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Kiselev Andrey Valerevich/

Why national fertility campaigns are unlikely to make people have more children

In Italy, September 22 will be “fertility day”. But official government posters initially launched to promote the campaign, saying “Hurry up! Don’t wait for the stork” and “Beauty knows no age … Fertility does”, sparked an outcry and were taken down.

The campaign has been called “sexist, ageist, and anachronistic”. It also led to comparisons of pronatalism – the promotion of human reproduction – that happened during Italy’s Fascist history. Even the Italian prime minister criticised the marketing campaign, and it was pulled – although the day will go ahead as planned.

The Italian government is not the world’s first to encourage reproduction through rather blunt means. In Denmark, citizens are told by both the state and advertisers to “Screw for Denmark”, “Do it for Mom” and “Count their eggs”.

In some countries, parents have been cajoled into thinking that limiting their fertility is bad for their children. In South Korea, an advertising campaign showed a sad plant with one leaf wilting under a grey sky juxtaposed next to a healthy growing one with two leaves under bright sunshine, both underneath the phrase: “One is not enough”. In 2010, the country’s Ministry of Health also switched off the lights at 4pm to encourage its civil servants to go home and procreate.

‘One is not enough’: award-winning poster produced by the Korea Productivity Centre.

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told citizens that: “One (child) means loneliness, two means rivalry, three means balance and four means abundance.” Women have been offered a wide range of incentives to have more children and marry earlier, including gold coins. And in 2015, they were told that they “should not focus on any career other than the career of motherhood”.

Elsewhere, a “call to arms” in terms of national pride is used. In Taiwan, both the low birth rate and high number of unmarried men and women have been referred to as a “[national security” threat. In one Russian city, the “Give Birth to a Patriot” scheme gave couples a day off – the Day of Conception – with prizes offered for parents who had children on Russia Day, around nine months later. A fridge for a baby, if you will.

Of course, the reason for these campaigns is that most of these countries have very low fertility rates that have led to rapid population ageing and, in some cases, the prospect of population decline. Even Iran and Turkey, which have fertility rates of around replacement rate, are engaged in very active, blunt pronatalist policies in a bid to boost their populations.

Why people put off having children

In order to get a better idea of the prospects for success of these types of campaigns, we need to look beyond mere slogans. Some countries have brought in hugely expensive and comprehensive sets of policies to spur the fertility rate. In Singapore, for example, couples are given assistance in meeting prospective partners, preferential access to public housing, huge baby bonuses, support for child and healthcare, assistance in child’s savings, and tax rebates. In total, the state hands over more than £90,000 in subsidies before a child reaches the age of 13. Yet, Singapore continues to have one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, and there is little evidence that this will change anytime soon.

The reason for pessimism about the prospects for these policies – and that of fertility day in Italy – is that they do not address the fundamental reasons behind low fertility and why men and women are postponing childbearing, or eschewing it altogether.

It’s because finding decent, secure employment is ever more difficult, especially since the onset of the Great Recession. Because buying a house is becoming out of reach. Because combining work and family is still not practical in many countries – seen most dramatically in discrimination against pregnant women. In Italy and elsewhere it has been a common practice for women to sign dimissioni in bianco, or blank resignation letters to be activated upon pregnancy.

Women also often have to bear a “double burden” of work and care. Adding all this up, investing in the success of one child into the next generation can be preferable to “diluting” limited resources between two.

A two-child norm

As well as being a “sexist mess”, as Roberto Saviano (the author of Gomorrah) puts it, fertility day offends “all the people who don’t have children and those who would like to have some but can’t because there is no work in Italy”. Against this backdrop, governments should be grateful citizens are having any children at all.

Crucially, though, evidence suggests that the majority of women and men have not “given up” on either building a partnership or having children. There is a very strong “two-child norm” around much of the world – including Italy. What we see, then, is not the “selfish” eschewing of parenthood, often caught up in a general vein of bashing the way Millenials live their lives.

Rather, we are seeing a frustrated, unrealised potential. But getting governments – and companies, and parents-in-law – to swing behind and support parents and families raises other issues, particularly relating to fairness for those who do not want to bear children at all and risks imposing new, anti-feminist norms.

My solution to this is to see very low fertility as being a consequence of other problems in society, of the kind described above. If these problems are tackled, low fertility may well sort itself out. Whether or not it does, however, society may well be a better place anyway.

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