Study Links Work-centered Worldviews with Lower Birthrates

21 Oct 2021

New research suggests that work may be overtaking family as a central source of life purpose for many adults, leading them to place less priority on having children.

Low and still-falling birthrates around the globe, and especially in countries with the most highly-developed economies, cannot be explained by any one factor.  Neither are they important for any single reason.  Public administrations tend to focus their concern on how aging populations will soon arrive at a point at which pensioners (with ever-increasing life expectancies) outnumber tax-paying workers, stressing or even collapsing pension and healthcare systems.  Demographers and sociologists are increasingly drawing attention to the existence of a gap between how many children people would like to have and how many they actually do have. Even women who report a smaller than average ideal number of offspring are failing to meet even those lower fertility goals.

All over the world, varying government initiatives aiming to increase fertility, by, for example, directing benefits, subsidies or even direct handouts to families with dependent children have been largely unsuccessful in turning the tide. 

The study More Work, Fewer Babies: What Does Workism Have to Do with Falling Fertility?  brings data to bear to offer one explanation as to why existing programs fall short.  According to this groundbreaking report, funded by the Social Trends Institute and released by the Institute for Family Studies, the importance people ascribe to work and family is highly relevant to fertility outcomes. Using four different datasets, editors Laurie DeRose and Lyman Stone explore the relationship between work, family, gender role attitudes, and fertility in countries across the globe, concluding that more "workist,” or “work-oriented” high-income countries experience large associated declines in fertility.  The study reveals how work-focused social norms and the increasingly important role that work occupies as a source of value and meaning in people’s lives are highly correlated with, and can partially explain, lower birth rates. 

Governmental, institutional and private efforts to ease “work-family” pressures frequently aim to even the playing field for women, who have traditionally borne more than their share of the burden of household demands. Yet such policies ignore the reality that unburdening mothers requires someone else – presumably their partners - to carry some of this weight.  “Double-shift” demands are only redistributed, not eliminated.  “Egalitarian values and generous social welfare states had been credited with protecting the Nordic countries in particular from very low fertility rates. Yet since 2008, birth rates in those countries have nonetheless plummeted,” stated co-editor Lyman Stone. As long as the focus is on molding families to work rather than work to families, claims the report, so-called pro-family initiatives are misguided and may even backfire. “Government policies that try to increase fertility by providing more benefits aimed at workers, such as universal childcare or parental leave programs, may undermine their efforts as they strengthen a “workist” rather than a “familist” life-script.” 

Stone points out the proverbial elephant in the room, claiming, “The workplace competes with the family for time, attention, and as a source of meaning in life. This is the obvious conclusion from virtually every working parent’s personal experience, but is an under-appreciated reality in the policy arena.”