Declining birth rates are a stark illustration of the challenges facing working mothers

Moves to penalise women in Hungary, Japan and elsewhere overlook the ways in which social and economic structures are failing them

Viktor Orban, Hungary's prime minister, waves to supporters as he arrives at the Fidesz party headquarters following results for the parliamentary elections in Budapest, Hungary, on Monday, April 9, 2018. Orban scored a thumping victory to clinch another term after vowing to shield his country's identity as predominantly white and Christian and rallying populist forces that are challenging the values of the European Union. Photographer: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg

First, we talked about whether women could have it all: career, children, happiness. Then, having turned into supermums who juggle the stresses of work and parenting, we began to ask whether that was the right approach in the first place. But now there is a new and more complex question: with half of the world's countries facing fertility rates that are below replacement levels, will women respond to incentives have more babies and still be able to maintain their careers?

The world is getting older. In 1980, over-65s accounted for just 5.8 per cent of the global population. But that figure is predicted to rise to 16 per cent by 2050.  This brings practical issues, such as who will do the work that drives economies and supports states, and who will look after all those older people?

There are really only two options: immigration from countries with growing populations, or driving up birth rates. For many countries, immigration is not an acceptable political choice. So, the only option is for more women to have more children.

Take Hungary, for example, which has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates at just 1.45. A country needs a rate of at least 2.1 for a steady population. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, of the nationalist Fidesz party, has been unequivocal in rejecting immigration. “We need Hungarian children,” he has said. This week, he announced a seven-point family protection action plan, designed to promote marriage and families. It includes measures such as offering mortgage payments, car subsidies and waiving income tax for life for women who have four or more children.

Japan has also been grappling with this problem for some time now. With a fertility rate of only 1.43 in 2017, the nation’s population is decreasing by 0.3 per cent annually. The Japanese government recently estimated that between 2017 and 2030, the country’s workforce would fall by as many as 3.8 million people.

This week, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso appeared to blame women both for not having enough children, and also for the poorer quality of their jobs compared to men. But, as issues such as the gender pay gap, lack of female leaders and women giving up their jobs or being more stressed in their working lives once they have children all demonstrate, that's the reality of life for working mothers. Social and economic structures are failing them, and what Japan is currently experiencing is simply a stark illustration of the challenges working mothers face across the globe.

Women have spent decades separating their worth from their child-bearing ability. And even while marriage and motherhood continue to be seen as markers of a woman’s success, many societies have at least reached the point where we accept the idea that a woman has value beyond her womb, has the right to a fulfilling, self-determined life and a choice about how, when and how many children to have.

There are a number of different ways that women are being encouraged to combine motherhood and career. Countries such as the UK are funding “returnships” to help women back into the workplace after a break for motherhood. Greater paternity leave, along with flexible working for both parents is being offered, although in many countries this is often tokenistic or has surprisingly low take-up. Countries such as the United States have even seen a rise in young women freezing their eggs, so that they have a higher chance of a successful pregnancy in later life.

The nations where women are most needed to have children are those where social norms have shifted sufficiently to accept smaller families, career ambition for women and the need for two-income households. This trend has been further entrenched by the fact that existing structures and attitudes rarely support having more children. Childcare is expensive. Families live in atomised units, rather than in supportive extended communities. And as we’ve seen, women who take time out to have children are frequently penalised with low-paid, low-grade work, despite their abilities. Even with all the policy changes previously mentioned, the workplace remains skewed against mothers.

So, while some financial incentives may nudge women towards having more children, it’s hard to see how they will fix existing problems. The biggest challenge remains unspoken: there is little status attached to motherhood or parenting; therefore, there are few societal benefits that come with having more children – only increased stress, diminished career prospects and expensive childcare.

Women are already struggling to manage being working mothers and we have failed to solve longstanding issues. Yet, despite a current system that does little to support them, women are being asked to take on even more: more motherhood and more work. Which, as usual, leaves me asking, what women have to gain from all this.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed is a columnist for The National