General News, Birth decline in southern Europe: Emancipation is to blame, not the traditional family, 17.10.2014

Birth decline in southern Europe: Emancipation is to blame, not the traditional family


In the south of Europe there is not only a lack of money but also of children. Regions once known for their wealth of youth, such as southern Italy, turn slowly but steadily into collective nursing homes due to the ongoing birth rate decline. Whoever should shoulder the associated supply loads is open for debate, often there is a lack of work and earning opportunities for the young at the same time(1). However, one thing is certain: the current financial crisis is only the tip of the iceberg for social security charges and all future Euro-citizens will pay for this in times of a transfer union. The potential tax and contribution payer base is thinning ever more. It’s an inevitable consequence of a decline in birth rates below generation replacement that’s been happening across Europe since the 1970s. In Southern Europe the birth decline is so dramatic that the number of births in Italy, Spain and especially in Portugal has fallen deeper than anywhere else in Europe(2).

Demographers interpret this birth defect in Southern Europe as a "Pyrrhic victory" of the "strong family system". In this traditional culture, the family leaves its mark on the course of one’s life. Young people stay much longer in the family home than in northern Europe, often only leaving when they get married and start their own family. The decisions for their own family requires economic independence but southern Europe lacks adequate and sufficiently secure jobs for young workers. Couples marry late and push the decision to have children even further back(3). This postponement of birth results in the infamous "rush hour of life": in the fourth decade of their life, well-qualified young women in particular have the problem of balancing their job and family "simultaneously”(4). At the same time there is a lack of public support for families - this applies to material as well as cash benefits(5). Compared to the relatively (!) generous pensions, state benefits for families in southern Europe are underdeveloped. Nevertheless, contributions of families to communities are considered self-evident. They should not only educate children but also absorb unemployed youth and provide care for the elderly(6). The state promotes the family only marginally, even though it relies on them as gap-fillers for its weak social system.

This “structural ruthlessness” (Franz-Xaver Kaufmann) against young families explains, at least partly, the plight of southern Europe. In journalism, on the other hand, a different "explanation" prevails, one better suited to widespread patterns of interpretation. In southern Europe, it is said, the “traditional” family is dominating, whereby the wife educates the children at home. Mothers have the dilemma of sacrificing their job, their own income and their personal independence in favour of their children. This "bourgeois trap” frightens the now emancipated southern European women from having children. Essentially, the southern European “family traditionalism” is to blame for the lethargic birth rate(7).

This feuilletonist view of Southern Europe is, however, hardly consistent with the reality. Be it employment for women, nonmarital births or divorces - practically all parameters of life pattern shift show that southern Europe is catching up its "deficit" toward the north. Social modernisation is particularly more advanced in the Iberian Peninsula. So more than 45% of the children in Portugal are born outside of marriage, a higher percentage than in Finland. At the same time, of Portugal, which had very high maternal employment rates before the crisis, falls in with the countries that have the highest divorce rates in Europe - these conditions probably can’t be simply referred to as "traditional" anymore (8).Spaniards are breaking radically from tradition as well. According to the Eurobarometer, a majority reject the "classic" division of labor in the family - British, German, and even Finns are more 'traditional' on this issue(9). The old image of the progressive north and conservative south of Europe has been gathering dust for some time. If one pursues the causes of the Mediterranean/European birth crisis they will not necessarily find them within the maligned tradition. On the contrary, this rapid shrinking is commonly due to welcomed emancipation.


(1) Particularly dramatic - the employment situation for the young generation is well known in Spain dar. example of numerous press reports: Ralph Schultze, “No jobs for Spain "; "Lost Generation" http://www.zeit.de/wirtschaft/2009-10/youth unemployment-spain-2
(2) See figure "Secular Decline in the Numbers of Children in Europe", from IDAF newsletter of weeks 17-18/2011
(3) Revealed by Ron Lesthaeghe/Johan Surkyn, “When History Moves On: The Foundations and Diffusion of a Second Demographic Transition”, pp.11-12
(4) For this issue, based on Germany: Norbert F. Pötzel, “The rush hour of life” in SPIEGEL SPECIAL 8/2006, 24.10.2006 http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/spiegelspecial/d-49324473.html
(5) See summary table for family support in OECD countries from IDAF newsletter of weeks 47-48/2010
(6) Revealing the role of family care in a European comparison: Hildegard Theobald, ”Care Policies, Care Labor Market and Inequality”; Sweden, Germany and Italy in Comparison, pp.257-281, in Berliner Journal of Sociology, Volume 18/2008
(7) Prototypical for this line of thinking - Steffen Kröhnert/Rainer Kling Wood: “Emancipation Instead of Child Support”. The European reference teaches what can be done to increase birth rates, Berlin 2008, available at www.berlin-institut.org . In addition to the "traditional" "division of labor in the family, the authors also see a strong role for marriage as being detrimental to a higher level of fertility (cf. ibid, p.15)
(8) In 2007, the employment rate of women with children under the age of 18 was 77% in Portugal - higher than, for example, in France (73%) or the UK (68.4 %). See Federal Statistical Office: Youth and Family in Europe, Wiesbaden 2009, p.47 (Table 2.1). To move away from the traditional marriage morality see pictures below as well as "Nonmarital Births in Europe" and “Divorce Trends in Europe"
(9) Refer to figure "Family and Role Models in Europe", IDAF Newsletter Week 23-2009 http://www.i-daf.org/177-0-Woche-23-2009.html