Baby Daddy

Why are babies busting all over?

As birthrates in Europe and elsewhere decline, articles about the decline multiply across the major media outlets. The population clock’s tolling 300 million this week in the US offers occasion for more reflection on the baby bust, and last week’s Economist takes a pretty level-headed look at the issues.

Strung along the familiar string of demographic beads—fertility in the US at 2.1, in the EU at 1.47 and as low as 1.28 in Italy and Spain, in Hong Kong at .95—is the following observation (which appears, I believe, only in print and not in the linked electronic version):

Birth rates are lower in more patriarchal rich countries, such as Japan and Italy, than in places where the sexes are more equal, such as America and Scandinavia. Perhaps the knowledge that Dad will help with the housework makes women more willing to have children.

This little puzzle has a few confounding pieces. Within the US, for example, more patriarchal subcultures appear to correlate with higher fertility, not lower: the correlation between traditional gender roles and high fertility among Mormons has been well-established by social science researchers like Tim Heaton, and, more generally, the link between higher fertility and traditional conservative religion (which presumably entails a degree of patriarchy) in red-state America is fairly widely accepted. So why would patriarchal family structures correspond with higher fertility in the US but lower fertility abroad?

The journalist’s speculation—that women are less willing to have children when they get little help at home—has a number of problems, it seems to me. For one thing, it assumes that women control the family planning precisely where one would expect men to control it, or at least to influence it more strongly: in patriarchal cultures and family arrangements. It appears to contradict the received evolutionary wisdom about female- and male-directed reproductive strategies. And it’s just plain hard to believe: I suppose a lighter second shift could affect women’s fertility on the margins, but … hmm. I don’t know.

So I turn to armchair demographers everywhere: what’s going on in Italy and Japan, and why is it different from what’s happening in the US? Is a patriarchal national culture responsible for low birthrates, or are they unrelated, or is there some third variable from which both spring? Is it about taxes, or family leave policies, or some other material substrate? Or is it a cultural thing? Does family patriarchy apart from a religious culture have different demographic effects than religious family patriarchies? Give it your best shot.

43 comments for “Baby Daddy

  1. B. Dylan
    October 20, 2006 at 11:30 am

    Another variable that seems to correlate better than some others is immigration. Of course that has less to do with family patriarchy and more to do with available space and employment so it may not be a very compelling discussion for this forum.

  2. October 20, 2006 at 11:40 am

    “Does family patriarchy apart from a religious culture have different demographic effects than religious family patriarchies?”

    I think this is an important question to explore. What kind of “patriarchies” are we talking about, and what supports them: religious doctrine, social norms, neither, both? I’ve never been to either Italy or Japan, but I know enough about both Europe and Asia to be able to say that traditional (vaguely Confucian) patriarchy is radically different in the way it understands and justifies itself from the ways in which traditional European-Catholic patriarchy operates. One might look at the high fertility rates within conservative/traditional religious groups in the U.S., and see that as a result of being religiously patriarchal while also accepting the basic assumptions of a modern and egalitarian society: high fertility is a kind of reaction, a mark of difference or defiance, in one area of life to norms that, in other areas of one’s life, are accepted without question.

  3. mami
    October 20, 2006 at 11:42 am

    I love your posts and insights. I only wish you had more time to write. (I bet you do too.)
    I don’t have any good answers to your questions. But I can say I do not think it has anything to do with family leave policies or taxes. In Europe and Scandinavia where there are very liberal family leave policies and other added benefits, the birth rate has only continued to decline.

    “Does family patriarchy apart from a religious culture have different demographic effects than religious family patriarchies?”
    This is a possibility. Is it possible that a religious view of womanhood and motherhood raise the value of a woman more than in non-religious patriarchies?
    Is the third possible variable how children are seen in the different patriarchies? Does one system make them more of a commodity?

  4. Rosalynde Welch
    October 20, 2006 at 11:43 am

    B. Dylan, can you say more about what you mean? I think I understand what you’re suggesting—that fertile immigrants from the global South would drive up birthrates—but my understanding is that Spain has more immigration than any other European country, but still has one of the lowest birthrates.

  5. Matt W.
    October 20, 2006 at 11:56 am

    I remember reading somewhere that in one european country 3 out of 4 children are aborted. It would be interesting to correlate social acceptance of abortion in above said countries with gertility statistics.

  6. Rosalynde Welch
    October 20, 2006 at 12:03 pm

    Russell, interesting thoughts. High fertility might function in the US, then, in the same counterintuitive way that the wearing of the veil among European Muslim women can: as a gesture of defiance—sometimes even framed as a gesture of FEMINIST defiance—against the majority culture, rather than an act of submission to the same, as one might expect. Is it too reductive to invoke the Christian “culture of life” within which patriarchy operates to explain religious patriarchal fertility in the US, and to suggest that in the absence of that vibrant religious life men simply aren’t very interested in babies, and that disinterest translates through their patriarchal influence into a low birthrate?

  7. Rosalynde Welch
    October 20, 2006 at 12:14 pm

    mami, very interesting questions. Feminists have not been especially high on religion, and most Western feminists would hotly dispute the assertion that religion raises the value of women. I’m always up for a good fight with the feminists, though: how would you make the argument for religion’s (or Christianity’s?) beneficial effect on women?

    Your question about the commodification of children is very interesting. I’ve wondered before about what appears to be the correlation in the nineties between an emphasis on hands-on fathering and an insanely materialistic emphasis on new cool baby gear. I’m not sure how this could be related to the fertility question, though.

  8. mami
    October 20, 2006 at 12:24 pm

    That is true. It was only recently that Russia overcame the terrible reality that they had more than twice as many abortions per year as births–and that is no exaggeration.

  9. Costanza
    October 20, 2006 at 12:27 pm

    I wish my wife was “busting.” Our little girl is late!!!

  10. mami
    October 20, 2006 at 12:29 pm

    I can’t. I was wondering if you could argue one side or the other.

  11. Jay S
    October 20, 2006 at 12:41 pm

    I wonder if there are other factors going along that have more influence than a strong patriarchy. For example,in Italy, it is not uncommon for young men to live with their parents for a very long time. A mother takes care of all of his needs, washing, cleaning, makes lots of food etc, thus you see a lot of momma’s boys living with their mom until they are 30 or 35. It hard to have a serious relationship or start your own family when you are living at home for so long.

    Counter, most men in america move out when they are 18 or 19 to go to college, etc. The desire for independence is potentially stronger, and the mothering instinct is less so. Just a thought

  12. endlessnegotiation
    October 20, 2006 at 12:41 pm

    mami wrote: “I can say I do not think it has anything to do with family leave policies or taxes.”

    An article that appears in today’s WSJ disputes your assumption. It notes that in Scandanavia birth rates have remained at or above the replacement rate because, unlike their European neighbors to the south, they offer generous family leave policies, subsidies, and tax breaks to parents who reproduce. For the last two years in Estonia the county has offered to replace working mothers’ salaries for 15 months if they have a child (it’s not $ for $ but it can be up to three times the national average and even SAHMs get a $200/mo stipend) and that country has seen a marked reversal in its fertility rate. The country is considering even more incentives such as tieing pensions to the number of children a couple produces– a policy which would likely further encourage marriage as well as child-bearing.

  13. mami
    October 20, 2006 at 12:46 pm

    I was not aware of that. Thank you for pointing it out. However, where this has been the policy in places like Russia for even longer than in Estonia–the birth rate has continued to fall. So I don’t think we can conclusively say that is the cause of a climbing rate.
    Could it have to do with the general health of the economy in these countries?

  14. endlessnegotiation
    October 20, 2006 at 12:54 pm

    I think the core reason for the differences in fertility rates among developed nations rests in the individual culturess willingness to sacrifice for others. Within the US there’s a difference in fertility rates between Red states and Blue states. That divide also correllates quite closely with charitable giving as a percentage of disposable income. Charity = more children; selfishness = fewer children. A simple, but I think valid, equasion.

  15. Matt W.
    October 20, 2006 at 1:12 pm

    EN (#14)-
    So are Red states more or less Selfish in this scenario? And in the same vain, what about average income compared to average cost of living? What I mean is, is there a correlation between being in a democrat or republican dominated area and having a disposable income. Is there a correlation between charitable givng and disposable income? Etc. I’d love to know, but don’t know where to look.

  16. endlessnegotiation
    October 20, 2006 at 1:28 pm


    Data for charitable giving can be found at the following link:

    The fertility data can be found at the USCB but here’s a link to an article that succinctly summarizes the political-demographic implications of the fertility data.

    The long and short of the story is that Red states are both more generous and more fecund than Blue states so much so that a correltion between the two would be hard to debunk.

  17. Starfoxy
    October 20, 2006 at 1:52 pm

    I’d be curious to see the marriage rates, and the gender ratios in the countries you mentioned, but I have a few theories anyways:
    1. America and Sweden may have a less patriarchal legal and social structure which could allow traditionally minded women from patriarchal families to feel more confident in having as many kids as they like. They know they could get a job if widowed, not be raked over the coals in a divorce, and not be disgraced for only having girls. Families in Japan and Italy may be as religious or traditionally minded, but there may be less legal safeguards to protect women which could make them reluctant to have children for fear of not being able to support them, keep them, or be praised for them.
    2. Some of this may be attributable to gender-specific abortion, either because it is currently in practice, or because it has been in practice long enough to skew the gender ratios enough to lower the birthrates. More women than men is condusive to having high birthrates, more men than women is condusive to going to war. :)
    3. Bad economies- Men are unlikely to get married when a wife and children amount to a financial liability, especially when they have trouble supporting just themselves.
    4. Extended childhood- In the time my husband spent in Italy he observed that it was not at all uncommon for 30 to 40 year old men to still be living at home, with no job, no current schooling, and no one making them feel guilty about it. This sort of thing is probably facilitated by increased lifespans and careers, and is probably spurred on by bad economies. (Also from what I understand these men have mothers who would be nightmares as mothers-in-law).

  18. TMD
    October 20, 2006 at 1:58 pm

    I think you are misunderstanding their argument. It’s really an interactive effect, not a single direct effect, that they are arguing for. The interaction is between social wealth and patriarchy. They are saying that in rich patriarchal countries, because they have more choices, women are avoiding doing all the work, while in poor patriarchal countries, women may not feel as able to make other choices, and in non-patriarchal countries (which I’m willing to bet are generally fairly rich countries), the added costs of child-bearing are not as great, so the choice is not as undesirable. I’m not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing, just trying to clarify their argument.

  19. October 20, 2006 at 2:08 pm

    Comparing two small groups any number of explanations is possible, and this is probably the first time outside a discussion of the WWII Axis powers that Italy and Japan constitute a group.

    From the CIA world factbook here are some per capita GDPs and fertility rates:

    29,200 / 1.28 / Italy
    31,500 / 1.40 / Japan

    29,800 / 1.66 / Sweden
    42,300 / 1.78 / Norway
    30,500 / 1.73 / Finland

    43,400 / 2.88 / United Arab Emirates
    27,400 / 2.81 / Qatar
    23,600 / 2.28 / Brunei
    23,000 / 2.60 Bahrain

  20. DKL
    October 20, 2006 at 2:55 pm

    I think that you’re avoiding the easy answer:

    1. US guys are cooler than European guys, so they get laid more often, and so the birth rate is higher.

    2. In Muslim countries, they don’t use birth control, so the birth rate is higher.

    Problem solved.

  21. DKL
    October 20, 2006 at 3:00 pm

    Also, I think that fact that so many French guys are gay really brings down the European average.

  22. Matt W.
    October 20, 2006 at 3:07 pm

    DKL, I am laughing at you. I admit it.

  23. Ben H
    October 20, 2006 at 3:07 pm

    I’m with John. “Italy and Japan” is such a small, odd sample that it seems kind of goofy to try to identify a general trend from it. You might find one, but it will have to stand or fall on other merits. I know the gender relations in Japan have something to do with their low birth rate (how’s that for a tautology?) . . . but seriously, when I was there I got the sense that married men tended to be mostly absent, and ornery when they were around, and so young women were just opting out of marriage.

    I think the bit about staying with one’s parents is a red herring. I mean, in India lots of people build houses for a whole clan, but that doesn’t hurt their birth rate. In fact, strong extended family relationships make child-bearing and -rearing a lot easier. Perhaps as one of several conspiring factors, though, the staying at home could play a role. My hunch though is more that it is symptomatic of another factor which contributes to both staying at home and not fathering/mothering children–like preferring to live easy and consume, which often goes along with not having much of a sense of cosmic purpose.

  24. Rosalynde Welch
    October 20, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    Interesting comments, all. TMD, I’m happy to take correction, but I’m confused by your clarification. Can you clarify? I understand that the piece was not implying a causal mechanism, and I tried to be careful to stick with “correlation” in my piece. But did you extract the rest from the snippet I quoted, or from the entire piece? And can you restate it?

    John, my understanding is that higher per capita wealth generally correlates with lower birthrates. I get that, so the question is what to make of exceptions, right?

    Several commenters have suggested a sort of cultural “sweet spot” between modernity and patriarchy where traditional family values are still influential but an ideal of gender equality eases the traditional burdens on women. Maybe something like this is what’s happening in Sweden and the US.

  25. MDS
    October 20, 2006 at 4:02 pm

    patriarchal = less willingness to help with housework?

    I sure didn’t get that memo. Is there empirical support for the proposition that men in America and Scandinavia help with housework more than men in Italy and Japan? Even if there is, why should the Italian/Japanese cohort be deemed “patriarchal” for that reason?

  26. Starfoxy
    October 20, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    Ben H. I don’t think that staying with one’s parents is a red herring at all. In western cultures moving out is a signifier that you are willing to take on adult responsiblities. The extended families you mention in India don’t turn a blind eye to their grown sons acting like children, but work hard to get them jobs, schooling, and brides. This isn’t happening for these guys in Italy. These men are using their parents to avoid adulthood. That this is common enough for people to not even blink about it means that they are probably past the point of looking down on other adults for foregoing taking on additional responsiblities like family & parenting (which results in the whole society being more accepting of people who just want to live the easy life as you mentioned).

  27. bbell
    October 20, 2006 at 4:21 pm

    Low birthrates in Italy/Japan/Germany

    Tongue in cheek…. US Occupation starting in 1945? make it really hard to fight future wars?

    The only thing I can think of is religion. Then I think of Catholic Poland’s low birthrate VS Catholic Irelands higher birthrate. Then I think. OK that falls flat

    I am also not sure that Scandanavia’s rate is that high. 1.66 is high?

    I think the idea that the US has hit a sweet spot is maybe accurate. We still practice what I would describe as a form of Benevolent Patriarchy.

    The long term impact of these demographic realities is pretty scary for Europe as I have probably bored everybody to death with already. I personally think that the beginning of a long term Intifada has broken out in France that will result in the fall eventually in 2-3 generations of the French state with many other European countries not far behind including The Netherlands. Increased European Immigration to the US/Canada, Australia would be the next step. maybe 10-15 years out. The French Jews are already leaving. The Canary in the Coal mine….

  28. Mark Butler
    October 20, 2006 at 4:22 pm

    Whatever fathers in various cultures might feel about gender based division of labor (re helping with the housework, etc.), the idea that patriarchy should mean fewer, rather than more children seems like a strange conception of fatherhood to me.

    I would guess that the more common problem in Asian countries is crowding, economics, and over population. China. Japan, and Korea did not arrive at their present state of population by cultivating a culture of infertility. Though most of those countries have been actively discouraging having more than one or two children for some time now.

  29. Matt W.
    October 20, 2006 at 4:31 pm


    Here is another Fertility rate by state link, for a more objective source of Data than the American Conservative.

    I’m not saying it’s wrong, just saying. I will do my own study and get back to you.

  30. October 20, 2006 at 4:42 pm

    Here’s a list of the 25 EU member states ordered by fertility from highest (1.86) to lowest (1.21): Ireland, France, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Denmark, Finland, UK, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium, Malta, Portugal, Estonia, Germany, Austria, Greece, Slovakia, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Latvia, Poland, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Lithuania. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to correlate this list with per capita GDP of each nation.

  31. Jim F
    October 20, 2006 at 4:49 pm

    bbell: “The French Jews are already leaving.”

    Can you cite something that supports your claim? There is no question that the increase in France’s Muslim population and the decrease in its traditional French population is something that they have only begun to deal with, if at all–or to figure out just what needs to be dealt with. But I’ve not seen any evidence of significant Jewish emmigration as a result. I’m interested in your source.

  32. bbell
    October 20, 2006 at 5:05 pm

    Jim F.

    Let me dig up my sources. I have read numerous accounts of increased numbers of French Jews leaving for Isreal and Montreal recently. We are based on these articles in the beginning of this trend

    My local Jewish buddy says that his local Syn. has recently received in membership several French Jewish families who claim that they have been literally forced to leave France due to aggression pointed their way. They apparently talk of Firebombings, stoning etc directed against French Jews. This is an anecdote but backs up what I have read.

  33. Matt W.
    October 20, 2006 at 5:09 pm

    Another thing which might be interesting to compare with Fertility rates is church attendance (self reported)

  34. Rosalynde Welch
    October 20, 2006 at 5:40 pm

    John, I get the feeling you think I’m a complete dope, and you’re absolutely right about that. I appreciate your humoring me. This particular reader doesn’t know where to get access to reliable GDP data, but my sense is that your list describes, roughly, a downward trend in GDP. So in Europe, it might appear, there’s a correlation between high fertility and high GDP. But this seems to contradict the received wisdom on worldwide demographics, namely that falling birth rates are linked to prosperity, because of the opportunity costs involved in bearing and raising children and the presence of governmental safety nets that make children less necessary in one’s old age. Are the rules different in Europe somehow? Or in the comparatively prosperous West?

    Is there any rhyme or reason to this at all?

  35. TO
    October 20, 2006 at 5:48 pm

    Totally off track – but when I heard about the US reaching 300 million my first thought was, “Is that all? There are 298+ million Muslims (when combined) in the two countries of Pakistan and India alone.”

  36. bbell
    October 20, 2006 at 5:55 pm


    I think there are a variety of factors that make different countries have different birth rates. Its hard to figure out one big reason for it.

  37. October 20, 2006 at 6:17 pm

    bbell: Thanks. Based only on my anecdotal evidence that I think the criticisms of the survey are right. I know several Jewish families who have emigrated to Israel and, obviously, it is impossible not to know about the anti-Semitic attacks that have occurred, though both Muslim and Jewish authorities seem to think they are the work of hooligans more than the result of increased anti-Semitism–after all, most French Muslims are pretty secularized, like everyone else. I wonder how much the intention to emigrate has reduce since Halimi’s torture-murder? That was a huge news item, but I haven’t see many recent reports of anti-Semitic attacks in the French press. My friends seem to have emigrated because their Jewishness has begun to matter to them more in the recent past, and they have become Zionists.

    Rosalynde: Sorry about the threadjack, but the articles to which bbell referred me were helpful. I’m done interrupting.

  38. Janet
    October 21, 2006 at 1:21 am

    “I’ve wondered before about what appears to be the correlation in the nineties between an emphasis on hands-on fathering and an insanely materialistic emphasis on new cool baby gear. I’m not sure how this could be related to the fertility question, though.”

    I’m just swinging through on a pre-bed drive-by, but this comment made me laugh out loud. I have also pondered how hands-on daddydom might correlate with the development of strollers which feature suspension systems superior to the one on my car. I’m just waiting to hear some guy talk about his wife’s breasts as though they were equipment which might be accessorized (you know, for the baby and not for the reason they already get accessorized ad naseum in our culture).

    One thing which baffles me in regards to the US’s birthrate is our newfound enjoyment of infantalizing young adults until they hit their mid-30s. Of course, this cultural trend remains weaker in LDS circles and in agragarian communities where adult responsibilities crop up at ridiculously young ages. (She says, recalling the time her rancher grandpa nearly had an aneurysm because Janet-the-8-year-old could not yet drive a tractor). But maybe somebody has already mentioned that American paradox–like I said, I’m on a drive-by.

  39. mds
    October 21, 2006 at 9:52 pm

    In Germany, we missionaries used to joke about what we termed “German Stroller Technology.” They were very high tech compared to what we were used to from the States. We always joked that when you had only one kid, as was often the case there, you couldn’t afford to risk losing him or her, so a stroller rivaling an M1 Abrams was a must.

  40. October 21, 2006 at 10:51 pm

    The reasons some cite:
    1. Marrying at an older age, and being too tired with the first few children that do come.
    2. High expectations placed on the children, sometimes (though hardly always) with fewer resources.
    3. Troubled/ dangerous births.
    4. Changing economies–from agrarian to production to post-production.
    5. Increasing standards required for university entrance, job positions, etc.
    6. Freedom for self, from children.
    7. They were poor and many when young, and they don’t want their children to have to experience that.
    8. More abortions.
    9. We’re talking about the northern hemisphere; what about southern hemisphere?

  41. Matt W.
    October 23, 2006 at 10:00 am

    Thought this was relavent from this morning’s news…,1249,650200961,00.html

  42. Adam Greenwood
    October 30, 2006 at 9:36 am

    Perhaps in pluralist countries like ours, patriarchal cultures have to put a lot more praise and ideological justification into having kids and being a mother and that sort of thing. Whereas in Japan, if you’re a women, lump it.

    Maybe being consciously patriarchal is the key. Dunno.

  43. Adam Greenwood
    October 30, 2006 at 9:46 am

    I notice that Russell F. and Rosalynde W. and others have already come up with my explanation. Figures.

    Another thought: Steve Sailer says that the strongest predictor of fertility in the United States is the cost of family formation, which is primarily the cost of buying or renting the starter home. America and Sweden both have much more land for people than do Japan and Italy. But you would have to know something about Sweden’s legal regime before you knew whether there was really more space available. I’d also note that Australia has huge amounts of space available, but has had very depressed fertility rates. Recently they’ve been trending up, but this seems more a response to some tax credits and to a shift in the public culture which has started to signal out having the third child as a praiseworthy act.

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