People who derive their strongest sense of identity and fulfillment from their careers may be contributing to a global decline in fertility, according to a new report that suggests many policies designed to help with work-life balance are apt to fail.

In “More Work, Fewer Babies: What Does Workism Have to Do with Falling Fertility,” released Thursday, Institute for Family Studies senior fellow Laurie DeRose and research fellow Lyman Stone argue that the rise of work-focused personal values “can also mean that many men and women find their preferred balance to be more work and less family.”

Fertility has become a major topic as birth rates have plummeted worldwide, including in high-income countries. In America, the rate is low enough to cause concern about future economic growth, labor-force pressures and what will happen to the social safety net, among other things. The issue has garnered notice of not just demographers and academics, but of policymakers. In a separate discussion with American Compass Thursday, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, noted that if the rate of births in the United States had remained at 2008 levels, 5.8 million more Americans would have been born to contribute to the economy in coming decades.

For DeRose and Stone, salient to the ongoing discussion is how people individually rank the importance of work and family. “Workism” is the idea that one’s identity derives from one’s career, while “familism” holds family as more important. Where individuals, cultures and countries place those values likely impacts their fertility rates, they said.

“When you look at contemporary low fertility in developed countries and you think the solution is to give more and more emphasis to work-centered programs, you’re missing the boat,” said Stone. “That is to say, if you’re worried about low fertility, more generous parental leave is a great thing. I love it. But it’s ultimately a work subsidy, not a parenting subsidy, because parents who aren’t workers don’t get it.”

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Better, they said, are policies that help families function regardless of whether, for example, both partners work or one parent stays home with young children.

“To the extent that family policy helps encourage more time at work, policies aimed at achieving work-life balance may be doomed to failure,” the report said. “Reforms that substantially reduce the burden of market work on families are more likely to yield benefits in the long run.”

Farmer Kate Pike starts seeds at Holiday Brook Farm on Thursday, March 4, 2021, in Dalton, Mass., with her 2-year-old daughter Isla imitating her every move. Pike is starting kale and other hearty vegetables while her daughter is working with expired soybeans because they are a little easier to handle. Isla often works full days with her mother on the farm. | Ben Garver, The Berkshire Eagle via Associated Press

Where priorities shift

The new report takes two popular theories about falling fertility and adds a new layer that considers personal attitudes about how people perceive the relative value of work compared to family, said Stone.

The “Second Demographic Transition” theory says fertility has declined because of a shift toward individuals pursuing their goals and personal satisfaction through work, ahead of other arenas, like family. The “Two-Part Gender Revolution” theory says women have achieved more equality in settings like employment, education and the legal realm than at home, where they still do far more work than their male partners. Having more children would just make women work harder.

“These explanations don’t actually have to be in competition; there’s a lot of synergy between them,” Stone said.

The report said it doesn’t matter how well a couple divides chores at home or how little they care about materialism, “if their highest priority is located in increasingly competitive and unstable workplaces, and if neither partner regards the household-based element of their life as primary, then fertility is likely to be low.”

DeRose and Stone agree that self-expression matters and that women facing a “second shift” have reason to limit their fertility. But what they find “striking” is that the relationship between “workist” attitudes in highly developed countries has so much greater effect on fertility than the so-called “U-curve” of gender equality. “Workism,” they conclude, is ”independently and highly predictive of fertility outcomes and preferences.“

The researchers used data from the World Values Survey/European Values Survey to see how individuals placed importance on work and family and the interaction with gender role attitudes.

Then they duplicated their findings using other surveys. In all, they considered more than a quarter-million survey responses, Stone said.

Among their findings:

  • Decadelong decreases in the birth rates in high-income countries are partially the result of the rising value people put on work as a core value and sense of identity.
  • That was even true in Nordic countries where egalitarian values and generous social welfare policies were hailed as protecting birthrate levels before fertility started dropping there, too, around 2008.
  • Government policies that target workers to bolster fertility — such as universal child care and parental leave programs — could “undermine their efforts as they strengthen a ‘workist’ life-script rather than a ‘familist’ script,” the report said.
Cooks Jose Robledo, left, and Maria Cruz prepare part of the 450 meals that Rooh restaurant owner Manish Mallick delivered to I Grow Chicago, in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, on July 13, 2020. | Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated Press

Striking differences

People care about their work for many reasons, said DeRose, also an assistant professor of sociology at The Catholic University of America and research director of the institute’s World Family Map project. But the “why” has different apparent impact.

For both men and women, the issue is the perceived importance of work, not simply the paycheck. A “meaningful career” aspect predicted lower fertility, while valuing work because it provides a good standard of living did not. And Stone said existing popular theories haven’t addressed why a personal identity tied into family should be seen as less important than a work-focused identity.

There’s no question that making work and family easier to balance is good for fertility, said Stone, who notes he strongly favors more generous maternal or parental leave. But messaging matters, too. “Publicly communicating a work-focused life script” in a way that provides support only to those following that script is problematic, he told the Deseret News.

Both DeRose and Stone point out that many parents both choose to work, while others make adjustments so that one parent can stay home with their children.

“Particularly when we’re talking about a two-parent household, one parent working is not a social pathology. If we’re worried about low fertility rates, we in particular have to be careful balancing and supporting flexibility in work and family and not treating nonworking parenthood as an inferior class of parenthood or less worthy of public support,” said Stone, also chief information officer of the population forecast firm Demographic Intelligence. “We don’t want to write policies in such a way that they treat working parents as superior to nonworking parents.”

They said empirical studies typically find cash allowances increase fertility rates more for each taxpayer dollar spent than funding for child care does. Cash allowances provide a flat amount of money to help with the cost of raising children, possibly based on family income levels. They let families reduce work, while child care policies normalize work-focused family models even more.

The idea of a child allowance in some form is gaining interest in Congress and among family policy wonks nationwide. A version proposed by Romney has gained a great deal of attention. He suggests a child tax credit of $350 for children under 6 and $250 for older kids to 15, paid monthly and capped at $1,250 a family. His plan phases out at a relatively high income level. The Social Security Administration would manage the payments. Other versions, some managed through the IRS, are being floated, too.

According to the report, “More generally, encouraging more flexible work arrangements, rolling back strict licensure and certification rules for work, and tackling ‘salaryman’ norms could all be beneficial pro-natal strategies — not because they would give women greater equality at home and work (although they certainly would), but because they would facilitate reprioritization of family life over work life for all parents.”

DeRose finds cause for concern when work and family priorities get out of balance. “I think work is good. I do think, though, that it can be something that helps keep us in a low-fertility trap when we find so much purpose in nonreproductive activities” that impinge on having a family.

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DeRose describers herself as both pro-work and pro-family and said she hopes the research will lead people to think about finding a balance. “I definitely don’t want people to look at the research and say, ‘Oh, those conservatives are bashing work.’” And public policy can’t solve low fertility just by getting men to do more laundry, either, she adds. “There are other obstacles that need to be tackled.”

She suspects the tension arises not from lack of love of family or of work, but from the attempt to have it all. Sometimes, when having children gets put off for the sake of establishing secure finances, “there’s plenty of time for consumerism to grow, and for family to recede,” she said. If that time becomes extended, it can contribute to falling fertility rates and the future ramifications for entire countries.

“I’m not preaching family over work,” she said. “But family over work is better for fertility and I consider higher fertility good” where birth rates are low.

The ramifications of letting fertility slide could be dire, experts have said, from too few skilled workers for a robust economy to more people needing help than workers to support the programs designed to provide the help. Predictions include everything from reduced Social Security payments to school closures and a housing market where nothing moves.

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