POPULATION PART TWO: by Colin TeeseNews Weekly
The economic cause of falling fertility
, August 28, 2004
Economic pressures are a major factor behind falling fertility. Colin Teese describes how radical free-market economics are destructive to family life and force couples to have fewer children.The continued existence of some nations is now at risk due to a decline in fertility, according to a recent observation by the United Nations' chief demographer. (News Weekly, August 14).
This fact was underlined by a UN colleague of the chief demographer, Dr Joseph Chamie from the Population Division of the UN's Department of Economic and Social Affairs. One third of the countries in the world, he told a recent population conference, were "below replacement fertility". Dr Chamie went on to offer the view that "gender equality" is at least part of the problem associated with declining fertility problems.Controversial
No doubt, Dr Chamie's views will be controversial. But his contention can hardly be denied. He makes the point more cautiously, but it is certainly the case - whatever might be our attitude towards the policy - that encouraging women into the workforce on an equal basis to men, does
impact on fertility levels.
Of course, certain groups remain unconcerned about declining fertility; and advocates of globalisation boast about its capacity to undermine the nation state. Theoretically, these groups should (and probably will) remain unconcerned about declining fertility levels.
Notwithstanding, Dr Chamie and his UN team have done us all a service by reminding us that gender equality arrangements can disturb, fundamentally, what many have long regarded as the cement holding the family structure together.
And here it is worth reminding those who so readily condemn the UN that it can, and does do important work which, perhaps, we could not expect from any other source.
But there is a lot more to this issue than emerges from Dr Chamie's comments. It should be noted that he works on population problems in a UN department concerned with economic and social affairs. The pity is that we don't hear more from his colleagues studying society and economics as they impact on fertility. And we need to understand more about what lies behind the notion of "gender equality" and how it came about.
This article draws on the experiences here in Australia to make its points, but much the same outcomes will have been experienced in other countries to a greater or lesser extent.
Without doubt, "gender equality" was helped along by the pressures of the feminist movement. And parts of that movement were, and remain, "anti-family" - and most certainly would not have been in the least concerned about falling fertility rates or their impact on family life.
But, though the feminists helped things along, the problem neither begins nor ends with them. Feminists of a particular kind advocated women pursuing careers rather than marriage and family. They had their impact, but with only a small fraction of women. The important fact is that they became influential at about the same moment as another, far more pervasive, influence took hold.Economic influences
This defining influence was economic - and it acted against family and fertility indirectly. It came from what we might usefully call consumer capitalism, which, in turn, is closely linked with what we call economic rationalism. In a consumer capitalism-driven society, it is not the community, or even the family, which is paramount. It is the individual as a consumer.
Such a society will necessarily be driven by short-term considerations. And it won't in the least concern itself with longer-term issues like fertility, family and the future of nations.
Women and the place they occupy in the workforce are linked to consumer capitalism by both cause and consequence. The pressure to consume affects households in a number of fundamental ways.
Artificially created demand tends to associate a greater number of higher-cost personal possessions with a higher standard of living. Houses, motor vehicles, and all manner of consumer durables are represented to be, if not essential to any reasonable lifestyle, then highly desirable.
In order to pay for these acquisitions, households are required to supplement the family income with the income of wives who previously would not have joined the paid workforce. At first these women would have been able to get by with part-time work, but, as the consumption pressures accelerated, part-time work was not enough. Soon most families' needs required that the wives acquire full-time paid jobs.
And while all of this was taking place, the feminist movement was pressing for "gender equality" in the workplace. And, not unnaturally, the idea appealed to women in the workforce as their right - regardless of what they thought of the feminist movement.
The destructive combination of these two factors - feminism and economic policy pressures quickly and decisively transformed family life for most of the population.
All of a sudden families needed two incomes to sustain the lifestyle they had been encouraged to expect. And as the pressure to consume intensified, families had to make choices. They were compelled to choose between having more children or forgoing desirable consumption. Families began, consciously, to choose to have fewer children. Some even chose to have none.
Even those women who had chosen, quite consciously, to pursue a paid career as well as maintain a family, had also to grapple with the problem of choices - but slightly different choices. For them, it was less a problem of funding consumption than finding time away from their careers to have and to care for children. Right through societies - especially in developed countries, including Australia, and for roughly the same reasons - family sizes began to shrink.
And so began a kind of economic roundabout effect. The smaller families became, the larger became the need of those economies whose economic health was built on the foundation of personal consumption to develop new and more expensive goods with which to tempt consumers. Soon, even two family incomes were not enough, and consumers found a need to borrow for consumption outlays.
There was a further consideration. As access to free public education was replaced more and more by what was called user-pays in all sectors of education, families found the cost of educating children to higher levels ever more expensive (and all the more necessary as a variety of jobs in manufacturing disappeared when we embraced free trade). Once more, the aggregated effect of this combination of pressures virtually compelled families to have fewer children.Other pressures
Those were not the only pressures. With free trade, deregulation and a greater emphasis on individuality and market solutions to what had previously been seen as community issues, so disappeared long-term job security. Job creation came more and more in the form of low paid, temporary employment. This, too, worked against family-creation and expansion.
So much have these trends taken hold that the belief has been fostered that they are a natural and irreversible development. They are not. And it certainly is not the case that educated women no longer wish to have children. There is much anecdotal and researched evidence that today's young women certainly want to have children, even at the expense of paid careers, and would do so if the economic and social circumstances made it possible.
The fact is they don't. And that is by the design of our political leaders with our consent.
Perhaps it's time for us to remind those political parties who profess vociferously their commitment to family, that this commitment stands in contradiction to the iron-fisted support they give to consumer economics, which contributes so much to the undermining of family life.