Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Why the Tories' shared parental leave policy might just save the world

A long time ago women had loads and loads of kids. Having loads of kids made sense - back in the day when smallpox and polio used to snatch young 'uns away to an early grave and the life expectancy at birth was only 18 in London, the grim fact is you had to have seven kids if you wanted two to survive into adulthood. And obviously, without the cushy welfare state to sit you in a care home and feed you boiled cabbage in your old age, having kids was a necessary financial investment.

When you count on top of this the fact that kids were likely to have far less expensive education than today, the cost of raising sprogs was small in comparison to the economic dividend they'd provide should they grow up with enough arms and legs between them to help on the farm or in the family business.

Then things changed - medical advances dramatically reduced child mortality meaning that a woman only had to have two children for two to survive. Obviously, this would free up a hell of a lot of extra time. Childbearing is no longer the sole activity in a woman's life - she can marry later and have some time after the kids have grown up to dick about doing what she wants (even more than her husband, actually, as he's statistically more likely to die first). In other words, women have more time for education, and more time for work. Hooray!

Unfortunately, that's where the good news ends. Despite women's entry into the workplace, and despite women's increased expectations brought about by greater education, the burden of domestic work still falls heavily on women. You know, that free work women do that gets them covered in baby sick and Dettol but that they love so much because it's so 'rewarding' (I could link to about a gazillion Daily Fail articles here but I don't want to contribute to their hit count).

Instead, why not take a look the shiny new index for gender equality created by EIGE, the European Institution for Gender Equality. You'll see great strides in gender equality when it comes to workforce participation and depressingly little progress when it comes to sharing the burden of domestic care-work with men.


What all this means is that, rather than fertility rates falling and settling at a nice steady 2.4 births per woman (the amount needed for replacement level fertility), instead, some fertility rates have plummeted to way below replacement, which signals massive problems for the future. Whatever society may say, at the moment, it's clearly not possible to 'have it all'.

In societies where fertility rates are below replacement, not only will the population be very old with fewer sprightly young things to generate income and support an ageing population - populations in many countries will shrink unless governments start actively attempting to attract migrant workers. Not a great vote winner for some reason...

So what are the alternative policies? Well, governments could go hardline Republican on us and attempt to block women's access to abortion, contraceptive and sexual health services, and equal pay. Not going to win the female vote, that one. Alternatively, we could see policies like this, which improve gender equality, encourage couples to share the domestic burden, and make it less likely for women to be discriminated against in the workplace on account of their reproductive capacity. In other words, make baby-making make sense.

Of course there's a strong argument that governments have no place trying to determine the 'right' amount of children for women to have. But inevitably, they're going to be concerned with population shrinkage and economic growth which necessarily forces them to set their sights on women's uteruses. If we get a choice as to where that attention focuses, let's make sure that governments view gender equality as something essential to human survival, shall we? So Dave, here's one from me - unless you want the guaranteed vote of these guys (below), make gender equality your top priority.


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