Friday, September 14, 2012

What's Culture Got to Do with Fertility?

I had no idea what to expect from a talk titled “Lowest-Low Fertility: A theory of normative rigidity and economic context” but judging by the packed room, a number of people were interested in hearing Mary C. Brinton, the chair of Harvard’s sociology department, discuss this topic. 
What is “lowest-low” fertility? A country’s total fertility rate of 1.3 or fewer births per woman is considered lowest-low. Of course, low fertility is not a problem for the planet overall, but for individual countries fertility far below replacement rate has serious implications – a rapidly aging population and a shrinking labor force among them. 

So why are some developed, post-industrial countries experiencing lowest-low fertility and others are not? For instance, the United States does not have “lowest-low” fertility, but Japan does, even though Japan has better child care options and ostensibly more family-friendly policies. Low fertility doesn’t even correlate with female labor force participation. In fact, it appears that countries with high percentage of women working actually have normal fertility rates.

If it’s not working women and it’s not government policies, what is driving down fertility in some well-to-do nations? Perhaps it is culture. 

Professor Brinton and her team set out to test this hypothesis. Utilizing data from the global attitudes survey, they isolated the gender-role perceptions through answers to questions like “A woman needs children to be fulfilled” and “Men have more rights to jobs when jobs are scarce.” They discerned three broad clusters among 24 post-industrial countries – those with predominantly “conservative” attitudes, reflecting the male breadwinner-female caregiver model, and then “egalitarian” or “caregiver egalitarian” countries.  

Professor Brinton’s analysis demonstrates that predominance of male breadwinner-female caregiver attitudes correlates significantly with low fertility rates. The quantitative model controls for the economic well-being of the countries and includes other potential factors that affect fertility, such as unemployment among young males. 

This means changing a culture of gender inequality and breaking down attitudes that perpetuate rigid gender norms is in the best interest of any post-industrial country concerned about its rapidly shrinking and aging population. If only changing culture were easy...

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