Denmark’s disappearing babies

Is Denmark's legendary gender equality and free education responsible for the worrying free falling birth rate? The Murmur spoke to some parents and experts to find out why, despite extraordinary incentives, people are choosing not to have babies

“We’re filled with so much fear of a process that should be the most natural in the world,” says Luise Thye-Oestergaard. “People are too stressed to have children – and it’s far too expensive. If you want a decent living for your family, mothers can’t afford to go part time.”

This 35-year-old mother of two had her first child aged 32, a relatively normal age to start a family these days. In 2013 the average age for a first-time mother was 29, up from 24 in the 1970s.

But with a later start also comes fewer children. According to Statistics Denmark,fertility has plumetted from 1.87 to1.67 children per woman between 2010 and 2013.

It has been decades since Denmark’s had replacement level fertility and without immigration, Denmark’s population would have started dropping decades ago.

Should the steady stream of new arrivals diminish, Denmark will be in trouble. An increasingly aged population will need to be supported by fewer people of working age and tough choices will have to be made – if social services aren’t made more efficient, they will either need to be cut or funded through tax hikes.

Luise Thye-Oestergaard at home with her husband Jesper and their children Lias and Vaia. Photo: Christoffer Rosenfeldt

Luise Thye-Oestergaard at home with her husband Jesper and their children Lias and Vaia. Photo: Christoffer Rosenfeldt

I moved to Denmark with my ten-week-old baby in tow, imagining Denmark to be a parental paradise, in which generous public services helped people live balanced lives. And undoubtedly they can. In Copenhagen, all children are guaranteed a place in day care within four kilometres of their home, at a cost of less than 4,000 kroner a month. In London, places are fewer and further between and the same service can cost 1,000 kroner per day.

And yet still the birth rate drops. After speaking to Thye-Oestergaard, I wondered whether the Danish model is actually a poisoned chalice, serving up so much freedom and stability that starting a family has become an anxiety-inducing upheaval that people are putting off or avoiding altogether.

But as I spoke to more Danes – both experts and other mothers I met when I settled my daughter into day care and took advantage of the available public services for children– a more subtle picture emerged: one in which personal expectations, structural hurdles and economic disincentives have all conspired to send Denmark’s birth rate plummeting.


Permanent education
42-year-old father of two Christian Buchardt and his partner had their first child when he was 33, the year after he completed his studies. He acknowledges that the reasons for delaying his family were selfish.

“I think society is trying to be younger for a lot longer these days. We felt there were a lot of things that we wanted to do first – we knew that life changes when you have a child. It changes in a good way, but it’s still a big change.”

Martin Dissing, 31, agrees that the Danish desire to stay young longer has definitely played a part in him waiting to have kids.

“I only finished university two years ago and I’m enjoying life. I think people in general are more focused on their own lives than they used to be – they want to be free to do what they want, to go out and to travel.

“I do want a family and I’d probably like to have more than two children but it’s very expensive in Denmark. Plus if you start later, you’ll have fewer. Lots of my friends are in the same situation as me, still not quite ready to take the plunge.”


Free universities and student grants make Denmark a dream to study in. But without a financial incentive to finish studies as quickly as possible, the average Dane doesn’t finish their university education until they are 27 – in the UK the average age is 25.

And even when people finish their studies, many still don’t feel prepared to have a child. 33-year-old Christina Margraff wants to make sure that she could take care of the child alone.

“I would love to be in a position to have a baby now, but I haven’t found the right man and I’m not established enough in my career yet. Lots of my friends are waiting too – one of them is 46 and only now are she and her partner trying. They both had long educations and work commitments and have only just managed to find the time.”

Lilian Bondo, President of the Danish Association of Midwives, sympathises with Margraff’s position.

“Young and newly educated women often feel that they would have to give everything up to have children. The problem is that the pressure of having a job and a career is not easily reconciled with starting a family, so we get too old before we start. And if you think at 18 you’d like to be a mother of three, but don’t get started until you’re 30, you may end up just being the mother of one.”


A woman’s job
Women have good reason to be concerned that having a child would impact their careers. While it is illegal for employers to ask women about their family plans, they are still subject to prying questions in a way that their male counterparts are not. According to the Danish Women’s Society, one in eight Danish nurses were asked about their maternity plans during job interviews, while 13 percent of female respondents to a recent survey conducted by the Danish Society of Engineers said they were asked about their plans for having children at a job interview.

“These questions show men and women do not yet have the same opportunities in work and careers. It is not fair for anyone – not for men either. If you want to make it more attractive to have children, you have to earmark maternity leave for fathers,” says Lisa Holmfjords,  president of the Danish Women’s Society.

Danish women have made great inroads into the labour market over the last few decades. Indeed, the 79 percent of working mothers in Denmark who are able to not only drop their children off at day care, but to pick them up as well, are the envy of the international community.

But they still shoulder the burden of responsibility with newborn children and many are fearful to take time out of a career they’ve worked hard to establish, according to Professor Anette Borchorst of the Department of Political Science at Aalborg University.


“Women have become integrated in the labour force to a very high degree – they take longer to finish their education than men do. The length of maternity leave is very important for your career, your salary and your pension. If you have two children and take long maternity leaves, it really has an impact on your career. The labour market is still so extremely gender segregated.”

Borchorst adds that as a woman’s educational level increases, so too does the need for support from her partner. To ensure such support, men need to be encouraged to take more time off with newborns so that women can return more quickly to the labour market. Parents currently get 52 weeks of parental leave, of which 18 weeks are earmarked for the mother and two for the father directly after birth.

The remaining 32 weeks can be split between parents. Yet men account for only 7.4 percent percent of parental leave. To encourage men to take more time off, the government did raise the possibility of earmarking a portion exclusively for fathers (or rather, the second partner regardless of gender). Under this scheme, if the father/second partner did not utilise the earmarked time, it would be lost for both parents.

Sensing a lack of political support, the proposal was soon abandoned by the government. Such a scheme does, however, exist in Norway, where 14 weeks are earmarked as part of the so-called “father’s quota”. Norwegian men spend more time with their children than they did a decade ago, though only a third of fathers took the full period. While it remains a divisive issue, Christian Buchardt’s experience living in Norway makes him think it is a good idea.

“Although I don’t think that fathers should be forced to take 12 weeks, for example, we’ve spent a lot of time in Norway, where the increased paternity leave seems to really work. I think every man should be given that opportunity.”


Later means harder
Regardless of paternity leave, people are still leaving it later to become parents. But the longer you wait, the harder it is to have children, as many are discovering.

“There’s no doubt that the birth rate has been falling in the last five years and my guess is that this is mainly associated with people wanting a permanent job before they start to have children,” says Professor Mette Ejrnes of the Department of Economics at the University of Copenhagen.

“Doctors are talking about this causing other problems because the fecundity is falling rapidly from 25, that fertility seems to be postponed. This could create problems.”

Indeed, a now infamous Rigshospitalet report in 2013 declared that the low birth rate in Denmark was approaching “epidemic levels”, and that “many wait too long to have children, creating greater need for fertility treatments”.

“We’ve got a major problem because women expect to have their babies later because of work and education pressures,” says Dr Svend Lindenberg, founder of the Copenhagen Fertility Center.

“Six percent of all children born in Denmark are conceived with the assistance of fertility clinics. We are treating more women for fertility issues per capita than anywhere else in Europe except Iceland. Half of the women of fertile age in Copenhagen and other major cities are single. If this continues, in just three generations we will have half the Danes that we do today. I’d hardly call that family friendly.”

So far, the government’s efforts to encourage people to have younger families have fallen flat, reports Bondo from the Danish Association of Midwives.

“Before 2011, during the rule of the Liberal-Conservative government, we saw an increased emphasis on reducing the age of university students and speeding up their education, as well as increasing financial support for families in education. It was hoped to reduce the age that people had children, but it hasn’t had this effect, perhaps because of the financial crisis,” she said.

The solution, Bondo argues, is to encourage students to be parents.

“It’s so natural to want to have a baby when you are young and in love and have all the strength in the world. Let students have their families early on and create living conditions so that they can. They might actually present themselves to employers as more attractive, as the early years of childrearing have been left behind.”


Extraordinary incentives
Part of the problem might be that, until now, avoiding pregnancy has been the primary message of sexual education programmes. The Danish Family Planning Association now wants sexual education programmes to include discussions about the importance of family and the consequences of waiting to have children.

Busy lives can often leave little time for overworked parents to make baby making a priority. In 2012, several day care centres on the island of Funen made international headlines when they opted to stay open in the evenings to give parents a bit of private time so they hopefully would make some siblings for their offspring.

The travel agency SPIES was behind another headline-making stunt, when earlier this year it ran a campaign urging holidaymakers to “Do it for Denmark”. Couples who could prove they conceived their child on a SPIES holiday were offered a selection of baby-related prizes, including three years’ worth of diapers.

Spies Travel | “Do It For Denmark” | Upright Music from Upright Music on Vimeo.

But while the stunt raised an international chuckle, the situation in Denmark is no laughing matter. Denmark, one of the best countries in the world to have children, is running out of them. M

Features, News

By Polly Phillips

Polly Phillips A freelance journalist, who cut her teeth in soap opera and women's magazines, before moving onto the newsdesk at the Daily Express.

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