Female Employment and Countries’ Fertility Rates – Science’s Comment on Public Debates

Unlike most parameters in demographic research, the Total Fertility Rate has become public knowledge in OECD countries. Particularly following the occurrence and stagnation of low fertility – and the associated aggravation of the social security problems – countries’ fertility rates have established themselves in political debates, legislative initiatives, media reports, and even in cracker barrel politics.

One especially relevant aspect in most of these debates is women’s pushing into the labor market. Their occupational aspirations and desire to have children are widely perceived to contradict one another. Many countries work hard to increase the compatibility of family and career. What has, however, not received attention far beyond the academic field – particularly because it is still a puzzle to researcher themselves – is that the intuitive and seemingly self-evident negative association between countries’ female labor force participation rates and total fertility rates has gone into reverse since the mid-1980s, empirically speaking.

To help explain this drift, we pursued a rather new approach to the matter and abandoned the fixed idea of subsuming women of all ages under one common rate for fertility or one common rate for labor force participation, respectively. Rather, we felt that women’s experiences across their life courses need to be captured more realistically: the roles played in the ‘triumvirate’ of family, employment, and education are not the same for all ages. The concurrent importance of family and career is not a given. For example, education has become increasingly important for younger women compared to previous generations. This has led them to postpone both their work and family intentions for some years. Similarly, the increase in education has meant that as they got older, women have experienced an increase in career opportunities and aspirations. Their resulting higher labor market participation has, again, been suppressing and delaying family decisions. Ultimately, this has caused childbirths and associated problems of compatibility to shift towards older ages – and thus towards stages in life at which women might have acquired occupational settlements that could even work in favor of the compatibility of family and career.

And indeed, data proves that our approach is right. Estimating the statistical association between the rates of female labor force participation and fertility across four age groups of women aged between 20 and 39 in 17 OECD countries since 1985 suggests that focusing on overall rates neglects the age composition of rates such as the Total Fertility Rate.

Women in their early 20s, for example, seem to have been relatively unaffected by either fertility or labor market considerations for some decades. Due to their ongoing education, both fertility and labor force participation are both incompatible with their stage of life. Hence, statistically speaking, fertility rates and female labor force participation rates have historically correlated positively – or not at all – while both have become less important for women in their early 20s in recent decades.

In contrast, women in their late 20s appear to have dedicated an increasing amount of time to the labor market. After an intense period in the education system, women apparently want to apply what they have learned, benefit from their efforts, and position themselves firmly in their occupation. Family and children seem to be perceived as something of a hindrance to these aspirations; the tendency to trade family off against a career has been rather high and the statistical association between employment and fertility negative. Recent years indicated some amelioration, though: the negative association has been diminishing.

Postponing the family phase has shifted the beginning of motherhood predominantly to women’s early 30s. At the same time, however, women’s increasing labor force participation hasn’t spared that age group. Similarly to the slightly younger group, these women dealt with considerable problems in reconciling family and career in the past. In recent years, however, things have changed. Potentially due to shifts in legislations and/or public perceptions in many countries, the incompatibility of caring for children and having a career for women in their early 30s appears to have abated somewhat. This is particularly promising, as it follows a trend that has been constant for two decades among women in their late 30s: even though both their fertility and labor force participation rates have been rising, statistical evidence has not been giving any indication of incompatible family and career. Presumably, these older women are firmly settled occupationally, financially, and psychologically – and possibly, they can also rely on supportive partners, friends and relatives. But along with the positive developments in the younger age groups, the prognosis for future compatibility of family and career seems more promising than in the past.

So, overall, the lesson learned from the study is threefold: first, it is mainly women in their late 20s and early 30s who have been at risk of facing incompatibility of family and career in the last decades. Apparently, other age groups have been considerably less perturbed by problems of compatibility, though for varying reasons. Second, there appears to be progress across OECD countries. Though one single macro-study cannot carve in stone that incompatibility between family and career is about to become a thing of the past, there are some indications of a shift. And third, the study advances the proposal to not focus on total figures alone; they may fall short in explaining the overall picture. This is true in political debates, legislative initiatives, media reports… or in cracker barrel politics.


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Uta Brehm

About Uta Brehm

Uta Brehm studied Sociology and Social Sciences in Bamberg, Düsseldorf and Reykjavik. Since 2013, she has been working as a doctoral fellow at the Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences (BAGSS) and as a research assistant at the university's Chair of Sociology 1. Her research interests include the development of fertility decisions, in particular in comparison between East and West Germany, female employment, gender roles, and event history analysis.

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