What's the Matter With Everywhere Other Than Scandinavia and the United States?


In the cover story of this week's New York Times Magazine, Russell Shorto seeks to explain falling fertility rates in Europe. He argues that the combination of a modern economy and traditionalist society tends to produce extremely low birth rates; I agree with him, and argued as much in reason's July cover story. But I don't think this conclusion, which he appears to endorse, is quite justified:

So there would seem to be two models for achieving higher fertility: the neosocialist Scandinavian system and the laissez-faire American one. [Sociologist Arnstein] Aassve put it to me this way: "You might say that in order to promote fertility, your society needs to be generous or flexible. The U.S. isn't very generous, but it is flexible. Italy is not generous in terms of social services and it's not flexible. There is also a social stigma in countries like Italy, where it is seen as less socially accepted for women with children to work. In the U.S., that is very accepted."

By this logic, the worst sort of system is one that partly buys into the modern world — expanding educational and employment opportunities for women — but keeps its traditional mind-set. This would seem to define the demographic crisis that Italy, Spain and Greece find themselves in — and, perhaps, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other parts of the world.

By "flexibility," Aassve means a flexible labor market. Women are less fearful of dropping out of the workforce for a while if they know they can jump back in, and labor markets in the United States allow them to do just that. By "generosity," he means social benefits like mandatory maternity and paternity leave, monthly payments to parents, free daycare, and other pronatalist incentives.

This strikes me as an elaborate attempt to establish causation between Scandinavian social welfare schemes and high total fertility rates. As developed nations with unusually high birth rates, what distinguishes the United States and Sweden is less important than what they share, and what they share are relatively liberalized gender norms. The relevant divide is not over the provision of lavish benefits or the flexibility of the labor markets, but over the traditionalism and stigmatization Aassve mentions as an afterthought. In the United States, as in Nordic countries, working shortly after bearing children is less frowned upon than it is in Southern Europe and Asia. Women feel less pressured to choose between education and motherhood, and frequently choose both. Unsurprisingly, men in Southern Europe and Asia are less likely to help with housework or child care. Here is how Bruce Sacerdote and James Feyrer put it in a recent NBER study on the relationship between household status and fertility:

We believe that changes in the status of women are driving fertility change. At low levels of female status, women specialize in household production and fertility is high. In an intermediate phase, women have increasing opportunities to earn a living outside the home yet still shoulder the bulk of household production. Fertility is at a minimum in this regime due to the increased opportunity cost in women's foregone wages with no decrease in time allocated to childcare. We see the lowest fertility nations (Japan, Spain, Italy) as being in this regime. At even higher levels of women's status, men begin to share in the burden of child care at home and fertility is higher than in the middle regime. This progression has been observed in the US, Sweden and other countries.

While it's plausible that the government can help liberalize norms by subsidizing daycare and supporting working women, it's important not to conflate social acceptance with government incentives. You cannot simply start throwing benefits at a socially conservative society and wait for babies; were this an effective strategy, we would be seeing a lot more tiny Singaporeans. Pro-natalist incentives (which should probably be distinguished from an all-encompassing welfare state) may have a very small effect on birth rates, but the sudden, small increases demographers see may just reflect a difference in the timing of births. In other words, natalist incentives may encourage women to have the same number of kids today rather than tomorrow.

The end of the Times Magazine piece includes a fantastic discussion of creative ways to manage shrinking cities, which is as relevant here as in the population-stable U.S. as well. We move around; cities shrink; but politicians continue to nurse embarrassing delusions of bringing Buffalo back. Why not learn to decline gracefully?