One of the most significant social issues in Japan and a topic of extensive soul-searching is the declining birthrate. The population in that country has now reached a point where it is not replacing itself and this leads to massive concern about what will happen in the future. However, while living in Japan it also became very clear to me that Japan's awful working culture seemed to have much to do with this. It is very difficult in Japan to be a working mother, and as the economic situation has deteriorated it has become more and more difficult for a family to get by on one income.
A recent special report in the Economist explores the issue of aging populations and declining fertility levels. In New Zealand, which has a relatively youthful population and good levels of immigration it is difficult to imagine the angst that this topic causes in countries such as South Korea, Italy and Japan. What does the Economist say is the reason for the decline?
[Florian Coulmas] reckons that the only way Japanese women can manage their difficult lives is by postponing marriage and having fewer, if any, children. Because of the country’s culture of long working hours, husbands with good jobs spend little time at home and expect their wives to cope with all domestic tasks. No wonder that 70% of Japanese women stop work when their first child arrives. If they return to it at all it is usually much later, and then mostly to badly paid and unchallenging part-time jobs. By then they may already be caught up in another domestic bind: looking after their husband’s old parents.This is not just something being seen in Japan.
The good news is that there is a proven solution to this problem: high female employment and high fertility do go together.
Japan is an extreme example, but many other rich countries have similar problems. One reason why there are fewer babies is that women everywhere are marrying and having children much later in life. Between 1970 and 2000 the mean age at which women had their first child in a range of OECD countries rose by more than a year every decade, and many more women now have their families in their 30s. The question is whether they have the same number of children as before but later, or whether they will have fewer overall.
Anna Cristina d’Addio, an expert on fertility policy at the OECD in Paris, thinks they will probably have fewer children in total than if they had started earlier, even though more of them now give birth in their 40s. Surveys show that women generally start off wanting bigger families than they end up with. If the children do not start arriving until later in life, there is less time to reach that ideal number. And once people have got used to smaller families, the number of children they say they want shrinks too. Demographers talk about a “low-fertility trap”.
For a while birth rates were lower in countries where lots of women worked outside the home, but more recently that trend has been reversed: higher fertility and higher employment rates for women go together.Full article here.
That may not be as counter-intuitive as it seems. In a modern society children are an economic liability, not an asset. They have to be fed, clothed, housed, looked after, educated and entertained. As a rule of thumb, economists reckon that a family with one child needs 30% more income than a childless couple to maintain the same living standard. The obvious way to keep the household financially afloat is for the mother to go out to work.
If governments anxious to rejuvenate their populations want her to do that, they can help in a number of ways. Extensive research in 16 OECD countries has shown that there is a strong correlation between high female employment rates and large government cash transfers to families, generous replacement pay during parental leave, the availability of plenty of part-time work and lots of formal child care. Where all these things are present, fertility rates tend to go up. France and most of the Nordic countries have embraced such policies and been rewarded with a rise in fertility close to replacement level. It does not come cheap: the OECD reckons that they spend 3-4% of GDP on direct benefits to families, far more than do Germany, Japan and southern Europe.