The conventional wisdom goes like this:
Countries which have traditional cultures (and which lack access to modern contraception) have high fertility rates. Countries in which women want to build careers but there is no social welfare support structure in the form of parental leave, subsidized daycare, and the like (and in which, as a recent Foreign Policy article, “How to Fix the Baby Bust,” demonstrated, workplace culture demands long inflexible work hours), have fertility rates well below replacement. And countries such as Sweden, with its heavily subsidized, always-available daycare, generous parental leave shared by both parents, and a culture ordered around community and family life rather than work, hit the “sweet spot” of replacement-level fertility rates.
Further, that conventional wisdom goes, the United States had maintained a replacement-level fertility rate due to the high fertility of immigrants, and the high rate of unintended pregnancies. Now that women are increasingly using LARCs (long-acting reversible contraceptives such as IUDs and implants), we will need new strategies to boost our birthrate and prevent unwanted consequences such as an imbalance in young and old and an insufficient supply of young people to support the aged, and we will need to adopt the generous policies of a country like Sweden to induce more couples to procreate.
Except that the notion of a replacement rate fertility in Sweden is itself a bit of a fantasy. As of 2018, the total fertility rate in Sweden was 1.76 children per woman. Among native-born Swedes, it was even lower, at 1.67. To be sure, this rate is higher than that of such countries as Germany (1.59 in 2016, or 1.46 among women with German citizenship), and even slightly higher than the record low rate of 1.72 recorded in the United States in 2018, but it’s still not the replacement-level of 2.1.
What’s more, the Swedish birth rate has fluctuated considerably and has hit the magic marker of “replacement rate” only rarely since 1970, with troughs in the late 70s/early 80s, again in the late 90s, and a downward trend again since 2010.
What accounts for this?
A 2018 Mercatornet article explains the apparent recovery of fertility rates in the late 80s as a fluke:
It turns out that Sweden’s so-called “success” in the early 1990s was a statistical fluke. A change in policy regarding eligibility for parents insurance, called a “speed premium,” had the one-time effect of reducing the spacing between first and second births. This threw off calculations of the Total Fertility Rate, but this change did not significantly increase the total number of children born per family. Judged empirically, then, the Swedish model simply did not work; its so-called “success” in the 1990s was a Euro-urban-legend.
As to the spike and drop in the 2000s, this article finds an explanation in the rising levels of immigration and growing fertility rates among immigrants, but this would appear not to be borne out by the data. (Another source claims a much higher divergence between native-born and foreign-born women, and the reason for the discrepancy is not apparent.) However, if the spike peaking at around 1990 was due to shifting incentives, it stands to reason that the drop and subsequent recovery might be similarly explainable, and a 2008 paper by Stockholm University researcher Gunnar Andersson shows relatively level rates for the other Nordic countries during this time period, and a convergence by Sweden with the remaining three by 2006.
As to the drop in fertility rates since their 2010 peak, the Straits Times reports that this is a worry shared with other Nordic countries, with no particular explanation except for general “financial uncertainty and a sharp rise in housing costs.”
What’s more, Andersson provides further insight into the Swedish approach. He notes,
An important aspect of Swedish policies is that they are directed towards individuals and not families as such. They have no intention of supporting certain family forms, such as marriage, over others.
He also notes that both the Swedish income tax system and its Social Security system function on an individual basis, with no particular recognition of the marital status of a given individual (see TheLocal.se on the tax system and Business-Sweden.se for Social Security.) This, among other policies, works to promote the “dual bread-winner model of Sweden.” Again, Andersson writes,
It is important to note that Swedish family policy never has been directed specifically at encouraging childbearing but instead have been aimed to strengthen women’s attachment to the labor market and to promote gender and social equality. The focus has been on enabling individuals to pursue their family and occupational tracks without being too strongly dependent on other individuals or being constrained by various institutional factors. Policies are explicitly directed towards individuals and not towards families as such.
The operating assumption is that Swedish men and women will simply naturally want to have replacement-rate numbers of children, on average, so long as there are no impediments to this choice.
Now, it might well be that the present low birth rates in Sweden are again a fluke. Or perhaps, in the same way as Americans defer car purchases during economic downturns and then return to the dealers when times are good, this was again a pattern of Swedish parents having babies earlier than they otherwise would have, during the pre-recession 2000s. But, at the very least, these figures call into question the conventional wisdom that the path to replacement-level fertility rates is to emulate Sweden.
What do you think? You’re invited to comment at JaneTheActuary.com!
Elizabeth Bauer, Contributor