If we want a future, we must promote ‘familism’ not ‘workism’

In many countries, including Ireland, not enough babies are being born to prevent the population ageing and declining. Many factors are at work, including the cost of living. But another, linked factor, is that increasingly we prioritise work over family, that is ‘workism’ supplants ‘familism’.

Different strategies have been implemented by governments to tackle low fertility among couples, including subsidised day-care but a new report by the Institute for Family Study suggests this kind of approach can backfire because it still promotes the idea that work, and the workplace, are more important than family and the home.

A common assumption in modern societies is that if men and women share household chores equally, and women can be facilitated to do as many hours paid work as men via affordable day-care, then the number of births will go up.

But the IFS’s new report, “More work, fewer babies” challenges this assumption and says that the more a society values the workplace and careers (‘workism’), the more the fertility rate will drop.

The report finds that in wealthy countries work is not simply a necessity but also an important source of value and meaning. Providing more benefits aimed at workers (universal child-care, parental leave programs, etc.) enforces what the authors of the report call a “workist” attitude. Government policies that promote more time at work can reduce fertility rates further.

The report focuses on the Nordic countries because they introduced affordable day-care and generous parental leave programmes a long time ago. For a while it seemed to some that this encouraged more child-bearing, but in fact all of the Nordic countries have below replacement fertility levels.

The report claims that Nordic policies are too focused on the division of labour between men and women and focus “not enough attention on the value that individuals and society directly place on work and family”. (p. 5) The policies reinforce the idea that work is the centre of meaning in life, and so, fully egalitarian couples express their mutual commitment by supporting each other’s success at work, rather than spending more time as a family. “Workism is associated with suppressed fertility at high level of socioeconomic development” (p. 8)

Instead “familism”, the valued placed on family, supports having children. Evidence from international databases shows that those couples who value family more than work have more children. Negative fertility effects are concentrated among those individuals – both men and women – who rate work more highly than family. This pattern can be observed in all countries, but it is more pronounced in wealthiest countries, with robust social welfare, where individuals work more for the accomplishment of personally motivated projects, rather than simply for their material well-being.

This confirms that “familism”, more than gender equality, is associated with more procreation.

This is true also on a country level. When “workism” declines, as it has happened for instance in Poland between 2012 and 2017, fertility increases.

The report concludes that “workism is a clearly identifiable social phenomenon significantly associated with fertility outcomes”. (p. 17) When couples regard their home, rather than the workplace, as the primary value of their live, their fertility will be higher. If we want a future as a society we have to promote ‘familism’ over ‘workism’.