Do people need children to feel fulfilled?

Do women and men need children to be fulfilled?

In times when people can increasingly choose whether or not to have children and women as well as men can pursue fulfilling lives beyond the domestic life, the question of whether people need children to be fulfilled is an interesting one.   Yet increasing numbers of women are not having children, although whether this is involuntary due to postponement of starting a family or  because they don’t want them -  is less clear.  How strong is the need to have children and what bearing does state support  have on these decisions?

Traditionally it was argued that women need children to be fulfilled. For generations it was the main  duty of women to stay at home and raise children.  It might be argued that this would apply less to men, for whom roles outside the home were traditionally more important. Whilst these attitudes might be changing they are still fairly well embedded in our culture.   Although these are traditional views, there might be differences across Europe as the “male breadwinner model” takes different forms in different countries.

My students on the Comparative European Societies Masters course do some analysis on the World Values Survey  and European Values Survey as part of their studies and one of the things I get them to look at is gender roles and how they are changing. Now according to Inglehart and Norris’ classic book Rising Tide published in 2003 people are becoming more tolerant of women’s roles outside the home and women’s activities in public life throughout the world. This is certainly the case overall in Europe.   But there are differences.

In most analysis,  the Nordic countries come out top in terms of gender equality compared with other parts of Europe.  They benefit from decades of progressive gender equality legislation and from generous childcare arrangements that parents in other countries can only look on with envy.   This is to enable them to work as fully as possible in the labour market and at the same time to raise families.  These countries belong to Esping-Andersen’s “Social Democratic” welfare type as set out in the Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (1990).   The United Kingdom as representative of a “Liberal” welfare regime promotes a more individualist style of gender equality but without the same kind of welfare support, whilst Austria is representative of the more “Corporatist” model of welfare with welfare support for a more traditional family model.   Italy is part of the least subsidised “Southern” model and a country where the family was traditionally important in terms of both values and welfare.

One of my students, James Jorro,  did some analysis on the 2008 European Values Survey interactive database.  What he found was surprising. 

Women need children a.
Men need children a.
Fertility rate
2016 b.
Employment rate of women c.
Dominant Religion
GDP per capita PPP d.
United Kingdom

a.         European Values Survey 2008, Men need children in order to  be fulfilled (Q47A) = adding together agree strongly and agree percent’ Women need children in order to be fulfilled (Q47A) = necessary percent. Note the questions for men and for women were slightly different. Denmark n= 1507, Italy n=1519, Austria n=1510, UK n=1519
b. Fertility rate = mean number of children born to a woman during her fertile years
c.        EUROSTAT Labour Force Survey 2017
d.        World Bank GDP per capital Purchasing Power Parity in International dollars

It turns out that it is Denmark, one of the beacons of  gender equality, where people  feel that both men and women are most likely to need children to feel fulfilled. About two thirds of the population feel this way.  This is followed by Italy, a traditionally family centred culture where about half of people think that men and women need children to be fulfilled.  In Austria, on the other hand  only about a third of people feeling that men and women need children to feel fulfilled.  The United Kingdom has the lowest score with only a small minority, 16.5% feeling that women  need children in order to be fulfilled and only 11.8%  of men do.

This suggests that the Nordic states in addition to embedding gender equality values have also embedded traditional family values, whilst the traditionally more conservatively family-centred countries have not embedded these values to the same extent.   The more individualistic United Kingdom population seem to care very little if men or women need children.

Another interesting feature of this finding is that there seems to be little difference between whether people feel men need children as much as women do.  Whilst in all countries children are felt to be more important for women, in Denmark and Italy the difference is around 10 per cent but it falls to less than half that in Austria (4.1% ) and the UK (4.7%).  So in those counties where there is a stronger feeling that people need children to be fulfilled, it applies more to women than to men, whilst in those countries where children are not seen as so important, this is the case for both men and women.

Of course attitudes are not the same as behaviour.  For this reason I have included fertility rates taken from the most recent EUROSTAT statistics available.  This shows that indeed in Denmark people are likely to have more children – fulfilling the needs of both men and women. However, the same is the case for the UK with an identical fertility rate even though children are not felt to be so important for fulfilment.  In Italy the fertility rate is lowest, followed by Austria in our comparison of four countries.

Therefore, whilst attitudes do reflect behaviour more in Denmark, there is greater discrepancy in the other countries and the UK represents the reverse trend.  This raises the question as to whether men and women may WANT children but other things get in the way. Like they can’t find suitable housing or they don’t have regular jobs.  Financial recessions have traditionally lowered fertility rates as people feel less confident about starting a family.   However, the financial crisis affected all European states so why is there less fertility in some than others?  If we look at GDP figures, we can see that although Denmark is the wealthiest country in this selection, the UK is not.

I raised the issue at the beginning as to whether the welfare state and support for childcare might be an issue. Certainly in Denmark we could say that this might have had an effect because there is generous support for maternity and paternity leave as well as affordable full time childcare provision.  By contrast, the UK has some of the most expensive childcare in Europe, although provision of childcare has been part of the European regulatory regime.   So that is not the whole explanation.
Some would say that religion plays a role in the way in which family values are embedded in national culture.  The Catholic religion in particular has emphasised the importance of large, strong families. Yet Denmark with strongest emphasis on children  as fulfilment is Protestant and so is the UK where there is the lowest emphasis.  The two Catholic countries lie in between. So religion does not explain these scores.

We might argue that if women have alternative careers available, they are less likely to see traditional family roles as important.  Certainly it seems from the results in the table that women in Britain are most likely to be in employment. But this is closely followed by Denmark and Austria.  So this is not in itself an explanation.

Therefore it is something of a mystery as to why we find such remarkable divergences between countries, especially between the UK with children no longer being seen as important for a fulfilling life and Denmark where they are very important.   How can we explain that?

February 18th 2019.


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