What do France and Sweden have in common ?
They are among the few European countries which are not experiencing a dramatic decline in birth rates – in large part thanks to effective public policies. In Poland women have an average of 1.4 children during their life. The numbers are almost identical in Italy, Spain, Germany. They are even lower in some East Asian countries, 1.2 in Korea, 1.15 in Singapore. Despite such difference experiences in other countries France and Sweden have managed to maintain the birth rates around what is needed to replace generations. So, what are these two countries doing ? What do their policies have in common ?
Not only experience
Actually – not that much. The two systems differ in almost every respect. They are based on different philosophies, they are aimed at different objectives, and they include different measures.
The decision to have a child is probably one of the most important a couple, and a woman, can make. It is a decision that is influenced by a multiplicity of factors as we know from our own experience. It is hence no surprise that research cannot identify any single measure that has a substantial impact on birth rates. Each measure has its rationale and its usefulness – for example well-targeted family benefits can help reduce the number of children who grow in poverty – but in and by itself it does not raise the birth rates. What works is a combination of measures.
In today’s world, women often feel they may have to choose between a fulfilling professional and social life and a successful family life. When they have to make such a choice, at least some of them will decide not to have children. Interestingly countries that have tried to support traditional family models have been unsuccessful at raising birth rates, probably because they made the need for a choice between motherhood and “modernity” even starker. What successful countries have done is to make it possible for women to have both: a fulfilling professional and social life and a successful family life.
The way this is done reflects each country’s culture. The current French family policy is the result of a compromise between the objectives of raising fertility, providing income support to families, and promoting the work-family balance. Swedish family policies are not directly aimed at encouraging childbirth: their main goal has rather been to support women’s participation in the labor force and to promote gender equality. Yet, both sets of measures work. They work because they respond to the actual issues families, and especially women, are facing in a given cultural context. They also work because they are accompanied by policies aimed at supporting broader and complementary social changes, for example a greater focus on gender equity.
There is no magic bullet. And there is no “global good practice” that Poland could adopt and replicate. What has worked is to find ways in each culture, in each society, to make it possible for women, not to have to choose between job and family. What has worked is to engage with women, and with their husbands or partners, to discuss what they need so they can have both.