The Myrdals and feminist natalism

Re this Yglesias post about Sweden, and comment thread, female participation in the labor force is influenced by government policies as well as culture, such as subsidized daycare and paid parental leave, with a month reserved for daddies, which makes it easier for both parents to never leave the workforce. (There’s also surely a feedback loop between policies and culture.)

The Swedish approach goes back all the way to the 30’s and the natalist feminist stance Gunnar and esp. Alva Myrdal persuaded the Social Democrat government to adopt. Continental countries, maybe especially CDU-dominated Germany chose a very different approach, which encouraged women to be homemakers, and now perhaps discourages them from becoming mothers.

The Myrdals were motivated by feminism, but also by their worries about declining birth rates in the 30s, and interest in Edward’s favorite subject, the connection between economics and demography. People stopped paying attention to those issues when the baby boom started.

That Sweden’s birth rates haven’t declined to the same extent as Germany’s is then the outcome of conscious policies.

Natalism is generally associated with reactionary politics in many countries, but feminist natalism is the kind that actually works.

15 thoughts on “The Myrdals and feminist natalism

  1. “That Sweden’s birth rates haven’t declined to the same extent as Germany’s is then the outcome of conscious policies.”

    It’s not that easy, especially if you’re using Germany as the comparison.

    1) There’s the immigration factor. The foreign-born women in Sweden – who, due to their foreign background, obviously haven’t been indoctrinated by this grand Swedish cultural project going back all the way to the ’30s – boast a 2.2 fertility rate against the more modest 1.6 rate of native Swedish ladies.

    Germany has, of course, proportionally an even larger first- and second-generation immigrant population (by the third generation, I’d imagine that the rate has pretty much converged). Still, if we’re speaking of success stories of long-term natalist politics taking place over the decades, we should obviously consider a comparison between the fertility rates of native German women and native Swedish women.

    I’m sure that Edward can provide the relevant statistics, and I’m sure that the German rate is still lower, but is it significantly lower?

    And even then, there’s another factor to consider:

    2) East Germany and its demographic paralysis before and after the reunification are skewing the German figure. I’d imagine that if Sweden had annexed some random patch of former communist real estate back in the ’90s, the Swedish demographics would look just as bad.

    “Natalism is generally associated with reactionary politics in many countries, but feminist natalism is the kind that actually works.”

    Perhaps, but I don’t think that you’re backing up this argument adequately. Moreover, “has not declined to the same extent as Germany” is not the same as “_actually works_”. Decline is still decline, and announcing that Sweden is doing (moderately?)better than the demographic basket-case of West Europe is hardly a reason for making grand statements about the success story of the Swedish social policy.


    J. J.

  2. This was a history lesson, but we’ve blogged about this before, like the post about the economist article. The pattern holds when you look at all countries.

  3. Personally, I think economic incentives are, and always have been, a major driving force when deciding in having children. Personally, I am married with no kids, and economy is the only reason we have no kids (I’m Norwegian, not Swede, though). Yes, Norway, as well as Sweden, has generous welfare benefits for mothers, but most of these benefits are only available to those who have already entered the labour market, and had a job for at least 10 months prior to getting pregnant. In world where entry the the labourmarket is relatively easy, and happen at a young age, this makes perfect sense.

    But tat is not the case anymore. Women study longer, and as students, they have no access to the generous benefits, and they won’t have until they have worked for 10 months. Combine this with long education, and the typical career pressure to stay in the job without breaks, and the falling fertility makes perfect sense.

    For highly educated, female, immigrants, like my wife, this is particularily frustrating. Despite speaking four languages and having a Norwegian MSc., she have not been able to enter the labour market, and she can’t afford children, hence wasting her best years waiting for a job so that she can work 10 month in order to be eligible for sufficient welfare benefits to afford kids. We would have had kids many years ago, had it been affordable, but it’s not.

    Of course, immigrant families with low-skilled females find themselves in a different situation: Since the women do not have the skills and background necessary for meaningful entry to the labour market, they are doomed to stay at home, so then they, of course, may just as well have kids and get the limited benefits you can receive without previous labour market participation. This is also often supported by cultural traits, hence economics and culture goes hand in hand, and we develop an underclass of immigrants with low-skilled females, poor families, and over-worked fathers. Does not sound like a good idea to me.

    Instead, I think there should be generous benefits for female students who take a few years off from their studies in oder to have kids. Then, we will see women giving birth earlier, when they are best suited to do so, and most likely also having a higher number of kids. It will not but the normal strains on employers either, since the babymaking is already done with upon access to the labour market. And it will hopefully encourage a higher proportion og low-skilled immigrant females to develop their skills and competence, although slowly.

    I don’t know the differences between Sweden and Germany, but I don’t think the Scandinavian systems are very comprehensive at present,if we want to increase fertility among natives, and perhaps also encourage women o give birth in their early to mid twenties, when they are best suited to do so.

    An interesting account on the Nordic systems, including the challenges given by ageing, can be found here:

    I do not agree with al the conclusions, however. I think a combination of immigration and increased birth rates will have the desired effect.

  4. As an American married to a German, Tord’s post sounds very familiar. I’ve heard of many German women delaying motherhood, until they get a job, so they can leave the job and receive the baby benefits of working mothers. This is clearly a perverse result for well intended policies. It also supports the conservative “socialism erodes values” arguement. While not as intelectually inspiring, the American model yields better results. Women have babies when they want to have babies. Women work when they want to work, and thanks to a strong economy ( though not this year) they can leave and reenter the labor force at will. I do however believe that we should provide some sort of subsidies for daycare.

  5. @ Barro

    I think the major problem is that it is economically totally infeasible to have children before you have access to the welfare benefits. Remembe that the alternative costs for these women is a well paid job and of course future career moves.

    Most of the high-fertile american women are women whose alternative costs to having kids are either very low paid jobs, or simply unemployment. I think that is an important aspect of the story that you miss.

    Many immigrant women in Europe have very many kids. Typically, these are immigrant women from countries where women enjoy very few opportunities outside the kitchen and where women in general have an skill level that effectively prevents them from ever entering the labourmarkets of Western Europe in a meaningful way (and this, of course, also reinforces certain values that are often embedded in the culture of the womans family).

  6. I agree it is about economy. Look the CEE numbers. Women had ca 1,8 – 2,1 children average (1990)
    1992 the reform hit the fan. This numbers went down on 1,2. Why? The benefits went down. The creches were closed. Families must be responsible for the children alone. Women stated be discriminated on the labour market against more than in the past.
    If you want have a child, you have possibilities
    a) to stay with the child at home, which you cannot afford (one of my classmate hat to change his job, his wife was on maternity leave with second child and their were on the poverty level. He was earning 1,7 of country average)
    b) to pay baby sitting, which you cannot afford (80 – 150% of you income)
    c) to put your children in some state institute, which is badly run and has no places (Czechoslovakia had places for 20% of children in 1990, today for a 1%)

    Estonia decided that women must be given the chance to have both the work and children. They have places for 20% of children and 1,55 child per women (higher in post communist EU)

  7. @ Barro

    US had 2,1 child per women. True. “American” women, e. i. women born in US have only 1.8 child per women and even this number is so high thanks second generation Hispanic women Without them it is 1,6 children per women. I remember that I talk about children with some USians and they told me repeatedly. We do not have children, they are to expensive.

  8. “That Sweden’s birth rates haven’t declined to the same extent as Germany’s is then the outcome of conscious policies.”

    But then the Finnish birth rate has declined maybe the _worst_ EU-wise, and we have essentially the same policy than Sweden in this regard. How do you explain that?

  9. “But then the Finnish birth rate has declined maybe the _worst_ EU-wise, and we have essentially the same policy than Sweden in this regard. How do you explain that?”

    Fewer Turks/Pakistanis? Fewer refugees?

  10. “Fewer Turks/Pakistanis? Fewer refugees?”

    Compared to Sweden, definitely. But then Germany, too, is AFAIK suffering from an anemic birth rate, and they have a sizeable immigrant minority.

    What I’m aiming at is that there’s probably more at work here than mere policy differences, which in any case seem to be rather small between countries such as Sweden and (at least northern) Germany. I have a second flat in Berlin and spend some considerable time there, and at least from what I’ve heard and seen their Kita (i.e. daycare) system is _very_ similar to the one we have here in Scandinavia – and this, AFAIK, applies to state subsidies and parental benefits too.

    So if there really is a big difference between the Myrdalian model and the German one, well, I at least can’t see it myself!

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