How to defuse aging population bombs: invest in policies and institutions that support working mothers and fathers

Recent research shows that one of the most effective things we can do to support sustainable economic prosperity is to re-think the way we organize work and childcare so they resemble 21st century equality norms rather than 200-plus-year-old gender norms. It fits right in with the first of the seven principles – LEAVE THE PAST BEHIND – that we present in our book.

The new research comes from a team of Harvard sociologists studying declining fertility rates in Southern Europe and East Asia. They found that widespread beliefs that women should quit their jobs when they have kids are one of the strongest contributing factors – besides youth unemployment – to low birthrates. They conducted and analyzed 400 in-depth interviews with young men and women in Japan, Sweden, Spain, South Korea, and the United States. They asked their interview subjects about their attitudes toward work, marriage, and family, including questions like, “Should mothers work outside the home?” and “Do men make better business executives than women?”

In Japan and South Korea, most of the interview subjects answered those questions “no” and “yes”, respectively. Women in those countries are faced with the choice between being “good” mothers and their careers. 60% of Japanese women strike the balance by leaving the workforce when they have their first child, but the rest choose careers instead of children, helping to bring the average birthrate down to 1.4 per woman. That is substantially less than the 2.1 needed to maintain the population without help from immigration.

Spain has an even lower birthrate: 1.3. But it appears to be primarily caused by the high unemployment rate among young people since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008 – currently 54% according to the latest statistics – not antiquated gender norms. The Spanish interview responses showed that Spanish men and women are much more likely to negotiate and discuss how to divide responsibilities for housework and childcare than their East Asian peers. Not surprisingly, the gender gap in employment in Spain is only 12.4% whereas in Japan, it’s 17.5%.

In Sweden, and the rest of Scandinavia, on the other hand, birthrates are holding steady at around 1.9 – higher than much of the rest of Europe. Interview responses indicated that government support for public childcare and generous parental leave make it easier for parents to mix work and raising children than in most other countries. Sweden’s low gender gap in employment – 4.8% in 2010 – indicates that those policies work.

The United States presents a more mixed picture. The American responses showed a strong belief in a desire to both work hard and be good, caring parents despite the lack of state support for childcare. The greater flexibility regarding gender roles – plus higher fertility rates among immigrants – in the US as compared with Japan and South Korea may explain why the fertility rate in the United States remains fairly steady at about 1.9%. However, the gender gap in employment is still around 10% – more than twice the size of the gap in Sweden or any other Scandinavian country.

The World Bank and others have been telling us for a long time that investing in girls’ education and economic empowerment not only contributes to economic development, but it also brings down the birthrate – a desirable outcome in most of the developing countries. Now we’re finding out that investing in the services and institutions that support women’s careers is necessary to keep our societies from buckling under the pressure of caring for the growing number of elderly. What’s the lesson to be drawn from all of this? We need to get employers and governments to stop making decisions as if men and women want to continue in the same gender roles they had before women got the vote. Time to leave the past behind.

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