Professor Francesco C. Billari, Head of Department and Professor of Sociology and Demography, University of Oxford:
It’s an ideological error to put children against immigrants
Redistributing work from a life course and family perspective will let women to return actively on the labour market
15 December, 2012
Extremely low fertility in current societies is a sign that a desire to live a good life, is becoming increasingly incompatible with the desire of having childrenWe cannot build good European societies without investing in policies that allow us to work and realise our expectationsThe EU is lagging behind because there is no distinction in social expenditure between investment and current expenses Close-up: Francesco C. Billari is Head of Department and Professor of Sociology and Demography at the University of Oxford. Previously he worked at Bocconi University, Milan, where he was also Vice-Rector of Development and as Director of the Dondena Centre. He is President of the European Association for Population Studies and in 2012 was granted the Clogg Award from the Population Association of America. He was among the eminent researchers that took part at Population Europe Network forum on active aging and redistribution of work in Europe, held recently in Brussels. - Prof. Billari, is the low birth rate a big threat for Europe in demographic aspect?- Extremely low fertility in current societies is a sign that a desire to live a good life, which has to be respected by all of us, women and men alike is becoming increasingly incompatible with the desire of having children. All the opinion surveys indicate that men and women still want to have kids. However, they will want to have kids as long as this is compatible with a good life, a work, a good career and a good prospect for their children. So the threat of low fertility is signalling us that our societies have a problem in terms of managing to have a good life while maintaining the standard ideas of realising family goals. It's not necessarily a threat in terms of declining population because in societies with low fertility and high quality of life immigrants are coming and increasing the population number. However, societies with low quality of life and low fertility and I'm thinking for some eastern European societies as Bulgaria, for instance, basically have a double burden of low fertility and several people migrating out of the country, especially the qualified ones. In that sense low fertility is a problem because it is a symptom of a profound problem in adapting societies to the goals of individuals. Successful societies now, we have some in Europe, combine the desire to have a family with the desire to be a successful individual in the job market, to have a successful career. - How the redistribution of work from a life course perspective could be productive?- Let me start from the idea that now in Europe, basically in all European societies men and women are equal at least in the first part of their life. They study the same number of years, they increasingly study similar subjects. That's a very important point of departure because if we want to understand how to make a productive life out of Europeans we have to start from this idea. Men and women not only are born, let's say theoretically equal, but they are increasingly more equal in terms of what we call human capital, their educational investment. So if we start from that we have to try and think how the life of men and women develops after this period of education and there come the problems. Because in societies in which having a family and working is not compatible, basically the life of men and women becomes much differentiated and that's not good use of the education, especially the education that women went through. Redistributing work from a life course perspective, I will add and family perspective, will mean taking advantage of the fact that we have women as educated as men, if not more educated than men and letting them be able to contribute to the working life potentially on equal grounds with respect to men. The cost of keeping women not working is enormous and is also a challenge to the pension system because we are not using all the potential workers to contribute to pensions. Because of population aging we need all the resources to sustain pension systems. - What are the main advantages of combining work desires and family desires?- The advantage is that we invest in children in different ways. First of all, responsible adults want to have children but they don't see children as a potential burden for their job desires and also invest personally in having quality children. I'm not speaking of a large number of children but let's say potentially two why not three children. We are not speaking about large families as in the past. On the other hand, creating the infrastructure that allows to combine work and family especially child care has a double advantage - the advantage on children is that usually when they get childcare they get high quality education. So children have to start early to go to the childcare. Universal childcare provision is one of the directions. You invest in children through childcare and you invest in families by allowing women to combine work and family. It's a double investment and this is a different kind of expenditure as for instance expenditure on pensions. You really spend on something that will give returns in the future. It will give returns because if women stay on the labour marker there will be taxes for instance. It will be returns because you invest in children, they will be the citizens of tomorrow.- Does Europe need to invest in immigrants along with investing in children?- I'll say we probably should do both. We have no choice. Basically Europe will have to participate in a competition to attract the most educated and the most promising immigrants all over the world and these goals are not competing. It's an ideological error to put children against immigrants. Building a good society is what we have to aspire - a society where families, women and men want to have children. It will also be a society where people will want to migrate to, where it will be attractive. If we build a good society we'll potentially be able to choose who is arriving as an immigrant and not just to wait and see who is able to come. There is also one reason why it is unavoidable to think that immigration is necessary. For many countries fertility has been low for decades and even if we change our societies and we go back with higher fertility there will be decades of lower births. The only way to compensate these missing births is immigrants and there is plenty of young people in the world nowadays. In Italy this has already happened, basically in Italy and Spain migrants have replaced the missing births. There is a lot of potential calls for immigration in Eastern Europe especially for the countries that are doing better and we've already seen that in the Czech Republic, in Poland. If we do not see this in Bulgaria and Romania it's not a demographic problem, unfortunately it's a problem of how the society and economy are doing well. Of course in these countries there is always a potential that some of the people that are working abroad may come back with kind of increased human capital and a good amount of money. So that could be for instance one of the hopes for these countries. This worked for some of the southern European countries in the past as Spain and Italy. But usually when people migrate they don't come back so often. - Why is this paradox - at the time when youth unemployment is at its highest in Europe, there is a debate how elderly people to work longer?- Economics shows that basically there is not always this competition between young and old workers. Sometimes it was in the public sector. Usually in the economy at large the number of workers is not pre-fixed so it is a fact that elderly staying in the labour market may potentially also create jobs for the younger people. One of the good examples are jobs in the service sectors that allow combining work and family and work and care, it's especially good for the childcare but may be also good for the elderly. The same problem is for people who are in middle life 40-45 and they have problems on the labour market because they are not too young and they cannot retire. There must work basically the same flexicurity policies that can be applied to mothers. The market should be healthy and flexible but allow for changes. We cannot go back to a situation that people are secure for the same job for ever but we can create societies in which it is possible to have a second chance and third chance. And the same policies that work for mothers who go back to the market should work for men at age of 45. I think the general approach should be making age and family choices less relevant in taking job decisions. One of the ideas of redistribution is that we should be ready to re-think a little bit on the number of hours worked so some people could not just go from full time job to retirement. It will be good idea to have a phasing out stage where people don't work full time for a while and this could be the best way to exploit and take advantage of experienced elderly.- What policies at European and national levels do you think can contribute to overcoming the demographic crisis?- Again the major threat to positive demographic development for the moment is the great financial crisis because some of the policies that could be helpful will be introducing universal childcare, spending more on immigrants' integration, trying to devise policies that help mothers entering the labour market. Some of these policies are expensive. So one of the challenges here is to say these policies are investment policies. Spending part of the GDP on these policies is not like spending part of the GDP on something that is just consumed in a year, it's an investment. The EU is lagging behind because there is no distinction in social expenditure between investment and current expenses. In that sense European governments haven't done enough. So the key issue is to think also about a European budget where some of the social expenditure is seen as investment expenditure. It's like building bridges, building roads and infrastructure. Spending money on childcare is basically equal to infrastructure spending. We have to face this in the current crisis and the best way is to build this kind of social infrastructure for the future.