish women is not due to them hitting the glass ceiling and then "opting out" like many affluent American women? How do they know that French women with more children remain in the workplace because of the availability of subsidized childcare and not other reasons?

The Economist article also discussed the gap between the desired and actual total fertility of women.
A survey by Eurobarometer, the EU's pollsters, for example, found that women who had finished bringing up their families said they had wanted (on average) 2.3 children. But they actually had only 2.1. Perhaps they were not answering truthfully. But the evidence does suggest there is a mismatch between desired and actual fertility.
Delayed marriage can lead to fertility problems. Where women are punished in the workplace for marriage, they delay marriage. One needs only look at Japan to see this. To understand the fertility problem, we need to look deeper and earlier. We need to look at the global disincentives for women to marry. Why is marriage so punitive towards employed women?

Asides:
2.1 total female (lifetime) fertility is not the magic replacement number for all situations. The number depends upon the maternal age at birth and mortality statistics. In two populations with the same life expectancy and total fertility rate, the one with younger mothers, or a shorter generation length, would grow faster (or decline more slowly) than the other one. Draw out family trees with branch length along a time axis to prove it to yourself.

I wanted to also blog about an article from the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald on October 20, 2003 entitled, "Why the one-child family is looking good to women". However, I have run out of time. The article discussed the findings of Lyn Craig, an Australian researcher who studies "the gendered time impacts of children, motherhood and equity, work-family balance, the division of domestic labour, fertility, and comparative family and social policy." Click on her current research topics to see a list of worthy questions.

Her PhD thesis work supports the assertions in the Economist article that say that a more egalitarian marriage leads to higher total fertility. (So does a Brown University report I blogged about earlier.)

Looking around Sweden, 24 years ago, I noticed that women were predominantly in low-status, dead end jobs. My friends sister was the first woman I met in a professional job other than a school teacher. I read that women have made inroads into professional jobs in Sweden. But I wonder about the marriage and motherhood penalty. I hope to visit there again and find out.

In knitting and sewing news, I have very little to report. I sewed ties to the inside of our guest room duvet. In true imperfectionist style, I used what I had on hand rather than going out to buy cotton twill tape that matched. Who cares? It is on the inside. I even didn't change the thread in the sewing machine.

Iris' Latoya-inspired tank is half-way done. I ran out of yarn and it is discontinued. I scrounged in the stash and found a pale blue cotton that coordinates well, but is in a lighter gauge. I hope to hit the desired gauge by tripling it.

In the 5S department, I went through the huge stack of shelter and fashion magazines that had piled up and cut out the items that I wanted to save. I put them all into binders along with the cuttings saved from the last two years, the last time I did this. Whew! No wonder no gardening got done this weekend. I am just going to call the weeds mesclun and hope no one has a clue.

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