This month France, not for the first time, raised the baby bonus stakes
in Europe with the announcement of an incentive for larger families.
Starting next July, parents who take one year’s unpaid leave from work
after the birth of a third child will qualify for a grant of up to
€1000 a month. "We must do more to allow French families to have as
many children as they want," said Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin,
launching the scheme.
The new grant is double the existing maximum entitlement for families
with young children and comes on top of other social support geared to
larger families. This includes maternity leave, on near full pay, that
ranges from 20 weeks for the first child to 40 or more for a third, and
an extensive network of affordable childcare. As well, there is
near-free public transport and €300 a month in allowances for all
After decades of propaganda in favour of the two-child family, it has
suddenly become polite (and which nation is more polite than the
French?) to speak of three—not only in Europe, where the average
birthrate is 1.4 children per woman, but also in east Asia where it is
down to 1.2 in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. As recently as the 1980s
South Koreans were told, "even two are a lot", and they could get
themselves sterilised at public expense until last year. Now they can
have free reversals and free birth care for their third or fourth
Compared with these low-fertility countries, France looks very well-off
with a buoyant birthrate of 1.9—the highest in the European Union
except for Ireland, on 2.0. According to experts, that is precisely
because of family-friendly policies which make it easy for working
women in France to have children—81 per cent of women between 25 and 49
are in work. The effect of a large immigrant population with higher
birthrates is generally not mentioned.
Yet even in France, and in the Scandinavian countries with similarly
generous maternity leave, family benefits and subsidised childcare,
fertility is still below replacement (the semi-official goal of
population policies), meaning that their populations will age and
ultimately shrink without levels of immigration that would be
unpopular, even if they were possible. Hence the bid by France to get
women—especially the middle-class and career women who are slowest to
reproduce—to "think three", and encourage them financially.
The power of three
Two, after all, is not a rational goal—especially not when pursued by
technical means that exclude all "human error" and even second
thoughts. Some people are going to wait too long to begin a family, or
between children, and have to settle for one child or none, so that
even replacement fertility depends on a proportion of couples having
larger families. Yet this is precisely where recent policies have done
most damage, drastically reducing the proportion of couples who have
three or more children.
In the United States 30 years ago almost 60 per cent of women aged 40
to 44 had three or more children. Today that percentage has dropped in
half, to 29 per cent. In Australia it is down to 25 per cent and,
according to demographer Peter McDonald, if that percentage were to
stop at two, the country’s birthrate would drop from its present 1.77
to the European median of 1.4.
Surprisingly, however, a recent national survey
of Australians in their 20s and 30s found that as many as 44 per cent
of women and 37 per cent of men (depending on the age band) would like
to have at least three children. The proportion of women whose ideal
was two was only slightly larger at 46 per cent, while for men it was
53 per cent. Less than 10 per cent of men and women in all age bands
wanted one child or none—four was a more popular choice.
The French Prime Minister’s rationale for his new cash incentive
suggests that many French people also aspire to larger families. In the
United States third-or-higher order births have been creeping up
without any particular incentives, increasing from a low of 25 per cent
of births in 1984 to 28 per cent in 2002.
Ivy League mothers
Noting the modest US trend last year the Wall Street Journal asked, "Is Three the New Two?" The Journal cited
anecdotal evidence that this is occurring particularly among more
affluent women. Factors influencing the trend, it suggested, include
fertility treatments, the increasing percentage of mothers staying at
home, family-friendly workplace policies and a strengthening economy
which make another child a "viable option" for more couples.
Of these factors the trend towards home-based and even full-time
motherhood may be the most significant, indicating a change in values
away from the career-woman model of the past couple of decades who
"takes time out" for a baby or two. The New York Times a week ago pinpointed this very change, occurring where one would least expect it—among young women at Ivy League colleges.
Smart, high-achieving students told the Times things like: "My
mother’s always told me you can’t be the best career woman and best
mother at the same time. You have to choose one over the other." And,
"I’ve seen the difference between kids who did have their mother stay
at home and kids who didn’t…"
A survey of 138 female students at Yale last year found that 60 per
cent of them planned to cut back on work or stop entirely when they had
children. This is a source of dismay to some female staff at the
colleges as they see hard-won opportunities going down the sink with
the baby’s bathwater. But it seems middle-class women have never given
up their role in the home. Surveys of Yale alumni from classes between
1979 and 1994 show that only about half of the women were still in
employment, or regarded paid employment as their primary activity, by
the time they reached their early 40’s.
Women students surveyed by Times appear to be taking their cue
not from their teachers but from their mothers, about three out of five
of whom did not work at all, took several years off or worked only
part-time. By putting child rearing before their career, these young
women will be much more likely to go on to have a third or fourth child.
Diehard feminists put all this down to a lack of social spending and to
persistent gender stereotypes. They continue to insist on "work-life
balance" policies which involve not only workplace reform and social
spending, but an equal division between men and women of unpaid work at
home and paid employment.
However, listening to women themselves tells a different story. In 1998
and 1999 the British Government organised a major research project
under that heading, which revealed a much greater diversity of values
regarding work and family among women than sex discrimination
commissioners care to think about.
Catherine Hakim, a sociologist at the London School of Economics,
analysed the data and came to the conclusion that in rich modern
societies like Britain, only about 20 per cent of women have paid work
as their main focus. Childless women are concentrated in this group,
marriage (or cohabitation) is less likely, and they are not responsive
to social/family policy.
Another 20 per cent are home-centred, with family life and children as
their main priority through life. These women prefer not to go out to
work but will if they have to—as many as 40 per cent in the study were
in full-time work.
The remaining 60 per cent of women are adaptive to either priority.
This group includes women who want to combine work and family, plus
"drifters" and women who have unplanned careers.
Home-centred and adaptive women are most likely to be married (or
cohabiting) and stay married. Their fertility is higher, with
home-centred women having twice as many children as work-centred women.
Moreover, home-centred women are not responsive to employment policy,
says Hakim, although the number of children they have is affected by
government social policy and other financial factors. In other words,
they have no use for maternity leave provisions but a lot of use for a
family allowance. Adaptive women, however, are very responsive to both
social and employment policy.
On the strength of this analysis, Hakim says governments that want to
raise fertility should focus on policies to support home-centred women
and those adaptive women who lean towards the family as their main
priority. She recommends in particular the home care allowances paid to
women in France, Finland and Norway which are not linked to whether
they were working before they had a child, but are simply a payment to
the woman for the work of bringing up a child in her home.
Investing in good values
Governments, clearly, can help or hinder fertility. But what they do
matters far less than the values people bring to that issue. A small
study conducted in Australia in the late 1990s by Rachel Meyer of
Monash University shows values relating to marriage are critical. Meyer
found the factors predicting larger family size were:
- Marrying – women who had not been in a de facto
relationship that did not lead to marriage were 2.6 times more likely
to progress to a third child.
- Marrying young – women who were 27 or younger when
their second child was born were 3.8 times more likely than other women
to have three or more children.
- Having children quickly – women who had two or
fewer years between their first and second births were twice as likely
as other women to have a larger family.
- Having unplanned children – women who said their first child was unplanned were 1.6 times more likely to have more children.
- Having religious values – Catholic women were also 1.6 times more likely to go on to have more children.
These are the women population planners warned us about. They are also
the remedy for the birth dearth brought about in the name of planning.
Governments who put an allowance or two their way will find their
Carolyn Moynihan is the deputy editor of MercatorNet