The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
In an iconic article published a decade ago and entitled, “The Motherhood Experiment,” the New York Times Magazine celebrated Sweden for solving the population and family problems of modern European society. It explained: “Curiously, Europe’s lowest birthrates are seen in countries, mostly Catholic, where the old idea that the man is the breadwinner and the woman is the child-raiser holds strong. . . . Meanwhile, countries that support high numbers of working women, like [the Scandinavian countries], have among the highest birthrates.” The author called this “the fertility paradox.”
These arguments actually have an almost religious hold on the social policy architects of the European Union. As Jean-Claude Chesnois summarizes, “in Sweden, . . . empowerment of women insures against a very low birth rate.” With Sweden again in mind, sociologist Peter McDonald asserts that “[i]n a context of high gender equity in individual-oriented institutions, higher gender equity in family-oriented institutions will tend to raise fertility.” J.M. Hoem links Sweden’s success to a “softening” of “the effects of women’s labor force participation on their life sufficiently to reduce the inherent role conflict [relative to motherhood] to a manageable level.” Referring to Sweden, Paul Demeny concludes that “[f]ew social policies enjoy greater unqualified support from demographers and sociologists than those seeking” to make “participation of women in the labor force compatible with raising children.”
Of course, the deeper source of anxiety driving these analysts has been the plummeting fertility of the European peoples, a continent-wide development. In the year 2014, the 28 nations of the European Union reported a combined fertility of 1.58 live births per woman, only 75% of the births needed to replace a generation. Almost all of these nations have recorded declines in numbers over the past decades, with deaths outnumbering births. Moreover, these declines are expected to continue. Eurostat, the statistics-gathering body of the European Commission, reports—using a set of assumptions concerning emigration, fertility, mortality, and net migration—“that the projected number of deaths in the EU-28 will be higher than the projected number of births for the whole of the period 2016 to 2080.” Furthermore, the percentage of the very elderly (over 80) will increase from 5.1% in 2014 to 12.3% in 2080, while the working-age population will continue to shrink. The median age of the population is expected to increase by 4.2 years in the same period. The report concludes, “ageing will continue across all of the EU Member States, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.” The Eurostat officials’ only hope is that “migration has the potential to help delay the ageing process in some of the EU Member States.” However, they acknowledge that “it may also speed up the process of ageing in those Member States which are characterized by a relatively high proportion of their working-age population leaving, for example in search of work.”
And not only is the population shrinking and aging. The institutions which historically have held up childbearing are failing. In Northern Europe, marriage is increasingly rare, replaced by cohabitation; in Southern Europe, young adults increasingly avoid both marriage and cohabitation, refusing to form childbearing unions of any sort. This is the essence of the joint European family and population crisis of the twenty-first century.
More Gender Equality, More Babies?
And so, the Swedes have charged to Europe’s rescue, with claims of a unique solution to the joint family and population crisis, a solution which they say is applicable to all of Europe. In 2001, the Swedish Institute—what might fairly be called that government’s propaganda arm on social and cultural matters—published a paper entitled “Gender Equality—A Key to Our Future Economic Prosperity?” The author, Lena Sommestad, was director of the Swedish Institute for Future Studies. This short document perfectly outlined the Swedish family policy model offered as a solution for Europe’s demographic implosion.
Professor Sommestad’s essay claims that Europe’s challenge of declining birth rates, population aging, tumbling marriage rates, and rising out-of-wedlock births has two sources: female emancipation and “a crisis of the traditional European male breadwinner family.” She says that nations such as Germany, Italy, and Spain, which have tried to protect or shore up the male breadwinner and his homemaking wife, have failed to understand the irrelevance of these roles for the future, and have paid the price with extremely low fertility.
Sweden, in contrast, has recognized women’s full emancipation and complete gender equality as “social facts,” and as the keys to a sustainable future. Professor Sommestad points to the theories of amateur sociologist Alva Myrdal from the 1930s; she had also argued that under modern conditions, the breadwinner-homemaker model, premised on a family wage for fathers, could no longer produce a sufficient number of children. Myrdal instead insisted that “declining fertility rates should be fought with increased gender equality.” This idea, Professor Sommestad admits, went dormant in Sweden during the 1940s and 1950s when, in a time of affluence and relative policy conservatism, male-breadwinner families became common in Sweden (indeed, another author calls this “the golden age of the Swedish housewife”). However, “[f]rom the 1960s and onwards, a growing number of Swedish women returned to gainful employment, and by the early 1970s, the two-breadwinner norm had been firmly established.” Today, Sommestad continues:
Swedish gender equality policies build on a strong tradition of pro-natalist and supportive social policies. . . . No entitlements are targeted at women in their capacity as wives. The state uses separate taxation, generous public day-care provision for pre-school children, and extensive programmes of parental leave to encourage married women/mothers to remain at gainful employment.