Why are babies busting all over?
As birthrates in Europe and elsewhere decline, articles about the decline multiply across the major media outlets. The population clock’s tolling 300 million this week in the US offers occasion for more reflection on the baby bust, and last week’s Economist takes a pretty level-headed look at the issues.
Strung along the familiar string of demographic beads—fertility in the US at 2.1, in the EU at 1.47 and as low as 1.28 in Italy and Spain, in Hong Kong at .95—is the following observation (which appears, I believe, only in print and not in the linked electronic version):
Birth rates are lower in more patriarchal rich countries, such as Japan and Italy, than in places where the sexes are more equal, such as America and Scandinavia. Perhaps the knowledge that Dad will help with the housework makes women more willing to have children.
This little puzzle has a few confounding pieces. Within the US, for example, more patriarchal subcultures appear to correlate with higher fertility, not lower: the correlation between traditional gender roles and high fertility among Mormons has been well-established by social science researchers like Tim Heaton, and, more generally, the link between higher fertility and traditional conservative religion (which presumably entails a degree of patriarchy) in red-state America is fairly widely accepted. So why would patriarchal family structures correspond with higher fertility in the US but lower fertility abroad?
The journalist’s speculation—that women are less willing to have children when they get little help at home—has a number of problems, it seems to me. For one thing, it assumes that women control the family planning precisely where one would expect men to control it, or at least to influence it more strongly: in patriarchal cultures and family arrangements. It appears to contradict the received evolutionary wisdom about female- and male-directed reproductive strategies. And it’s just plain hard to believe: I suppose a lighter second shift could affect women’s fertility on the margins, but … hmm. I don’t know.
So I turn to armchair demographers everywhere: what’s going on in Italy and Japan, and why is it different from what’s happening in the US? Is a patriarchal national culture responsible for low birthrates, or are they unrelated, or is there some third variable from which both spring? Is it about taxes, or family leave policies, or some other material substrate? Or is it a cultural thing? Does family patriarchy apart from a religious culture have different demographic effects than religious family patriarchies? Give it your best shot.