Photo by vasiliki

Building a culture for kids

Financial support is not enough to raise fertility rates

Artillery Row

Slowly but surely, politicians are realising that people are having far fewer kids. In the UK, births fell below replacement rate at some point around 1973. Our total fertility rate (TFR) now sits at around 1.6. Prosperous countries in East Asia fare worst — Japan’s TFR now stands at just 1.3, whilst in nearby South Korea, the average woman can expect to have a little under 0.8 children in her lifetime. Far poorer countries have been affected. India’s TFR fell below replacement rate for the first time in 2020; in 1980, it was 4.8.

The result is an ageing population — the cost of social care and end-of-life healthcare grows and grows, whilst a dwindling working population of young and middle-aged people are asked to foot the bill. In many Western societies, the number of people retiring each year already exceeds the number of people entering the workforce.

In Israeli society, motherhood has been made ‘high status’

All too often, the framing around this issue focuses on economic barriers, suggesting that Western economic malaise and poor access to housing are at fault. Children, we are told, are simply too expensive to raise nowadays. The solution is all-too-often to throw money at parents, in the hope that an injection of quick cash will encourage them to go forth and multiply. This is a dead end. Whilst there are certainly positive social benefits to financially supporting young families, the pronatalist camp must recognise that many of the factors at play here are cultural and social. In turn, it must respond with a concerted effort to promote family formation and child-rearing in the public sphere.

If the cause is primarily economic, then why are birth-rates lower in Europe’s poorer south and east than in its prosperous north? Why do countries like Thailand, Cuba and Saint Lucia have similar TFRs to countries like Italy, the Netherlands and Canada?

Others will denounce the scourge of liberal feminism as the source of our newfound childlessness. If this is the case, one might reasonably question why Sweden and the Islamic Republic of Iran both share a TFR of 1.7. Last I checked, women in Stockholm enjoyed rather more social freedom than their counterparts in Tehran.

For some commentators, it’s about access to housing; for others, it’s about the way that we arrange our families. None of these straightforward answers can adequately explain the ubiquity of this trend.

What we do know is that a basic level of economic prosperity and a basic level of political liberalism, particularly involving women’s rights, will cause birth rates to fall. The speed and extent of that decline is a feature of local political factors.

We also know that this decline is not inexorable. It would be near-impossible for a modern, Western economy to maintain the kind of TFR that we see in countries like Nigeria, but there’s no reason that we should expect to fall to the level of South Korea or Japan. Where birth rates have remained high — or even recovered slightly — it is because of some compelling cultural reason.

Israel, with its TFR of 2.9, sits in the rankings alongside countries like Kyrgyzstan and Lesotho. Yet according to the latest projections, the Jewish state’s per capita GDP is around $54,997. Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, only boasts a per capita GDP of about $6,250, whilst Lesotho counts itself amongst the poorest countries in the world.

Owing to its unique geopolitical position, Israel has been able to sustain high birth rates despite also enjoying a high degree of economic development. The mantra that “demographics is destiny” is truer for Israel than for anywhere else: too few Jewish births, and the state will straightforwardly lose its character as a Jewish state. As such, successive governments have worked to ensure strong pronatalist norms across Israeli society, largely through the cultural and social promotion of motherhood. Motherhood, in other words, has been made “high status”.

The result? By age 40, Israeli women with college degrees have the same number of children as those without. The country has decoupled rising female participation in the workforce from a declining propensity to have children.

Closer to home in Europe, Hungary has seen a steady recovery from a record low TFR of 1.2 in 2011, to nearer 1.6 today. Whilst still below replacement rate, this is a notable recovery that has been driven by the Orban Government’s strident pronatalism. Much is made of the country’s tax regime, which offers lifetime exemptions to mothers of four or more children, but this steady increase has as much to do with the country’s mainstream, public celebrations of family life.

A similar baby boom in the social democracies in Scandinavia has failed to materialise, after all, despite the lucrative economic support offered to young mothers in countries like Sweden and Denmark.

Nothing could be a more appropriate use of the state’s resources

The cultural explanation even holds true when applied to different parts of the same country. In Japan, one of the global exemplars of declining birth rates, the sleepy farming town of Nagi has managed to sustain a fertility rate of 2.95, well above the national average of 1.2. The so-called “miracle town” has been able to buck the trend through two decades of concerted effort. From offering free medical services for children to shaping public spaces around the needs of mothers, Nagi has chosen to put fertility at the heart of its politics.

Where decline has been slowed, it is because policymakers have taken an active interest in the natalist cause and used the levers of political power to encourage a culture of child-rearing and family formation — often against local opposition. Funding for childcare, or even direct subsidies for young families, don’t work in isolation.

This is not to say that Western governments should not offer economic support to young families. Childcare support not only alleviates some of the financial burden, but sends a clear signal that policymakers are willing to back up their support for family formation with material contributions.

However, the response must not be purely economic. In full recognition of the scale of this crisis, governments should use the cultural and social levers available to them to encourage people to have more children and to have children younger.

Rather than assuming that people will naturally stumble into family formation, schools should candidly engage pupils on the practical challenges of putting down roots. Governments should brief our national broadcasters, our media regulators and our advertising standards authorities on the importance of promoting pronatal content.

This should also extend to our healthcare systems. We must do much more to support mothers before, after and during their pregnancies. Our current system, which leaves new mothers to fend for themselves after they give birth, is ill-suited to our increasingly atomised societies. The maternal knowledge and support that would once have been dispensed by aunties and trusted friends must be made available as a feature of our public healthcare systems. If the NHS can find the money for breast prosthesis removal, it can find the money to support young mums.

There will be those who say that such a blatant focus on family formation is bizarre or invasive. We should ignore them. Nothing could be a more appropriate use of the state’s power and resources than promoting the long-term survival of our society itself. This crisis isn’t going away any time soon — it’s time to act.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover