Birth rates have reached extremely low levels in many countries around the world, including virtually all high-income countries. The causes of this decline and the solutions to it are of great interest to policymakers. People’s attitudes toward work—specifically the elevation of career advancement to a very high place in individual values—may influence fertility. The rise of “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; it can also mean that many men and women find their preferred balance to be more work and less family.
This report builds on existing theories seeking to explain low fertility. The “Second Demographic Transition”1 theory emphasizes the rise of individualist attitudes as a cause for falling fertility. In contrast, the “Two-Part Gender Revolution”2 theory suggests that change in gender equality occurred first in public contexts (legal, educational, workplace), and only later in private contexts (shared child care and domestic work). This delay yields continued private inequities, curtailing fertility as women shoulder a disproportionate share of work at home. If men bore an equal share, fertility limitation might be less necessary.
We argue that the importance people ascribe to work and family matters for fertility. To demonstrate the implications of these values, which we refer to as “workism” and “familism,” we explore the relationship between work, family, gender role attitudes, and fertility across four different datasets. Our primary analysis uses data from the World Values Survey/European Values Survey to assess how the survey-reported importance of family and work interact with gender role attitudes to influence national- and individual-level fertility outcomes across numerous societies and time periods. We find that high-income countries that become more workist experience large associated declines in fertility. More specifically, we show that:
- Highly work-focused values and social attitudes among both men and women are strongly associated with lower birth rates in wealthy countries.
- The decline in birth rates over the last decade across many high-income countries—including some Nordic countries—can be partly explained by the rising importance individuals assign to work as a source of value and meaning in life.
- Government policies that try to increase fertility by providing more benefits aimed at workers, such as universal child care or parental leave programs, may undermine their efforts as they strengthen a “workist” life-script rather than a “familist” one.
This strong relationship between work attitudes and fertility outcomes is an important finding for countries with low fertility. For governments, it highlights the difficulty of attempting to boost fertility by making work more compatible with family. To the extent that family policy helps encourage more time at work, policies aimed at achieving “work/life balance” may be doomed to failure. Reforms that substantially reduce the burden of market work on families are more likely to yield benefits in the long run.