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Problems of Finnish family formation – no easy solutions
New horizons of hope are needed, though there are some other things to be done on the way
Finland’s total fertility rate, or TFR, the synthetic rate showing how many children an average woman would be expected to have throughout the years, has been declining rapidly in recent years. Eventually, this is estimated to lead to a dearth of labor, thus making it harder to sustain a welfare state. Discussions on how this should be fixed are commonplace in the Finnish public policy arena.
Naturally some focus on whether this even is a problem requiring fixing. After all, the issue is driven people voluntarily not having children, and involuntary parenthood is rarely considered desirable. The political risks involved in discussing this issue in a facile manner became evident in Finland in 2017, as the Social Democrat then-leader Antti Rinne received a firestorm of criticism for suggesting a “synnytystalkoot” – perhaps translatable as a “birthing hoedown”, though with no sort of punning intended in the original version.
Of course, there’s more ways than just raising fertility rates to answer the sustainability issue, like labor-based immigration, increased use of technology and increasing the working population by raising the retirement age and getting people to finish the schools faster. However, there’s only so much effort to be wrung out of the average worker, and birth rates are falling all around the world, calling into question how sustainable a labor-based immigration would be in the long term.
More importantly, though, and speaking on the societal level, it’s still less a problem that people are having too many children and more that they’re not having the children they want to have or expect to have. The number of Finnish 20-45-year olds who indicate they want no children at all continues to stay at around 15%, and most families indicate they want two children, a number that the fertility statistics show is currently not being reached.
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As such, this topic is not just about economic calculations but also about satisfying people’s wishes and dreams for the future. But what could be a solution?
No easy solutions
The question is harder than it might seem.
One of the factors that affects how many kids people have is simply how many kids people in their close social circles (or the society in general) tend to have, and people in modern society tend to start having kids so late it puts automatic limits on how many they even can have, which creates a feedback loop.
Anecdotal evidence from my social circles, as well as studies, show that religiousness is associated with fertility. However, there are plenty of countries where the governments actively promote religious organizations and have high rates of religious identification but which nevertheless have low fertility. Poland, Ukraine, and Russia come to mind. It's evidently damnably hard for governments to promote "real" religiousness, instead of mere cultural affectation.
Perhaps one way to break the feedback loop would be giving families more money, in form of direct subsidies or tax benefits. Such programs might indeed have some effect in some countries. However, personally, especially actually becoming a parent, I’ve noted the issue is often not money but the lack of networks.
It has become almost a rite of passage in our society to move away from parents, often to a completely different city, after one becomes an adult. This means new freedom during young adulthood, a chance to reinvent yourself and find a new group of friends and party with them. Still, once you settle down and have kids there's a problem; you often need a helping hand.
Suddenly you notice that your friends of same age might not want to trouble themselves with your kids, and even if they do, if they are childless you may not trust them enough. If they do have kids those kids are often the same age as yours, which makes them good for playdates but is less than ideal when your kids are sick, for instance, since their kids might be sick as well or they don't want their kids to catch the same disease as yours.
Historically, in those special situations, it's been your family that has come to help you, but it's not so easy if they live on the other side of the country, or if they no longer live (or, after having you at 35-40 and with you having your kids at 35-40, are now pushing 80 themselves), or if you have been an only child and haven't got sisters and brothers, or so on.
The state cannot really offer these networks, but, for instance, cities could offer some level of services for crisis situations, as they do already, in Finland, though the availability varies. They could offer tax breaks for nannies and such, as the Finnish state already offers in the form of tax credit for household expenses.
It’s not just what the society does to help you, though, but also what the society might do to hinder. There just plain seems to be more and more demands and regulations, costing time, money and mental effort, put on parents, chiefly mothers.
Some are due to legislation, like car seat norms. It’s hard to have more than two kids, after all, if you can’t fit them all in a regular sedan! Some are institutional. The various maternal clinics and such are very helpful, but they often also give parents large amounts of advice to remember.
Even stuff that is clearly meant to make sure that idiot parents don't do something obviously dumb like getting totally wasted and set the house on fire might still make overtly conscientious parents worried that having one glass of wine makes them an alcoholic whose kids are about to be taken away. This does not mean that this advice is bad! There is just always a balance to take into consideration. When does the sheer volume of advice become onerous?
Apart from those, though, the mother-related social media. I'm mercifully not directly exposed to it, just through my wife, but it still seems like a horror show, full of mothers who are perfectly ready to ream each other's maternity choices at the slightest provocation. (Ream in a passive-aggressive manner, that is - "Oh, your family's screen time is hour per day? Our little ones never look at screens.”)
Indeed, the opposition to any screentime reflects a curious tendency to always advocate for childcare solutions that make one’s life more difficult. Some just plain seem also convinced that if you use anything that a rural peasant from the 1700s wouldn't be using and which might make your life easier (formula! birth at hospital! screens! daycare!) then you might as well throw your kids to the wolves already.
Any sort of a consistent family formation program would entail having a good look at the modern parental demands and standards culture and try to find ways to tell people that they can actually relax a bit, they are almost certainly not going to kill their babies and kids even if they don't do everything by the book, and there are many ways to raise your kids and that social media mommy influencers are just presenting an image to sell a product and aren't a good standard for comparison.
Family sizes in history
Fundamentally, though, one of the most important aspects in falling fertility is just a general societal lack of horizon.
This is not the first time that European nations have gone through a crash in family sizes. Indeed, the biggest initial falls happened a century ago, after WW1. German TFR went from 5.02 in 1900 to 1.77 in 1935. French TFR went as low as 1.68 in 1920. TFR in UK went from 4.85 in 1880 to 1.79 in 1935. Even in a conservative country like Switzerland, TFR went from 3.82 in 1900 to 1.79 in 1940.
The thing is, I'm not exactly sure what the biggest reason for the fertility crash was! Rise in feminism and women’s control over their own lives? Perhaps, but starting in 1880s already, and also in countries like Switzerland, which only had federal women's suffrage in 1974? Urbanization? Sure, but it's not like many of these countries were already anywhere close to fully urbanized by 1930s. Contraception? Condoms only became really popular after WW2 and the contraceptive pill was yet to be invented.
As the graphs also show, after these – and after WW2 - came the baby boom. Often the highest year for family formation was in fact not immediate postwar period but two decades later, around 1965. Was it just soldiers getting to home after WW2 and getting down to business? But this also happened in neutral countries like Sweden and Switzerland.
Maybe it was just general animal spirits, a general feeling of malaise or hope – people not wanting children in the increasingly uncertain world of pre-WW2 period, then momentarily things looking like technology's going to save everything, living standards just improving endlessly, immediate post-WW2 welfare state and unionization being geared to the ideal of even large working-class families being sustainable on a single income.
At some point this changed to societal despair and uncertainty, first over nuclear war starting to look very unwinnable, then the environmental crisis, now a whole host of crises.
Furthermore, if one takes a look at post-1990 countries that actually went through a large rise in family formation quickly, they tend to be Eastern European countries, such as Estonia, Czech Republic and Hungary, seeing large rises in fertility, often coming in waves, in the 2000s and the 2010s. Countries like Latvia, Romania and Slovenia saw similar effects around this time.
It is probably not an accident that these countries saw their family sizes increase around the same time that they joined the EU. The prospect of joining the EU, or EU making poorer countries equivalent to richer ones, has served as one potential source of confidence and optimism. We can see this in Ukraine, for example - many Ukrainians seem to specifically conceive of their battle against Russia as a battle for eventual Ukrainian EU membership.
Finland in a crisis mood
Finland's fertility rate, which was actually quite close to the replacement rate (2.0) until 2009-2010, started to fall steeply after those years. The euro crisis might not have affected Finland directly as much as Greece, Italy, Ireland and so on, but what it did was make it a permanent fixture of political parties and media that he country is always one decision away from “the Greek road”, permanent debt and economic ruin.
In addition to the general European crisis, though, this time served as the endpoint of Finland’s grand “Nokia Nation” narrative. 2009 also represented a high watermark for the Nokia company itself. While the engineers the company let go soon found new work, what was important was the idea of Nokia being the symbol of Finland as a nation of engineering genius that would brave the challenges of the new economy here and forevermore.
Intriguingly Finland, unlike many other countries, saw the birth rate go up during the first years of COVID era. Getting off relatively lightly with the virus and being initially satisfied with strong national leadership on the issue might have well contributed. However, in 2022, the numbers crashed once again, lower than ever before.
Before 2010, there had been a certain confidence around Finnish economy, even triumphalism. After it, it seems that Finnish politics has been revolving around various narratives of collapse, whether we’re talking about environmental collapse by the Greens, economic collapse by liberal right or “the Great Replacement” by the nationalist right. Many might think – why have kids if you think that their lives are going to suck, whether it's due to economic collapse, environmental disaster or being subsumed by immigrant hordes?
Left-wing utopian fantasizing about fully automatic luxury space communism, in its unreality, is merely the other size of the coin – an indication that the horizons for actual guaranteed stable and safe future appear so dim on the Earth that one might as well just fantasize about secular Heaven in space.
What is fundamentally needed is trust that it’s all going to become eventually better. And perhaps, in the end, this is why we continue to need a strong and continuously improving welfare state, alongside a strong economy, a leadership we can trust and a climate policy focusing on solutions instead of denial or despair, for horizons that families will continue to need in the future, so that they can trust they’re going to leave their children a country and a world that is good enough for living.