In industrialized countries, especially the United States and countries in Europe, the birth rate has been consistently declining. In the United States, this decline has been seen for decades. According to data from The National Center for Health Statistics, the birth rate in 2013 is second lowest only to that of 1997, and is down in almost every demographic category, with the exception being among women over 30 years old.
This is great news for teenagers, as this means that teen pregnancy is at an all-time low, but it’s not such great news for those worried about a rapidly aging workforce and a declining population that will not only be unable to replace retirees but will not make up enough in Social Security to ensure its continuation.
However, this declining birth rate shouldn’t surprise anyone. Women are gaining degrees at a higher pace than men, and with those degrees, they are starting careers they hope to be able to keep throughout their entire lives. Gone are the days when women would marry and have children shortly after high school, foregoing college and career in favor of family. Now, women want degrees, and they want to put those degrees to use, which is no surprise, either, especially considering the cost of higher education.
Furthermore, women who do have careers are worried that a pregnancy will work against them in the workplace. Yes, it is illegal for employers to discriminate against women because of a pregnancy, but it tends to happen anyway. Women with children are often passed up for promotions in favor of men — even if those men have children. Our society still sees women as primary caregivers in their homes and, therefore, it is assumed that a woman will need more time off or will not be as focused as a man. To make matters worse, paid family leave is a benefit of some jobs rather than a right for every job, making it difficult for families to take more time off than necessary for the birth of a child.
It’s no wonder, then, that women are deciding either to have fewer children, no children at all, or to wait until they are established enough in their careers to have children at all.
This has concerned policymakers for quite some time. However, policymakers have often taken a conservative approach, stating that feminism is to blame for declining birth rates. On the surface, this seems to make sense to many people: women are more educated and empowered, therefore women aren’t having as many children. However, the answer to the problem of a declining birthrate might be to champion feminism and empower women more. For that possibility, we turn to Sweden as an example.
Since the turn of the century, Sweden has had population policy as an important issue. In the early 1900s, Sweden’s birth rate was around 4, but fell to 2 in the 1930s and reached an all-time low of 1.7 in 1935. Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, however, were able to wrestle the issue away from conservatives and promote a more feminist approach:
In the course of time, the stated goal of population policy in Sweden was largely superseded by the quest for full gender equality. Policies favoring gender equality helped sustain a relatively high birth rate. The rhetorical emphasis shifted from population policy to gender equality, but the two goals were really one…
This makes perfect sense. Help women maintain their education and career while they have a family, and they will be more likely to have one — or a larger one — in the first place.
Much attention has been paid to comprehensive family leave policies (or a lack thereof) in industrialized nations. It’s time we follow Sweden’s example and provide women as well as men with the time off and flexible policies that make having a family both desirable and possible. Sweden has proved it can work, and we should follow in their example.