How Better Parental Leave Policies Could Solve An Impending Demographic Crisis

Unsurprisingly, when it’s less of a burden for women to have children, they are more likely to have children.

How Better Parental Leave Policies Could Solve An Impending Demographic Crisis
Photo: Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

There are many, many arguments for governments and companies to offer generous paid maternity leave and other benefits that make it easier on women who have kids. Now there’s another: Solving an impending demographic crisis across much of the developed world.


Japan, many European countries, and even the United States are facing historically low birth rates and aging populations–a situation that’s a recipe for labor shortages and slowed economic growth in decades to come. Germany, which recently surpassed Japan for the lowest fertility rate in the world, could see its total population drop from 81 million to 68 million by 2060.

Governments, therefore, have a general interest in increasing birth rates. But what can a big large bureaucracy run mostly by men do to convince less-than-interested young women to bear more children?

Flickr user Matt Molinari

Economists have come up with a surprisingly simple answer: Women will have more kids when it costs them less to do so and the burdens of child care are more equal.

In every country on Earth, though in some more than others, women pay higher costs than men for having children, whether in time or money spent on child care or lost opportunity in the workforce. That reducing the burdens specifically on women would make them have more babies is so obvious, it’s almost silly. Yet while studies that look at the fertility effects of government child care subsidies have been done–less work has looked at what happens when policies zero in on the half of the population with wombs.

A new study, by Northeastern University economist Matthias Doepke and the University of Bonn’s Fabian Kindermann, dives into this by first looking at how couples decide to have kids. The working paper literally starts with a birds-and-the-bees conversation: “A basic fact about babies is that it takes both a woman and a man to make one.”

The authors actually looked to data to prove this, specifically the Generations and Gender Programme, a survey that examined the relationships between thousands of couples in 19 countries in Europe and Russia. The survey showed that couples that don’t agree on having kids generally don’t have one–but that a woman’s opinion mattered more to the actual outcome.


More specifically, in 25% to 50% of couples where at least one partner wanted a baby, the other did not. This was especially true for couples that already had at least one child. Also, women tended to be opposed to their partner’s desire for a baby more than the other way around–especially in couples with at least two children and in countries that already had very low fertility rates (like Germany).

Jaunty Junto/Getty Images

This was all borne out in the actual outcomes of the survey participants. Later, on follow-up years later, the survey found that couples who disagreed on another child rarely had another child; whereas couples who both wanted a child were likely to have one. For couples that disagreed and did have a child–having only the woman on board mattered much more than the man’s preference, especially after the first child.

The survey also looked at how much effort partners put into child care. The countries with the highest fertility–Belgium, France, and Norway–had the highest participation of men in child care. In Norway, men do about 40% of the child care work compared to less than 25% in Russia.

“It is precisely in the countries where men do the least amount of [childcare] work where the fertility rate is the lowest, and where women are especially likely to be opposed to having another child,” the paper concludes.

After examining the data, the authors also created a model that teased out how decisions can be influenced by policies.

Their model showed that in low-fertility countries, child-care subsidies targeted at women will be more effective in increasing the birth rate. This holds true in their model for a couple of reasons. First, more women are opposed to having another child than men in these countries. Second, more women are near the “threshold” of wanting a baby, meaning they might switch their opinion if it’s a little easier. And third, women have a slightly larger effect on fertility decisions.


Dollar for dollar, the authors say, a child subsidy targeted at lowering a woman’s child care burden in Europe is “up to three times as effective at raising fertility than is a subsidy targeted at fathers.”

In essence, the study offers yet another argument for why making child care equitable is not only good for women, but good for entire nations.


About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.