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Notes on Progress: The value of family
Traditional values don't deliver babies
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Italy’s birth rate has declined every year since 2008, but the pandemic pushed it into a precipitous nose dive. In 2020 alone, Italy’s population fell by 384,000: equivalent to the population of Florence evaporating into thin air.
In May of this year, at a special assembly called to discuss the collapsing fertility rate, Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni blamed a lack of traditional family values for her nation’s baby bust. Sharing a stage with Pope Francis himself, Meloni revealed where she believes the solution lies, calling for a “return to a country in which being fathers and mothers is a socially recognized value and not a private matter”.
With no European nation at a replacement rate, Italy is not alone, and similar rhetoric is deployed by a range of politicians, from the UK’s Miriam Cates MP to Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński,
Their key assertion – that there is a causal link between strength of traditional family values and fertility rates – caught our attention because we’ve recently set up Boom, a new campaign for a UK where it’s easier to choose to have children for everyone. Boom exists to lift barriers to parenthood and make sure that everyone who wants children can have them. At Boom, we argue that policymakers who want to see birth rates rise should focus on making material improvements to the lives of parents and prospective parents, rather than on their innermost values.
But Meloni’s words are a challenge to our approach and we set out to test her hypothesis. Are low levels of traditional family values the reason that Italian schools are “vanishing like glaciers” and nearly a quarter of the population is over 65? Are nations with high levels of traditional family values immunized against the general European trend of falling fertility rates? And is there evidence that politicians wishing to see theirs become a land of bustling maternity wards should look to the values of their citizens?
In search of answers, we turned to the European Values Study (EVS). This cross-national survey provides a wealth of data on Europeans’ attitudes to a wide range of ideas and values, from the permissibility of euthanasia and bribery to belief in the existence of free will, heaven, and hell.
To investigate the relationship between traditional family values and fertility rate, we selected three agree-disagree statements from the EVS, last conducted in 2017, to act as proxies for traditional family values. We then correlated levels of agreement with these statements in different European countries with national fertility rates between 2015 and 2019. The three statements are:
“It is a duty towards society to have children.”
“A man’s job is to earn money; a woman’s job is to look after the home and family.”
“A child is likely to suffer when their mother works.”
What did the EVS show us? Not only is there no positive correlation between levels of traditional family values and a nation’s birth rate, there is actually a weak negative correlation between the two. Even if a significant proportion of your population say they believe it is a duty towards society to have children, it is not necessarily a duty they will feel ready or able to fulfill.
Take conservative Poland, for example. 44% of the population agree that it is a duty towards society to have children. Has this translated into busier nurseries for Poland than the UK, where only 15% of Brits agree with that same statement? As we can see on the chart above, no: the UK’s fertility rate is higher than Poland’s.
Prime Minister Meloni, whose words sparked off our investigation, might feel gratified to learn that a third of Italians already agree that it is a duty towards society to have children. Yet she may in fact find it more instructive to look northwards and consider the example of Sweden.
Fewer than 10% of Swedes agree it is a duty towards society to have children. They are low in agreement on the other statements we considered too – only 6% of Swedes agree with the statement that it is a man’s job to earn money and a woman’s to look after the home and family. Yet Sweden’s fertility rate is 1.79, the second highest in Europe.
Overall, levels of agreement with our three selected statements vary widely across Europe. But a positive relationship between the extent of agreement with them and fertility rates is not observable, only a weakly negative one. Remarkably, there is not even a positive relationship between the strength of traditional family values among women of childbearing age and fertility rate. We can see this in Hungary, where nearly a third of women aged under 45 agree that it’s a duty towards society to have children but the birth rate is 1.52, behind countries including France, Estonia and the Netherlands where far fewer women of childbearing age agree.
In Europe at least, traditional family values do not appear to be delivering babies. But what about elsewhere? Curious, we zoomed in on one non-European country in particular.
In this non-European country, we find a strong base of traditional family values, with the World Values Survey showing that a majority (52%) of the population agree that it is a duty towards society to have children. This is accompanied by a high level of agreement with traditional attitudes towards gender – a majority (53%) also say that when jobs are scarce, men should have a greater right to a job than women.
Does this conservative-minded, hyper-traditional country enjoy a high fertility rate? Meloni will again be disappointed: this is South Korea, which has a fertility rate of 0.8, the second lowest in the world.
Correlational data like this should not be used to draw definitive conclusions or to dismiss the role of culture and values in shaping the decisions that individual men and women make as they decide when, how and if to start or grow their families.
But this data should warn against a myopic focus on traditional family values for those politicians who see them as a solution to or shield against falling fertility rates.
Indeed, seated next to her on the conference stage in May, Pope Francis had a different message to share than Meloni. Asked to consider why Italy is becoming a nation of fewer and fewer children – and in-between an anecdote about a woman who had asked the pontiff to bless her baby and then produced a dog from her handbag – he did not blame a lack of traditional family values for Italy’s vanishing schools. Instead, Pope Francis pointed to “prohibitively expensive houses,” “sky-high rents,” and other high costs of parenthood.
European policymakers should pay attention to Pope Francis’ words. As we have recently argued in Works in Progress magazine, the last great demographic wave to sweep the West – the Baby Boom – was delivered by progress in medicine, household technology, and access to housing that made becoming a parent easier, safer, and cheaper. What these developments represent are positive, material improvements to the way people live their lives, not shifts in their deeply held values.
Phoebe Arslanagic-Wakefield is co-founder of Boom and Chair of the Women in Think Tanks Forum. Anvar Sarygulov is co-founder of Boom, and has previously worked on welfare, housing and healthcare policy.
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