What Workism Is Doing to Parents

Public policy should assist families—but not by helping adults spend more time on the job.

A pregnant woman working.
Daniel Berehulak / Getty

For thousands of years, people have understood the pervasive hold that work has on our lives. The author of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes argued that toil and labor are “meaningless.” The Romantic movement rejected the alienating wage labor of the Industrial Revolution. Just this year, Netflix’s The One explicitly dramatized how the pride and power of careerism compete with love, romance, and familial pursuits. This sentiment also undergirds a standard movie trope: the father who works so much that he never sees his kids. In some versions, including the Christmas favorite Elf, the dad comes to his senses, backs off from his work obsession, and becomes a better parent.

But while Hollywood knows that work—which is ultimately futile—is one of the chief threats to a meaningful life and a flourishing family, public policy in the United States treats both of those aspirations as irrelevant. In most advanced countries, birth rates are very low by both historical and contemporary global standards, and both ends of the political spectrum promote greater labor-force participation. Progressives focus on providing benefits explicitly aimed at supporting working parents, such as paid leave and public child care. Conservatives fixate on “welfare dependency,” and demand that the social safety net be structured to actively encourage work. From both sides, policies are being hawked to a credulous public as family-friendly, even though persuading people to focus even more on work is a terrible way to help family life.

This pervasive focus on work reflects broader attitudes in society. Last year, Atlantic staff writer Derek Thompson used the term workism to describe the rising importance Americans place on work as a source of meaning. We were curious to find out whether attitudes toward work really do predict differences in people’s family lives, so we used four different data sets to assess the work attitudes of more than 400,000 survey respondents in more than 100 countries over almost 40 years. We found that even though people in high-income countries typically wish to have two children, workism interferes with fulfilling that desire. Put bluntly, people who value work more have fewer kids. And while some readers may see this as a good thing, the shortfall in births will lead to significant negative economic effects.

When countries on the whole shift toward valuing work more, birth rates fall. This was true even after we controlled for gender attitudes at the individual or country level, as well as how much people said they valued family. The effect of workism (that is, of societies placing a high value on work) on fertility was bigger than the effect of gender attitudes across all data sets, and similar to the effect of placing a low value on family. The number of children that American women have is less than the number they tell pollsters they prefer, and that gap has only grown over the past quarter century. Our research helps explain that finding. Forced to choose between the family they want and the career they want, people are opting for the latter, nudged along by policy makers hoping to encourage work. All too often, people then end up in workplaces and on career paths hostile to family, and in social spheres whose norms treat work as meaningful and family as burdensome.

This would be no problem if fertility rates in the U.S. were anywhere close to what women say they want or to a level that could ensure a healthy economy, but they’re not. American birth rates are near their historic lows, which will lead to less economic dynamism and more inequality. But even countries whose leaders explicitly acknowledge that low birth rates are a problem cannot quite bring themselves to recognize the role workism plays. Japan, under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, instituted a jumble of policies known as “Womenomics” that were intended to make the labor market more gender-egalitarian, but came paired with the belief that, somehow, they would also encourage Japanese couples to have more children. The experiment (predictably) has failed: Japan’s birth rates in 2019 were lower than when Abe took office, and have tumbled even lower during the pandemic. Meanwhile, in Europe, some experts discourage policies that support all families (such as child allowances), and argue that only work-focused benefits like leave and child care can boost fertility. The argument proffered is that “feminism is the new natalism”—which is to say, that a sufficiently strong commitment to egalitarian attitudes and economic structures can boost birth rates.

Unfortunately, the evidence for this view turns out to be somewhat spotty. We reviewed more than 30 studies of how public policy affects birth rates and found that work-tied benefits such as paid leave and child care are somewhat less effective in raising birth rates than universal cash benefits are. Policies intended to improve work-life balance do make life easier for many families, which is good, but they also strengthen and extend the claims of work on parents’ and would-be parents’ lives. This is a lesson many of us have learned since COVID-19 struck: Remote work may allow a lot of flexibility, but it also means that work can become pervasive, demanding attention at all hours of the day and night.

American policy makers are beginning to pay closer attention to the burdens that parents face. President Joe Biden has signed legislation providing a one-year child allowance already and has proposed a huge child-care and leave expansion. But lawmakers also need to think carefully about the role that work plays in parents’ lives.

One straightforward way to understand the results of our research is to ask, “What happens to a country’s birth rate if, on a four-point scale from ‘Not at all important’ to ‘Very important,’ one in five people bumps their rating of work up by one point?” This represents a pretty normal amount of change in attitudes for a country to experience over time.

The effect of such a change varies by a country’s broader socioeconomic circumstances. In countries with low incomes and short life expectancies, more work-focused attitudes are associated with higher fertility, perhaps because in these countries, material precarity and extreme poverty are very common. In India, Brazil, or Tanzania, assigning a lot of value to work makes a lot of sense given that the life prospects of people without work in lower-income countries are extremely bad in objective terms. But in highly developed countries—defined as those with a Human Development Index greater than 0.80—the relationship flips.

We believe that, in countries such as Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States, placing a high importance on work is unlikely to be associated with basic material needs and more likely to be associated with finding meaning or social prestige from work. For a young adult in a rich country, assigning a lower importance to work isn’t likely to lead to an untimely death. Relatively generous social-welfare systems (even in the U.S., which provides more income supports than most very-low-income countries) mitigate the decline in material living conditions from working less.

This helps explain some existing conundrums in demographic research. Improving work-life balance as men adopt more egalitarian attitudes and behaviors at home and as governments and employers provide more generous support for work-life balance really should increase the number of children that families have. Yet, in the past decade, birth rates have fallen faster in the Nordic social-welfare states than almost anywhere else. But if the only version of “egalitarianism” on offer merely enables women to work more hours, people who would be happy to have more children do not do so. And most versions of gender egalitarianism on offer in the Western world are of this type.

Likewise, another line of research has suggested that birth rates are falling in rich countries because material needs, and associated materialist values, are in decline, as people adopt more individualist, expressive, or post-material values. This is basically an argument that societies progress up the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”—from physical survival to emotional self-actualization—and as they do so, rearing children gets short shrift because people pursue other, more individualist aims. In this account, people find other ways to find meaning in life, so kids fall by the wayside.

The problem with this hypothesis is that people’s desire to have children is not falling. Indeed, even as countries get richer, fertility preferences in most countries stabilize around two kids per couple. Even in low-fertility countries such as South Korea and Japan, the average number of children that people tell pollsters they want is at least two. Furthermore, a shift toward post-materialist values needn’t necessarily reduce fertility, because parents might conceivably view children as opportunities for their own expression. Why can’t parents find self-actualization through parenting? Here, our research again suggests an answer: Both men and women are deriving more value from work, which often directly competes with family for time and attention.

Because no existing survey directly asked the exact questions we were curious about, we supplemented our three international survey databases with our own survey of U.S. women ages 18 to 44. (We focused on this group not because we think only women’s attitudes matter, but because men are less reliable in reporting their fecundity in surveys. Some are not aware of, or do not acknowledge, all the children they have sired.) We gave respondents a list of 10 values—including “being healthy,” “religious faith,” “improving society,” “having a meaningful career,” and “having a good standard of living”—and asked them to rank their importance.

We found that women with more workist attitudes reported a smaller ideal family size but the same gap between that ideal and their actual intentions as other women. At every age, women with more workist attitudes had reached a smaller share of that intended fertility. In other words, even women who desired smaller families were falling short of having the number of children that they wanted.

Notably, the desire for a meaningful career, not for the income that comes from a good job, is what kept women from fulfilling their fertility preferences in our data. On average, women who simply wanted a good standard of living had a higher percentage of the children that they wanted than women seeking fulfillment through their work.

Our analysis points to several key conclusions. First, that highly work-focused values and attitudes are associated with lower fertility. This is true among both men and women. The workplace competes with the family for time, attention, and as a source of meaning in life. This is the obvious conclusion from virtually every working parent’s personal experience, but is an under-appreciated reality in the policy arena.

Second, policies that try to help families by routing benefits through employment, or giving extra benefits to working parents, will sow the seeds of their own failure. While some families will use public child care or paid parental leave to ease the achievement of their family goals, others will become more deeply enmeshed in workplaces that do not value family at all. Third, parents who are not employed—and therefore are locked out of policies designed to help working parents—may correctly perceive that they are facing discrimination on the basis of their family model. The child- and dependent-care tax credit, for example, is explicitly denied to one-earner couples and is unhelpful to poor households but does provide benefits to wealthier households who conform to the social norm of the two-earner household. This also helps explain the finding of dozens of empirical studies indicating that, dollar for dollar, cash benefits provided to working and nonworking parents yield larger increases in fertility than paid leave or child-care programs. The problem with the latter is that they partly feed into the main competition with family, which is work.

Ultimately, the poverty and family researcher Richard Reeves was right when he described the status quo as creating job-friendly families rather than family-friendly jobs. Should we really be surprised that job-friendly families have fewer children? Don't make the mistake of thinking only about women in the workforce: We found that while women who valued work more had fewer children, the effect was even larger among men who valued their career very highly. When work becomes the centerpiece of life, the most valuable things in life suffer. Until policy makers understand that efforts to support family life are fundamentally at odds with the workist paradigms that dominate both major political parties, the United States can make only so much progress in improving parents’ lives.