European Affairs

The Birth Dearth in the U.S. and the EU: Are Socio-Cultural Steps a Better Remedy than Immigration?     Print
By Sarah Geraghty

For years, U.S. policy intellectuals have vehemently moaned that Europe is committing “demographic suicide” with its declining birth rates. Part of the alarm is that the European social model – of a safety net extending from cradle to grave – is bound to be overwhelmed by debt as the age pyramid becomes top-heavy. Part of the “better” American approach, these intellectuals said, was high immigration, traditionally a sustaining force behind stable U.S. birthrates.

All of these demographic issues, and notably the question about “generating enough babies” to join the work force and pay for retirees, have become more acute in the crisis. Similarly, the crisis has put new strains on the existing system and governments’ social budgets. So it may sound utopian right now to be discussing remedies for the prevailing situation of falling birthrates in societies that are becoming top heavy with the elderly. In fact, it is never the wrong time to discuss trends, including some new ones today, about population size and the distribution of ages to include many young people. It has been the ability to the U.S. and EU nations to get this balance right, especially throughout the postwar era, that has maintained the transatlantic community’s status of global leadership. Paradoxically, the crisis itself may force governments to more than just cut social programs and actually seek to invent new formulas involving the balance of work and family life that could relaunch the patterns of fertility in Western countries, including the U.S.

Already, the long-held view – that the U.S. is immune to demographic problems engulfing Europe – is becoming more nuanced amid strong new evidence that American birthrates are threatened with steepening decline. Surveying the poll data of several major surveys, analysts at the Pew Research Center (and the MacArthur Foundation) say that many younger Americans no longer automatically want to start families at a young age – or even at all. As a result, more and more American women are either putting off having children or opting out entirely. The trend prevails across all class, education, income and ethnic groups. A new period is emerging in American lives in which young people are no longer adolescents but not yet adults,” one analyst said. Similar trends are surfacing in EU countries, but the long-term data is clearer for the U.S., where marriage and parenthood — once seen as prerequisites for adulthood — are now viewed more as lifestyle choices, according to a new report released by Princeton University and the Brookings Institution.

The stretched-out walk to independence is rooted in social and economic shifts that started in the 1970s, including a change from a manufacturing to a service-based economy that sent many more people to college, and the women’s movement, which opened up educational and professional opportunities. The result, according to a study just published by Pew, is that nearly one in five American women in their early 40s is now childless – compared with just one in ten in the 1970s. (Pew summed up part of its findings this way: “The demography of motherhood in the United States has shifted strikingly in the past two decades. Compared with mothers of newborns in 1990, today's mothers of newborns are older and better educated. They are less likely to be white and less likely to be married.”)

Meanwhile, in Europe there are indicators in some countries of an upward swing in the size of future generations, with young couples there showing more confidence about starting families. The new trend is visible in countries such as France, which has put in place enhanced government incentives for large families. Sweden shows dramatic changes, amounting to almost a “change of civilization:” social innovations such as mandatory paternal leave that were once viewed as radical departures have now settled into place as the norm has changed economic assumptions about the burden of having young families. Sweden’s now-embedded radical changes in socio-cultural attitudes and behavior can be seen in the New York Times article, “In Sweden, Men Can Have It All.”

Statistics tell the basic story of some countries changing – and others lagging behind the new goal of getting a system where women work and also have children. The continent-wide fertility-rate is now 1.5 children per mother, far below the “replacement rate” of 2.3, generally said to be the birth rate needed to keep a stable population. The U.S. rate is 2.0, with falling trends. In France, it is 1.9 and in Sweden 1.8 – with a sharply rising trend in the last five years. Both Spain and Germany have rates below the EU average of 1.5.

In the short run, of course, the problem is not total population with regard to the shape of the age pyramid. With government-supported unemployment and health care funds at breaking point, a situation now aggravated by roaring unemployment (that also keeps young men from founding families), governments across Europe are re-examining the Swedish model to see if some features of it are “exportable.” Some simple features such as paternal leave are being implemented in France and Germany, but none of these countries seems close to the fundamental shift in attitudes that has occurred in Sweden.

Increasingly in this re-examination, immigration is being seen as a less important variable than often thought. Transatlantic debate on demographic decline has made much of the idea that immigration to the U.S. has resulted in a fertility rate 50 percent higher than in most of Europe. The new arrivals have often been seen as a way of boosting revenues for social programs because their big, young families contribute more than they consume from government health care. But the new research suggests that the birth-rates trends among immigrant families quickly mirror those of indigenous groups. More importantly, in the U.S. at least, any “immigrant edge” may be canceled out by a groundswell of American women choosing to have babies at a later age, or not at all. On present trends, says Steven Hill – American author of Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age – “the U.S. eventually could face a more serious jolt than Europe.”

The new research highlights a dramatic transformation in the life cycles of Americans. Americans between 20 and 34 are now taking longer to finish their educations, establish themselves in careers, marry, have children and become financially independent. This is a “profound shift in young adulthood,” according to Frank F. Furstenburg, head of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood.

This stretched-out journey to adult independence has already become the norm in Europe in recent decades. The trend can be seen in aggravated relief in the last two years during the economic crisis. For example, in Spain, hard hit by the collapse of a construction industry that lured many young men from school to start earning young, the majority of young people under the age of 35 today still live with their families. Even in the U.S., where mainstream opinion holds that people should be finished school, have a job and be living on their own by 22 at the latest; the reality is that many people in their late 20s and early 30s have not yet reached these milestones.

More than ever, young people are falling back on their parents. In 2008, the first year of the recession, the percentage of the population living in households in which at least two generations were present rose above 16 percent, a jump of one point in one year, according to the Pew Research Center.

A driver in this trend (along with more reliable contraception) is expanded educational and professional opportunities for women – at least in the U.S., where women now account for more than half of college students and nearly half the work force. For the first time, a majority of American mothers (54%) have a college education, up from 41% in 1990, according to a survey by Johns Hopkins University.

This trend – in which women’s education and work seems to reduce family size – has been surmounted in Sweden, but this remains an isolated example. The old squeeze still prevails in the U.S. – an ominous sign according to those American intellectuals who used to concentrate on Europe for accepting declining fertility and marriage rates that scholars say traditionally have gone hand-in-hand with economic decline.

Nowadays, in the U.S., the surveys conclude, the so-called “millennials” – 18 to 34 year olds -- are deferring marriage and parenthood (traditional definitions of adulthood) in order to acquire the requisite schooling and job experience for a well-paid job. So this age cohort in the U.S. (and in most of Europe) is unwilling, or at least reluctant, to contemplate marriage (or even single parenthood) without a career and the prospect of stable employment.

A major force in this new paradigm is the new pressures on balancing the demands of work and family. In an era when the traditional U.S. standard of the “male breadwinner” no longer applies; and couples needs dual incomes to maintain their lifestyles, it becomes increasingly more difficult to deal to cope with the pressures of family life. The first victims of this squeeze are the unborn children. Factors (cited by Pew and others) in this U.S. trend include the lack of paid parental leave, shortage of affordable child care (which especially hits couples with more than one child) and other costs that make marriage and parenthood very expensive. Day care for pre-school children in the U.S. is prohibitively expensive – for a family with two children, about $12,000 per year.

This can seem prohibitive, especially when weighed against a single person’s freedom and budget.

In Europe, where every country has paid maternity leave, those with the highest birthrates turn out to be those, such as Sweden, that manage to institute changes in cultural attitudes – for example, about stay-at-home dads – with regards to having children and to work.

On the other end of the scale is the U.S., where the law merely requires companies with more than 50 employees to offer a minimum of 12 weeks’ unpaid leave after the birth of a child. Some American companies offer paid maternity leave on their own initiative -- although the proportion doing so fell from 27% in 1998 to 16 percent in 2008. But the federal government, for example, offers civil servants only unpaid leave.

This legal situation emerged from Congressional debates in the 1970s when conservatives argued that forcing women to stay home would result in more babies – and women’s liberation chose to fight for other changes related to equal rights, not maternity, which singled out women as different.

Europe offers some real-life lessons that contradict the conventional wisdom in the U.S. about family growth. Sweden, for example, has long been the exemplar of how to raise birth rates and female labor participation. It is an expensive example: taxes account for 47 percent of GDP, compared with 27 percent in the U.S. and 40 percent in the EU overall. But it nonetheless is a suggestive vision for other countries trying to overcome alarming population declines.

In the late 1960s, while other countries were employing immigrant men, labor shortages prompted Sweden to seek ways to raise female employment levels. By 1974, it had become the first country to replace maternity leave with “parental leave,” involving both parents. As a result, female employment shot up from 48% in 1970 to 80% in 1986, effectively consigning the male breadwinner model to history.

By the early 1990s, it had already gone further than many countries have even now in relieving the burden of working mothers: children had access to subsidized preschools from 12 months; grandparents were offered state-sponsored elderly care; the parent on leave got almost a full salary for a year before returning to a guaranteed job, and both parents could work six-hour days until children started school.

Now new laws – which are arriving on the heels of longer-term social changes in this sector – now require that at least two months of the well-paid, 13-month parental leave be reserved exclusively for fathers. Now eight in ten fathers take a third of the total leave -- up four percent from a decade ago. The figure reflects profound changes in socio-cultural attitudes in Sweden that seem remote in most other countries.

The overarching Swedish goal has long been to provide families with enough support that a U.S.-style “choice” between family and work does not have to be made. And it works: Sweden has a birth rate of around 1.8 children per woman -- among the highest in Europe – along with female employment levels (72 per cent) among the highest in the world. (In the U.S., the comparable figure is about 50 percent of women being in the labor force.) Meanwhile Sweden’s public deficit and debt levels are well below those of its European neighbors, mainly because of product government fiscal policy and high worker productivity, but also because of taxes and other social payments contributed by a high-employment workforce. In the Swedish case, when women are mobilized into the workforce, employment rises -- along with birthrates.

France along with Sweden have rising birthrates – and high rates of female employment -- thanks to their encouragement of larger families through incentives ranging from direct per-child payments to allocations for clothing and school supplies. Most recently it has offered additional payments of €750 or $960 a month, for a year, if families have a third child. Other Scandinavian countries – including Denmark and Norway – share key features of this Nordic model: all, for example, offer a continuum of support for parents with all-day schools and off-hour programs.

Smaller steps in this direction have been taken in some other European countries. In Britain, the Blair government passed a flexible-work law that allows employees with children under six to request a reduction or rearrangement in their schedules. Employers can refuse but must explain their reasoning in writing.

The flip side is represented by countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain, where the traditional male breadwinner model remains in place. Consequently, policy has lagged in supporting female labor participation and the birthrate. All three have relatively generous maternity and parental leave, but trail most of Europe in providing affordable childcare and other supports.

In Spain, in particular, the old trend of declining birthrates has been dramatically worsened by the crisis. Now its once-vibrant economy is struggling with a 20 percent jobless rate – the highest in the eurozone and 40% youth unemployment – and a birth rate that had dropped five percent in 2009 over the previous year. This has been the trend throughout the eurozone countries where patriarchal society still predominates.

Change is arriving in these EU countries, however. In 2007, Germany -- which once had one of the lowest birthrates in the world -- pushed through a package of family-boosting incentives for working women, while reserving two out of 14 months of paid leave for fathers. Within two years, fathers taking parental leave surged from 3 per cent to more than 20 per cent.

Industrial giant Siemens, for example, says that having women out of the workforce is starting to hurt and are now offering huge incentives for women and mothers. “Many obstacles remain, and a backlash is always possible,’ says Professor Karen Hagemann, professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “but in Germany and elsewhere, once unthinkable notions are now being entertained.”

The U.S., by contrast, – with its low taxes and traditional wariness of state intervention in family affairs -- remains highly unlikely to follow that path. As commentators said in the wake of the latest survey data, it is the cultural atmosphere surrounding women in the workforce that often matters more than specific policies.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the debate over job-protected parental leave in the U.S. “has served as a proxy for tensions surrounding the presence of women in the workplace,” according to Sharon Lerner in The Washington Post.

As recently as 1978, it was legal in most states to fire a woman for being pregnant, with some conservatives defending the practice as a means of encouraging women to return to the home. Some feminists even opposed maternity leave in the early days because it was not treating men and women equally, negating the whole point of the Equal Rights Act and exposing the unholy alliance in the 1970s between conservatives and ideologically-driven women’s liberationists.

An issue in the U.S. is the political divisions which ultimately exacerbate cultural conflict. As many commentators point out, the battle over “family values” is not just a political “wedge” between political extremes but also an aspect of the larger issues around women in the work place and the place of family life on the national agenda. Economic forces seem to be driving the conflicting views to a head. And the same economic forces may oblige Americans to reconsider some of their resistance to family-friendly social support. Moves in this direction could turn out to be good for the economy, too.

Sarah Geraghty is an Editorial Assistant at the European Institute.