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Workism and Falling Fertility

Developed countries have averaged less than two children per woman for over forty years. Nonetheless, the idea that fertility rates in advanced societies could be kept at or near the replacement rate of about two children per woman is buttressed by a body of literature arguing that a return to the two-child family becomes more practical with advances in gender equity. In other words, when men “lean in” more on the home front, and both corporate and national policy become more supportive of combining work and childrearing, the lowest fertility levels will be avoided. Egalitarian values and generous social welfare states had been credited with protecting the Nordic countries in particular from very low fertility rates, yet since 2008, birth rates in those countries have plummeted, as Figure 1 shows.

This recent trend is more in keeping with “Second Demographic Transition” theory that emphasizes the rise of individualist attitudes as a cause for changing family dynamics and falling fertility.

Lyman Stone and I have argued that the debate about the potential for fertility recovery can be enriched by highlighting attitudes toward work and family per se. Questions about whether families can manage to have more children by dividing the same work in ever-more egalitarian ways, or whether individual self-actualization must forever be at odds with childbearing, both miss an important fact: families must interact with the market to achieve their goals. When work/family reconciliation is viewed through a gender equity lens, the focus is on the division of labor, with not enough attention on the value that individuals and societies directly place on work and family. Thus, our approach concurs with Ron Lesthaeghe and others, who suggest that change in value orientation may influence fertility. But whereas Lesthaeghe credits low fertility to a shift from materialist to post-materialist values, we emphasize that increasingly work-related attitudes (while putatively “materialist”) may in fact be connected to how individuals find meaning in their life. Work can be a place of socialization, friendship, public service, and status, i.e., post-materialist values.

The implication of this argument is that individualism is not the only important attitude contributing to low fertility: the importance people ascribe to work and family also matters. The rise of exceptionally “work-focused” value sets and life courses means that achieving work-family balance isn’t just about employment norms adjusting to the growing complexity of individual aspirations for work and family—it can also mean that many find their preferred balance to be more work and less family.

The Case of The Nordics

Between 2010 and the latest survey wave, the average importance assigned to work rose appreciably in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands, while falling in Denmark and Iceland. While in the long run, pro-work attitudes remain below previous record-highs, this rise in “workist” attitudes is unusual given the previously noted general decline in assessed importance of work as countries become wealthier. Assessed importance of family has been more stable and remains far higher than assessed importance of work in almost all countries and survey waves.

But do changes in work attitudes really predict changes in fertility? As a first approach to this question, we compared work attitudes in the latest WVS/EVS round to the prior round, as well as fertility in those years, as shown the figure below. If countries with large increases in workism, like Finland, have very different trends from countries with large decreases, like Denmark, that would suggest support for our theory connecting work attitudes to fertility.

Denmark, the only Nordic country with a decrease in work importance, also had the smallest decline in fertility over the period measured. Finland, meanwhile, had the biggest rise in work importance, along with the largest fertility decline. Trends for Iceland and Norway do not fit the pattern as well.

To address this more systematically, we built a model of fertility that includes a country’s Human Development Index (HDI) score, a measure of gender attitudes (described in detail below), and “net workism,” defined as the average importance assigned to work minus the average importance assigned to family. Wolfgang Lutz noted that the recent fertility decline in Nordic countries:

is particularly puzzling given that these countries used to be seen as the prime examples for the premise that ensuring the compatibility of work and family and having generous child support systems will result in relatively high fertility levels. . . . Demography is still groping in the dark for explanations for these changes.

Given that the literature on advanced countries already emphasizes work/family reconciliation, our explicit modelling of workist and familist values is hardly “groping in the dark.” It is, nonetheless, an innovation because previous research has included work and family as behavioral or policy variables, rather than attitudinal ones.

While we hardly cast a flood lamp on the Nordic puzzle—in Norway and Iceland our model did not improve upon predictions from human development and gender equity alone—fertility trajectories in the other four Nordic countries were better understood when appreciating that workism is associated with suppressed fertility at high levels of socioeconomic development.

We also note that regardless of the relationship between public attitudes and fertility, higher Human Development Index scores are associated with lower fertility. This means that if countries progress in both overall human development and gender equity, their fertility would not necessarily see a large recovery. Across all the Nordic countries, predictions without net workism show—at best—steady fertility: in most time periods, it is declining. In contrast, net workism helps explain some of the ups and downs in country-level fertility in recent decades, even though we are still “groping in the dark” to understand the trends in Norway and Iceland.

Workism and Fertility Worldwide

If the value placed on family—which we refer to as familism—supports procreation, more familistic people could desire to have more children, be more persistent when facing obstacles to having more children, or both. Societies where familistic values are more common would share these fertility advantages. In contrast, placing a high degree of value on work can dampen fertility desires and make them less likely to be realized: workist individuals would be expected to have fewer children, and societies where workism is common would have low fertility reinforced by prevailing norms.

The link between workism and fertility at the individual level: Workist and familist attitudes have very similar effects on childbearing for both men and women. It is not that family size suffers if women value work too much; rather, it is that work and family values are related to fertility among both men and women.

Nonetheless, gender role attitudes matter more among women than among men:

In each of the four work/family values categories, the fertility difference corresponding to gender role attitudes (between the dark and the light bars) is over twice as large among women than among men. In other words, individuals with egalitarian attitudes have fewer children (even though egalitarian societies tend to promote fertility), but progressive gender role attitudes seem to dampen women’s childbearing more than men’s.

Without brushing aside this gender difference, I want to put more emphasis on another important aspect the above figure: gender ideology doesn’t matter much for childbearing among those who assign high importance to family (both sets of green bars), but the differences by gender ideology are large among those valuing work over family (the first set of blue bars on the left): egalitarian men had 0.13 fewer children than other workist men, and egalitarian women had 0.30 fewer children than other workist women.

So, while we might see some support for the idea that gender egalitarianism among women is an important part of the low fertility story, it is much more accurate to conclude that workism is associated with low fertility, and more so among egalitarian women than others.

The link between workism and fertility at the country level: We further assessed whether prevailing attitudes toward work and family were associated with fertility levels and change over time within the 90 countries1 that were surveyed more than once by either the EVS or the WVS (341 total surveys).

We found that net workism (country average familism minus country average workism) is associated with lower fertility at high HDI values. Increases in net workism (i.e. higher self-rated importance of work alongside lower self-rated importance of family) predict fertility increases among lower-HDI countries, possibly consistent with the importance of work in these countries for enabling material survival and health. On the other hand, in higher-HDI countries where even very poor individuals tend to have long life expectancies and so increases in work and work ethic are less essential for survival, increases in the relative importance of work are associated with considerable decreases in fertility.

That is, valuing work seems to promote fertility in less developed countries (positive main effect of net workism), but depress fertility in more developed countries (negative interaction term between net workism and the HDI). This figure shows that net workism loses its positive effect on fertility when the HDI reaches about 0.65, and that net workism begins to have a negative effect when HDI is about 0.85.

When the Institute for Family Studies workism report was released, my co-author Lyman Stone and I understood that relationship in work still fulfilling primarily materialist values in countries with lower human development, but fulfilling postmaterialist values in countries with higher human development. Since then, thanks to some reflections by Tim Keller on the work of the philosopher Charles Taylor, I think I understand it still better. Taylor argued that two big shifts fueled expressive individualism. First there was material prosperity that privatized lives: Televisions replace porches; even the wash moved inside. And the other change—perfectly consonant with freer individualized lifestyles—was the sexual revolution.

As Keller put it: “In the past, you made money and you had sex as a way of building community. If you made money, it was for your family; if you made money, it was to bring your people up . . . if you had sex, it was to build a community, it was to have children, it was to nurture a relationship between husband and wife; it was a way of building community. Before WWII, you made money and you had sex in order to create community. After WWII, you made money and you had sex in order to create an identity.”

Being challenged to think about workism and familism on these terms, I’ve had to ask myself whether it really is just expressive individualism that creates a low fertility trap and the Second Demographic Transition theorists are right—that our focus on workism wasn’t so much a novel contribution to the fertility literature as it was a measurement of one aspect of expressive individualism. But then I realized that we had done exactly what we were seeking to do: identify which expressive norms are linked to lower fertility instead of just accepting inevitably low fertility. The follow conclusions the lay out why it is important to know that expressive norms related to work matter for fertility.


The recent and rapid decline in fertility across many countries, including highly egalitarian and individualist societies like Finland and Sweden, has challenged existing research paradigms. Regardless of how individualist or communitarian, egalitarian or otherwise, a couple may be, 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.

Certainly, expressive attitudes may matter as well, and doubtless women facing a “second shift” due to unequal domestic responsibilities have reasons to limit their fertility. Further, the incomplete gender revolution may contribute to “net workism” because the private sphere conflict over gender roles making work (relatively) peaceful.2 Nonetheless, it is striking that the relationship between workist attitudes among highly developed countries is significantly greater, in terms of the effect on fertility of the actually observed variation around the world, than the relationship between the much-heralded “U-curve” of gender equality and fertility.

Meanwhile, an outstanding question for the Second Demographic Transition theory has been why expressive norms are associated with lower fertility, or rather which specific expressive norms drive low fertility. Why couldn’t individuals find their personal expression through an identity as parents? Given that large shares of women report desiring more than two children, couldn’t expressive values be consistent with higher parities? We show that a key element of the general change towards expressive or individualist values is the changing significance of extremely career-focused attitudes among both men and women. The desire for meaningful or important work, not simply well-compensated work, is powerful, and has significant and negative implications for childbearing.

While efforts to achieve gender equality are prima facie desirable to governments for many reasons, gender equality which primarily rests on the normativity of career-mindedness may have unintended consequences, including low fertility rates. Likewise, the dynamics we describe here may help explain why most empirical studies have found that cash allowances increase fertility rates by more per public dollar spent than funding for, e.g., daycare or childcare: cash allowances allow families to reduce work, whereas daycare policies normalize work-focused family models even more. 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 or at work (although they certainly would), but because they would facilitate both men and women reprioritizing family life over work life.

In other words, policymakers confronting low fertility should think more in terms of enabling men and women to work less, rather than seeking to help them still “do family” while remaining career-centric. Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institute has said that we’re better at creating work-friendly families than family-friendly workplaces. We can do better. Workism is a facet of expressive individualism, but we can tackle the social structures that reinforce it and reinforce its fertility suppressing effects even before we succeed at a higher calling like that voiced by Robert Bellah to recapture vocation by using our work to serve God and love our neighbor.

This article is an American Affairs online exclusive, published December 20, 2021.

1 Great Britain and Northern Ireland were surveyed separately.

2 Hochschild, A. R. (1997). The time bind: When work becomes home and home becomes work. Macmillan.Kato, H. (2020). Does a relationship between fertility and labor participation of women really exist? Perspectives from time series analysis. International Journal of Economic Policy Studies, 14(1), 3-23.

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