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  • Men’s unemployment is a universal fertility dampener. Tweet This
  • Oláh and her colleagues conclude that the first phase of the gender revolution “does not reduce the importance for contemporary families of men as breadwinners." Tweet This
  • Both partners in a couple are less likely to plan to conceive within three years when the man is unemployed.  Tweet This
Category: Women, Work-Family, Men

In May, Livia Sz. Oláh, Rudolf Richter, and Irena E. Kotowska compiled six articles published in Demographic Research between November 2017 and April 2019 into a “Special Collection on the new roles of women and men and implications for families and societies.”1 Theirs was not simply an editorial task: the authors also introduced the collection with a brilliant synthesis of an important body of work. 

As I attempt to translate their summary, I find myself reflecting on the whole process of making the familiar strange. That’s what sociologists do: we make something most take for granted strange by looking at it from a different perspective—especially a perspective that includes the characteristics of societies (not just individuals). So I’ll start with the familiar assumption that a couple decides how they will take care of their family based on their joint personal preferences.

For example, how my husband and I divvy up paid work and domestic work is best explained by details about us, e.g., he does more child care than many dads because he is old enough to be retired; I enjoy paid work more than many moms because my education makes it easier to get fun, high-paying jobs. But Oláh, Richter, and Kotowska take the division of labor my husband and I employ into relatively “strange” territory when they consider how the welfare state and the gender revolution intersect in a context of economic uncertainty.

They start with the structural changes that have propelled the first phase of the gender revolution—women’s labor force participation becoming normative. Families can rarely prosper with a single wage earner because of the declines in men’s real wages (and women’s wages still haven’t caught up). Even couples that could afford to be interdependent with one income might not choose to do so because high rates of partnership instability evoke the possibility that one of the many new accepted family forms might be theirs in the future. The authors then proceed to review how evolving gender roles play out under conditions of national and global insecurity. 

It turns out that men’s unemployment is a universal fertility dampener. It doesn’t matter whether the national government provides few benefits or generous welfare; it doesn’t matter whether the economy is experiencing recession or recovery. Both partners in a couple are less likely to plan to conceive within three years when the man is unemployed. 

In contrast, younger couples in which the woman lacks job security are just as likely to plan to have a child as couples in which the woman’s employment is secure—but only in more liberal welfare regimes. Women’s job insecurity is an obstacle to childbearing in post-socialist and familialistic welfare regimes. That means that if you believe that a couple’s childbearing plans depend on how secure their jobs are, you appear to be correct for men everywhere but only correct for women in some places. This is the Sociological Imagination: individual biography intersecting with social structures (like government benefits) in ways that make the same biographical details play out differently depending on context. 

Why isn’t the effect of men’s employment on childbearing context dependent? The two leading answers to that question are 1) because of essential differences between men and women—reproduction influences her productivity more than his, so his productive abilities are crucial in supporting reproduction, and 2) because the gender revolution is incomplete—childbearing is such a small part of childrearing that when society finishes reorganizing so that childrearing doesn’t fall disproportionately on women, men’s and women’s employment will then affect fertility the same way.

The effects of economic crisis are already similar for more mature men and women across countries. After the Global Financial Crisis of 2007‒2008, both those with secure incomes and those without were less likely to plan to have a child soon.

Family decisions include more than childbearing. Union (in)stability is a huge feature of family life. Here again, it isn’t just individual characteristics that matter. Polish and Italian couples with a working wife are more likely to divorce, whereas her labor force status doesn’t influence union stability in Hungary and Germany. The first phase of the gender revolution does not have to destabilize partnerships, but it can depending on societal gender norms and state support.

The second phase of the gender revolution—men’s increased involvement in domestic work—cannot be explained solely by individual men deciding they want to be great fathers and partners. The spread of gender equality ideals has been propelled by economic necessity, and these ideals in turn foster men’s desires for involvement with their children and fairness to their female partners. See here for more on this.

Also, simply doing gender egalitarian activities can change attitudes. Use-it-or-lose-it paternity leave policies lead to more uptake of paternal leave and higher levels of men’s involvement with older children. Ponder this example to imagine the deficits of the familiar personal preferences perspective: in a society that allows parental leave to be used by either parent, a couples’ preferences might lead them to use it all for the mother. The same couple would likely use some parental leave for the father if it could not be transferred to the mother. Then being freed from productive responsibilities even for a short season around childbirth could lead to more intense father involvement in the longer run—both because of bonding with children, and also experiencing the rewards of doing so. Social structures can change personal preferences.

While I have just given a family-strengthening example, the research in the Special Collection also includes a less encouraging story: economic recession can decrease the amount of time parents (especially fathers) spend with children, particularly among those with lower socioeconomic status. Oláh and her colleagues emphasize that the interaction between the economy and the progress of both phases of the gender revolution should be looked at more intensively in future research. They also note that other findings in the collection similarly support the idea that family trajectories may diverge among social classes within the same society.

At the end of the day, Oláh and her colleagues conclude that the first phase of the gender revolution “does not reduce the importance for contemporary families of men as breadwinners” and that “women have entered the public sphere to stay, but this only strengthens families if accompanied by relevant policy support.” Perhaps even more importantly, they highlight that heightened perceptions of insecurity have negative implications for family life. Men’s role as caregivers seems more fragile than women’s role as earners in the face of economic uncertainty. Family life already included much uncertainty before  COVID, but now many of us are convinced that uncertainty is the new norm. That means that everything Oláh and her colleagues had to say about uncertainty from research published in 2017-2019 may matter even more for the future of families as uncertainty continues to abound.

Laurie DeRose is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Catholic University of America, and Director of Research for the World Family Map Project.

1. The articles were all produced within a large-scale collaborative research project, Families And Societies, funded by the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme in 2013‒2017.