There has been a bit of discussion on the web about Germany's declining population. According to one study, 23% of German men believe that the ideal number of children to have is zero.
So what's gone wrong? I think the big picture looks something like this. The liberal culture we live in tells us that we should focus on those areas of life that we can self-determine as individuals. But what kinds of things can we choose for ourselves on a purely personal basis? Well, we can choose a career; we can choose travel destinations; and we have various consumer, lifestyle and entertainment choices.
Of all these options career is the most serious commitment that is left to us and so liberals tend to treat a professional career as the telos of life (the purpose of life we develop toward). This aim is strengthened by the fact that liberal opinion makers tend to be ambitious people who have relatively creative and high status careers, within academia, the media and politics.
And so elite liberal opinion tells us that career comes first rather than family. Young Germans have picked up on this message: according to one survey 81 per cent of young Germans believe that their society values professional success over family.
Like elsewhere this leads to 20-something men and women putting most of their effort into education and career, to the point that a commitment to family can seem like one burden too many. 79 per cent of childless Germans believe that "daily life brings enough stress without children."
So what can then be done to lift fertility rates? The liberal solution is to accept that professional life comes first and will take most of the time and energy of young people. Therefore, family life has to be made to fit in with a busy corporate lifestyle, largely through investment in formal childcare, paid maternity leave and so on.
There are even conservatives now who are accepting that this is the way to go for family life. The Australian Liberal Party, our right-wing party, has committed itself to this liberal model of the new family.
But there are problems with doing this. First, there is not much evidence that the massive investments in childcare and paid maternity leave actually raise fertility rates significantly. In Germany the fertility rate is 1.4; in countries like Sweden and France which have pioneered the childcare and paid maternity leave policies it is just a little higher at 1.7 (for native Frenchwomen it is 1.7). That's still a long way below replacement fertility levels.
And that's hardly surprising. If you accept a culture in which individual fulfilment via career is the leading principle, then why would people choose to have large families? Most people will choose to have just one or two children and some will choose to be "childfree". That makes it very difficult to get to a replacement population level.
In the newer model of family life there is supposed to be a unisex model of parenting, one that is focused not on gendered roles but on an equal division of labour in meeting the practical burdens of looking after children. This too undercuts a reason for committing to family life, as it disconnects our identity as men and women from distinctly important roles within the family as fathers and mothers. It makes parenthood a matter of practical work rather than an expression and a fulfilment of self and identity.
So what's the alternative? I believe that we have to continue to insist that family comes first. In other words, our role as fathers and mothers is a more significant one than our particular work role. Admittedly that won't be an easy sell to those young women who are geared up to career achievement. We may not do as well amongst that particular demographic. However, in my experience many women do eventually become more open to scaling back career commitments once they've had a lengthy experience of the sacrifices demanded at work and once they've married and had children. So the women we lose at age 22 we might well win back by age 35.
Second, it's unreasonable to put tremendous education and work demands on women in their 20s and still expect them to take on an even greater workload by having children. In most cases, the best answer is to get young men into good jobs and to make affordable housing available, so that young men can get back to performing one of the basic tasks of manhood, which is to create a space for their wives to have children. That should continue to be the basic model within a traditionalist culture.
Most women will not ever have high status and creative careers and will most likely readily accept such a model. And there can be flexibility for those women who do want a role outside of the home. Could we not offer such women, to take just one example, some experience on a woman's magazine, then a period of time having children, then a return part-time to the creative role at the magazine?
As for men, because we believe in the importance of the fatherhood role we should be committed to improving the work/life balance for men, so that they have the opportunity to be not only providers but also to fulfil the important mentoring work that fathers should ideally perform within a family.