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More Workism, Fewer Babies

A new report pokes holes in girlboss feminism.

The fertility rate in America would be higher if we made it easier for women to balance work and family—so goes one theory. Universal child care and other forms of aid to working mothers are this theory’s favored policy solutions.

But what if the problem is not work but workism? That is the thesis of a new report from the Institute for Family Studies by Laurie DeRose and Lyman Stone, More Work, Fewer Babies: What Does Workism Have to Do with Falling Fertility?

“Workism,” as DeRose defines it, is any culture where a person’s job has “a moral and even an ideological value where self-expression is through work.” The report’s evidence shows that countries that place a high value on work as a source of meaning have low fertility, even when those countries support families in other ways.

The Nordic countries used to be cited as proof that you could have a modern, self-expressive, feminist culture and high fertility, as long as government supported childbearing with generous social benefits and egalitarian-minded men pitched in around the house to ease the burden of women’s “second shift.”

Unfortunately for that argument, the Nordic countries have all seen a sharp drop in fertility in the last ten years. Finland, Norway, and Iceland are all now at their lowest birthrates ever recorded.

To turn those trends around, governments should not focus on child care, paid parental leave, or other such work-focused programs, because, according to this report, any solution that “raises the salience of career-mindedness” will not succeed in raising fertility. Framing government support for families as a matter of making it easier for moms to get back to work is therefore a trap.

“Easing work–life balance is pro-natal,” Stone explains, but “increasing social emphasis on work: anti-natal.”

The implicit target of this report is the brand of girlboss feminism that says that the solution to any family or fertility problem is to make women feel more empowered. If women aren’t having as many children as they would like to have, then it must be because they are being constrained by the patriarchy (in which case their husbands and bosses need to be more feminist) or a lack of resources (in which case give them money).  I wrote a little bit here about why more money is not an adequate solution to America’s family crisis. But for more on why work-oriented feminist empowerment is not adequate either, read this new report.

about the author

Helen Andrews is a senior editor at The American Conservative, and the author of BOOMERS: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster (Sentinel, January 2021). She has worked at the Washington Examiner and National Review, and as a think tank researcher at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Yale University. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, First Things, The Claremont Review of Books, Hedgehog Review, and many others. You can follow her on Twitter at @herandrews.

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