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‘European policy on fertility is naïve’

The search for solutions to the fertility problem produces some remarkable situations. There was recently a free ‘love day’ in Russia, for example. In certain regions in Italy there’s even a significant sum of money for every newborn. ‘At the European level, too, there’s a surprising amount of interest in a baby bonus,’ says Mills, ‘but it’s had no noticeable effect. It only works with the lowest social classes, and they often don’t reach the level that’s needed to satisfy economic demands. Nor is any attention paid to the consequences in the long term – poverty and the welfare of the children.’

Cultural U-turn

What could be an important contribution to the choice to have children or have them earlier is proper regulations for parental leave, maternity leave and child care. ‘But that won’t solve the problem either. Even in the Netherlands there’s cultural pressure on mothers to bring up their children themselves. You’d need a complete cultural U-turn before that changed. And that’s going to take a long time.’

Research into men

The focus is also far too much on women, in Mills’ opinion. ‘What I miss in the whole discussion are the men. All the research, all the possible solutions are directed towards women, but what do the men want? Where do they stand? After all, it takes two to make a child! More research into men is crucial in the search for a structural solution.’

Curriculum Vitae

Dr Melinda Mills (Canada, 1969) studied Sociology and Demographics in Alberta. In 2000 she gained her PhD with distinction from the University of Groningen. She then worked for the University of Bielefeld and at the VU University in Amsterdam. She is currently a Rosalind Franklin fellow at the Department of Sociology at the University of Groningen.

Contact: Dr M. Mills

The population is aging – not only in the Netherlands, but all over Europe. The most obvious solution is that more children need to be born. But how do you encourage people to start a family? To this end, the European Commission has drawn up a European fertility policy plan. According to Melinda Mills, lecturer in Sociology at the University of Groningen, it would be unrealistic to expect results from it: ‘The differences between European countries are too large to approach this question at a European level.’

Mills: ‘On the whole, the problem is roughly the same in all European countries: the reason why many people put off having children, or decide not to have any at all, is the impossibility of combining work and care properly. But the exact reasons, and thus also the solutions, are completely different in each country. Even within countries, different groups need to be approached differently. It’s just naïve to think that a single European policy can be successfully applied everywhere.

Emotional decision

More children to solve the problem of an aging population sounds like a simple and above all logical solution. But how can you persuade people to cooperate? Mills: ‘From an economic point of view, the added value of children is currently zero for couples. On the contrary, children are extremely expensive. Where it used to be essential to have a family to look after you in your old age, that’s now arranged with a pension. The decision whether or not to have children is now completely emotional.’

Financially impossible

Everyone has the right to have children – that is stated in a United Nations treaty. But according to Mills there’s a yawning gap between wanting and being able to. ‘In countries like Greece and Italy, a growing percentage of the population simply can’t afford to have children any more. The result is that having children is being postponed, and then it’s often not physically possible any more.’

Individualistic

In other countries, too, this is increasingly becoming a problem. Mills: ‘People are becoming more individualistic. They want a car, a nice computer, and having children seems to be mostly hassle, and therefore the decision is constantly being postponed. By allowing more IVF and even subsidizing it would help to persuade more people to take the plunge. However, it would also mean more twins and triplets, and also medical complications, whereas the number of successes is limited. So that’s not a realistic solution either.’

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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