New research: More child care by dads leads to rebound in childbirth rates

by on December 30, 2008  •  In Culture, Social science

The National Bureau for Economic Research Digest reports on a new study showing that an increase in women's economic and employment status, which initially led to falling birthrates in economically advanced countries, will later produce an increase in fertility rates back up to replacement levels … if dads do more housework and child care.

That's the conclusion of Will the Stork Return to Europe and Japan? Understanding Fertility within Developed Nations (NBER Working Paper No. w14114). Co-authors of the study, Bruce Sacerdote, James Feyrer, and Ariel Stern find that where men perform relatively more of those chores — and where female labor-force participation was highest three decades ago – fertility rates rebounded from historic lows. It already appears to have happened in the United States, the Scandinavian countries, and the Netherlands.

This represents a dramatic reversal from initial stages of a demographic transition, in which fertility falls as women have higher relative wages outside the home. In the United States, for example, women in the 1950s and 1960s earned low wages (relative to men) outside the home and were expected to shoulder all the household and childcare duties. In 1955, American women averaged about 3.5 births apiece. But as more women entered the workforce and their job opportunities and pay rose, so did the opportunity cost of staying at home. Fertility plunged. By the 1980s, the U.S. fertility rate had fallen by nearly half from its mid-1950s level — to 1.8 births per woman.

The rest of the developed world shared the same pattern. By 2005, total fertility rates were as low as 1.3 children per woman in Italy, Spain, Germany, and Japan – far beneath the population's replacement rate of 2.1 children. According to the authors, "this is the first time in recorded history that large populations with high and growing per capita income have failed to reproduce themselves over an extended period of time."

But some nations have seen a rebound, even as women's pay and job opportunities continued to grow and began to rival those of men. The authors surmise that with increased household bargaining power, which comes from more equal wages, women are able to push some (though not necessarily half) of household and childcare duties onto men. This, in turn, removes some of the disincentives to having more children. By 1995, for example, the U.S. fertility rate had recovered from its 1980s lows to roughly replacement levels.

This change in women's status is not just correlated with higher fertility, the authors contend — it drives it. Other potential fertility drivers, such as population density and housing prices, don't appear to matter much, they find. However, government policies that ease the burden of childcare – such as tax breaks for families with children and publicly provided day care – do appear to play a role.

Such findings could have ramifications beyond Europe. Asian nations undergoing development are seeing their fertility rates fall even further and faster than the West did. Women in South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong average fewer than 1.5 children. "A massive convergence in national fertility rates is leading to a world that looks very much like the low-fertility European countries in terms of the number of children per woman," the authors conclude.

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