“Want babies, can’t afford them”

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

Chiara, a 25-year-old who specialises in furniture restoration, lives in Florence with her boyfriend, an assistant in a shopping mall who is also in his thirties.  After several unpaid internships, Chiara finally secured a more reliable position this year.  She earns about €800 a month on a one-year part-time contract.  “They said they are going to renew it, but it’s a small company and everything is very unstable,” Chiara told a local paper.

For this reason, she is postponing motherhood. “Having kids has always been my wish, and my boyfriend and I often discuss it as he too would like to have them. But when we remember our precarious situation – we barely make ends meet – we cannot imagine that becoming parents now would be sustainable.”

In Italy, women who want to work face huge challenges.  According to a recent report, they are, on average, older than 31 when they have their first child.  The average number of children per woman is now 1.25, the second lowest rate in Europe.  Guess who has the lowest?  It is Malta, with 1.13. To compare, France’s rate, which is considered high, was 1.8 in 2021 while Greece’s was 1.4, according to the World Bank.

The chart gives a perspective over a long period. The crude birth rate over six decades shows a sharp decline in Malta, from around 26.2 births per 1,000 persons in 1960 to a rate of circa 8.5 births in 2020.  The decline in the EU was of 9.6 births per 1,000 persons, while that in France and Hungary, which have pursued aggressive family-friendly policies, declined by 7.8 births and 5.0 births per 1,000 respectively.

The birth rate would have been considerably lower in recent years if it weren’t for non-Maltese women who accounted for 22.2% of all deliveries, compared with 8% ten years ago and 4.9% in 2000. 

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 under 30 in Malta 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%.

At the same time, low fertility is accelerating the ageing of European populations. In 2019, the median age of the EU27 population was 43.7 years, ranging from 46 years in Germany to 37.7 years in Cyprus and Ireland – compared to 40 years in Malta.  The EU27’s median age is projected to increase by 4.5 years during the next three decades, to reach 48.2 years by 2050. In Malta it will rise by 8 years.

Seeking careers

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.”

Today, the concept of “fertility” has changed into a social expectation. In a study by Benzies, women believed that the increased social expectations for financial independence and stability prior to childbearing had made delay in childbearing acceptable to them. Due to the widespread use of information and communication technologies, social networks, and mass media, modern women have become more aware of their rights and are demanding the same social and family rights as men. Therefore, egalitarian attitudes postpone parenthood.

Cross-country panel data reveals a strong positive association between delayed fertility and female labour force participation. The positive association also extends to individual-level data: women who give birth at an older age generally have better labour market outcomes, with higher employment probabilities (and wages).

The “motherhood wage gap”

The economic literature consistently shows that a wage penalty is associated with motherhood — the “motherhood wage gap”. Women who are mothers can find themselves on a different career path than childless women, one characterised by a fixed wage penalty or even by a wage gap that widens over time because of lower economic returns to labour market experience. This is often referred to as the “mommy track”.

Findings suggest that postponing the first childbirth could be an effective strategy to avoid some of the negative labour market consequences of motherhood. If a woman decides to have children after she has progressed toward the top of her career, for instance, she reduces the risk that motherhood will represent an obstacle to future career promotions.

In a paper under the title ‘The Price of Motherhood’ prepared for the Centre for Labour Studies, Clyde Caruana (now Minister of Finance), Anna Borg, and Manwel Debono reported that an increase in the average worked days from 35% to 50% would result in an additional €18.5 million per year in household income and an increase of €5.1 million in government tax revenue (social security contributions and income tax).

Source: University Centre for Labour Studies, 2011: Clyde Caruana, Anna Borg, Manwel Debono

A study from the US from 2011 shows that delaying motherhood by one year raises women’s earnings by 9%, working hours by 6%, and wages by 3%. The positive effects are greater for college graduates and women working in professional and managerial occupations.

The negative effect on fertility may stem from biological consequences, as a woman’s fecundity (and also that of her partner) declines with age. It may also be caused by stigma effects (the perception that there is a socially acceptable maximum age for becoming a mother) or other consequences of waiting to have children, such as the likelihood that a stable relationship with a partner will break down.

Other studies have used data on miscarriages or stillbirths to investigate the effect of motherhood timing. A study for Italy uses cross-section data from a survey of mothers and shows that postponing a woman’s first childbirth by one year raises labour force participation by 1.2 percentage points and weekly working hours by about half an hour (2.2%) in the period around childbirth (when children are 18-26 months old).

Delay in childbearing and the increase in the first pregnancy age in women is concomitant with a wide range of medical, economic, demographic, and social consequences. The most crucial medical consequence is the risk of infertility. The undesirable consequences of pregnancy caused by delay in childbearing include prolonged labour, gestational diabetes, stillbirths, hypertension, bleeding during the third trimester, maternal mortality, low birth weight, and the occurrence of most chromosomal abnormalities, including Down syndrome.

A global issue

The increase in childbearing age is a global social issue that has become more pronounced over the recent decades in most countries with different cultural, social, and economic conditions.  Increasing the fertility rate in developed countries is not important because the population is shrinking, but rather to maintain economic prosperity.  If women worked more, they could have more children, as shown by France, Sweden, and Norway, where fertility and female employment rates are both high.

The most notable economic consequences include increased costs, such as the costs of using Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) and prenatal screening and, also, increased healthcare costs. The demographic consequences of delay in childbearing include the effect of delayed fertility on birth and fertility rates and the ageing of the population. Delay in the first pregnancy lowers the probability in women of having more than one or two children and may result in involuntary childlessness.

The social consequences of delay in childbearing include further competitive aims at later ages and complete avoidance of childbearing, smaller families, intergenerational ramifications, emotional gaps, communication problems between parents and children, and issues in relations with grandparents. Furthermore, low pregnancy rates due to delay in childbearing will have serious consequences for the labour market and retirement systems.  

There is therefore no doubt that countries which want to halt the decline in fertility rates and possibly improve it, must pay close attention to both macro level factors and supportive policies, medical achievements, and socio-cultural and economic factors that affect fertility in the community. The introduction of free child-care in Malta has been a tremendous help, but it needs to be improved and be made more flexible.

Supportive work-family policies, organisational policies on women’s employment, more remote and online working, the possibility to enhanced childcare leave, higher fringe benefits, and less gender segregation can contribute to influence positively both employment and motherhood, incentivising earlier childbearing.  Employed women’s need to be able to cope with job-family conflicts and create a balance between the roles.

Photo: Sarah Chai

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