Can we reverse the low fertility trend?

For a long time, delaying parenthood was the domain of upper-middle-class people. Highly educated women put off having a baby until their careers were on track, often until their early 30s. But over the past decade, as more women of all social classes have prioritized education and career, delaying childbearing has become a broad pattern among Maltese women.

Over some three decades, the mean age of Maltese women at birth has risen by more than one year.  If one restricts the comparison to years where comparable data is available, an advantage of 1.4 years over women in the Euro Area in 2001 had disappeared by 2019.

The result has been a slow growth of the Maltese indigenous population, and a profound change in Maltese motherhood. Over a 20-year period, women in Malta under 30 have become 27% less likely to have children.Since 1999, the birthrate for women in their 25s has fallen by 67%, and that of those in their 20s has declined by 51%. Out of seven ages analysed, only those at age 35 have increased their fertility – by 30%.

This is broadly similar with trends in Europe. Across Europe, birth rates are falling and family sizes are shrinking. The total fertility rate is now less than two children per woman in every EU Member State. As a result, European populations are either growing very slowly or beginning to decrease.

At the same time, low fertility is accelerating the ageing of European populations. As a region, Europe in 2000 had the highest percentage of people aged 65 or older 15%. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of the Census, this percentage is expected to nearly double by 2050. Malta is no exception. Our live births per 1,000 people have dropped by 68% to around 8.5. An 8.5 p.p. advantage over the Eurozone has all but disappeared over 58 years.

Researchers cannot say for sure if education is a cause of the fertility decline, but there appears to be some connection. What is clear is that women are far more educated than they were in past generations. Women’s graduation rates are now rising faster than men’s. Their place in the labour force has changed, too. There are many more working women, and the emphasis on career has spread beyond women with bachelor’s degrees as has a recognition of how children can derail it.

“The perceived price of having children has really increased since I first talked to women in the mid-1990s,” says Kathryn Edin, a sociologist at Princeton University who has spent years writing about low-income families. “Even among the poorest women, there’s a recognition that a career is part of a life course.” At the same time, there hasbeen more of a glorification of work in Maltese culture.

Parenting, too, has become more stressful. Today, parents spend more money and time on their children than any previous generation, and many feel immense pressure to be constantly teaching their children, enrolling them in enrichment classes and giving them their undivided attention.

These demographic trends portend difficult times ahead for our economy. Thus, a shrinking workforce can lower productivity. At the same time, the growing proportion of elderly individuals poses threats to the solvency of pension and social insurance systems. As household sizes decrease, the ability to care for the elderly diminishes. Not to mention that elderly people face growing health care needs and costs. Together, these developments imposesignificant barriers to achieving the triad goals of full employment, economic growth, and social cohesion.

In Europe there has been intense debate over the most effective policies to reverse these trends or mitigate their impact. Three approaches stand out: (1) promoting increased immigration of working-age people; (2) encouraging more childbearing, especially among younger couples; and (3) reforming social policy to manage the negative consequences of these trends — including measures that could raise the retirement age or encourage more women to join the workforce.

Over a 20-year period, women in Malta under 30 have become 27% less likely to have children.

Solid research-based evidence to inform the debate remains sketchy, and so the debate has produced more heat than light. Many aspects of the relationship between national policies and demographic trends are either disputed or not well understood. It remains difficult to disentangle the effects of specific policy initiatives from the effects of broader social, political, and economic conditions.

A study by Jonathan Grant et al for the Rand Corporation concluded that immigration is not a feasible way of reversing population ageing or its consequences, policies designed to improve broader social and economic conditions may affect fertility indirectly, population policies take a long time to pay dividends increases in fertility taking a generation to translate into an increased number of workers — making such policies politically unattractive, and that what works in one country may not work in another.

No single policy intervention has worked to reverse low fertility. Historically, governments have attempted to boost fertility through a mix of policies and programmes. For example, France in recent decades has employed a suite of policies intended to achieve two goals: reconciling family life with work and reversing declining fertility. To accomplish the first goal, for example, France instituted generous child-care subsidies. To accomplish the second, families have been rewarded for having at least three children.

Sweden, by contrast, reversed the fertility declines it experienced in the 1970s through a different mix of policies, none of which specifically had the objective of raising fertility. Its parental work policies during the 1980s allowed many women to raise children while remaining in the workforce. The mechanisms for doing so were flexible work schedules, quality childcare, and extensive parental leave on reasonable economic terms. Malta, on the other hand, has had excellent results with child-care accessibility, but has stopped at that.

Whether government and society can influence the outcome remains an open question.

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