The Dutch Fertility Paradox: How the Netherlands Has Managed to Sustain Near-Replacement Fertility

Fig. 9.1
Tempo-adjusted total fertility rates, Bongaarts-Feeney method, selected countries (Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research/Vienna Institute of Demography 2014; dates vary depending on data availability)

The Netherlands is also characterized by very late fertility, ranking among the societies with the oldest first-time mothers in the world. Figure 9.2 shows that the average age at first birth for women in the Netherlands is now above 29, having increased steadily since the 1970s. This is similar to increases in the age at first birth for women in countries such as Sweden, Japan, and Italy. Another characteristic is that Dutch women have compressed fertility and generally have their second child soon after the first. Women who are now in their late 40s have an average of almost two children (about 1.87 for women born in 1957 and 1.85 for women born in 1960) (Fokkema et al. 2008).


Fig. 9.2
Women’s mean age at first birth, 1980–2010, selected countries (UNECE 2014 for Italy; Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research/Vienna Institute of Demography 2014 for remaining countries, which shows the period mean ages at first birth by age 40)

Partnership formation has likewise undergone significant changes over the past decades (Dykstra and Komter 2006). This includes the postponement of entry into first partnership, postponing and forgoing marriage, and differences in the level of symbolic and legal commitment by relationship type (Liefbroer and Dykstra 2000; Poortman and Mills 2012). Between the late 1980s and the late 1990s, the share of people aged 25 and above who entered consensual unions without being married more than doubled (CBS 2011), a trend that has continued in the past decade. Another striking development is that not only are more and more people living together without being married, but they also do so for longer periods of time (Fokkema and Liefbroer 2008; Poortman and Mills 2012). The Netherlands has experienced not only an increasing number of couples who postpone marriage, but a smaller proportion who eventually marry. This is attributed to changes in Dutch partnership laws, such as registered partnerships and cohabitation contracts that were introduced in the late 1990s, which mean that individuals no longer need to get married for legal reasons or to clarify the rights of children. This has also meant a surge in the number of children born in “out-of-wedlock” consensual unions, which is now more than one in five, with almost 90 % legally acknowledged (erkend) by the father (CBS 2012).

Toward a Multilevel Theory of Fertility Change

In order to understand how different national policy constellations and cultural schemas might affect population and fertility levels, the theoretical model shown in Fig. 9.3 serves as a useful guiding heuristic. It is implausible to assume that macro-level (or institutional, national) policies lead directly to the macro-level fertility rates that we observe (the dotted line). It is therefore useful to adopt Coleman’s (1990) macro-micro-macro model to understand the link between macro-level systems, micro-level intentions, decision-making processes, and behavior, and in turn, macro-level national fertility levels.


Fig. 9.3
Multilevel theoretical framework to illustrate how national-level institutions affect observed fertility levels

Following Coleman (1990), the macro-level consists of the social system, which is made up of various institutional policies and also more general cultural schemas and values that often underlie policies. What is central in this model is that the different levels of the analyses are causally linked, which is useful for understanding how macro-level systems, institutions, or cultural norms and values at the national level serve as an antecedent to micro- and macro-level consequences. It also clarifies that macro-level fertility outcomes can only be described by linking them to a micro-level analysis—albeit an often daunting empirical task. Macro-level policies and schemas operate in the form of a contextual mechanism or national filter that enables or constrains decision-making and fertility behavior. In other words, the institutional and normative context discussed in the pages that follow is envisaged to shape the way that Dutch people think about families and children and their “action formation,” or how they are able to realize their fertility desires. This, in turn, either sustains or transforms the macro-level fertility trends that we observe. The remaining discussion goes into more detail about how these direct and inadvertent policies, institutional changes, and cultural norms have developed in the Netherlands.

Family Policies

Although the Dutch government has never promulgated direct fertility policies, there are a myriad of institutional features that affect fertility in either an intended or unintended manner. These include family-related policies, often aimed at work-family reconciliation and aiding women to enter the labor market, but there are also indirect national-level policies such as employment-protection legislation and the cost of higher education that either enhance or hamper fertility.

“The Netherlands Is Full”: Fear of Overcrowding and Fertility

Although several European countries have been concerned about low fertility levels for some time, the Dutch government has never perceived the fertility level as too low, nor has it ever initiated any pro-natalist policies. Rather, due to high population density and disturbing population forecasts that were made in the 1970s, the government became concerned about overpopulation. As Fokkema et al. (2008) chronicle, a Royal Commission on Population in 1977 concluded that natural population growth should be halted and argued for the advantages of a stable population size. This view was repeatedly supported in Parliament, and official government statements argued that “in the longer run a stationary population is viewed as desirable” (Government of the Netherlands 1999, p. 135). The last formal Royal Speech of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands in September 1979 showed the spirit of the times with the now often-repeated words: “Ons land is vol, ten dele overvol (Our country is full, partially overcrowded).” This fear of overcrowding has remained in the Dutch public debate, with the slogan “The Netherlands is full” adopted by various anti-immigration parties. The focus on overpopulation has been fuelled by large-scale non-Western immigration (Bail 2008) and a surge in ethnically and culturally diverse minorities, in particular Muslim groups. Survey data show that the Netherlands is the only European country in which the majority would like to have a smaller population (e.g., Kontula and Miettinen 2005; Dorbritz et al. 2005), with only one-fifth perceiving a drop in birth rates as negative.

Family Planning: Contraceptive Use and Abortion

As in most Western countries, contraceptive use was forbidden and largely taboo in the Netherlands until the 1960s. The prohibition on contraceptives was removed in 1969, and they began to be covered by national health insurance in 1971, which ensured the widespread usage that still persists today (Fokkema et al. 2008). It should be noted, however, that in 2004, national health insurance rules changed, and contraceptives are no longer provided free to women above the age of 22. Nevertheless, the use of reliable birth control became common practice in the Netherlands and still persists today. The pill is the most common method used, followed by voluntary sterilization, IUDs (intrauterine devices), and, to a much lesser extent, condoms (Fokkema et al. 2008). The peak ages of pill use are from 16 to 28, clearly intended for effective birth control.

The Netherlands has one of the lowest rates of legal induced abortion in Western Europe, and this has been true for some time. In 2003, for example, the annual rate of legal abortion was 8.6 per 1,000 women of reproductive age, compared with 18.7 in Sweden, 16.5 in France, and 68.4 in the Russian Federation (Frejka 2008, Table 3). The Netherlands also has the lowest rate of teenage pregnancies in the world (CBS 2010), which has been attributed to various factors such as open sexuality and sex education and high and early use of effective oral contraceptives (Ivanova et al. 2014). Abortion and teenage pregnancy rates range from 3 to 10 times higher among the four main ethnic minority groups, originating from Surinam, Netherlands Antilles, Turkey, and Morocco, compared with the non-minority population (Beerthuizen 2003; Fokkema et al. 2008; CBS 2010).

Childcare: Use It, But Not Too Much

The Netherlands has a complicated relationship with formal childcare. Due to the political climate, historical development of the welfare state, and religious legacy, there is a strong cultural norm for at least one of the biological parents to care for children, preferably the mother (Portegijs et al. 2006; Mills and Täht 2010). In fact, it was not until the early 1990s that formalized public childcare became accessible. In the past decades, the government has made multiple changes in childcare policies, and since 2007, and particularly since 2011, there have been substantial reductions in state support.

The Central Childcare Act, introduced in 2005, recommended that the government, employers, and parents share the costs of childcare (Den Dulk 2001). Since employers were only urged to participate voluntarily and were not formally required to contribute to childcare costs, many did not. The rules were changed in 2007 because it had become apparent that many employers were not helping to pay for childcare, and serious administrative problems had arisen. In 2007, the Dutch government began paying one-third of childcare costs, but payments were income adjusted. Employers continued to resist paying their share, but in 2012, after demonstrations and lobbying by large labor unions (FNV Bondgenoten 2014) and opposition parties, employers were formally required to pay one-third of childcare costs. The childcare sector received four substantial financial cuts in 2011 and three additional cuts from 2012 to 2015. These cuts included lowering the amount provided for second children in 2012 and ending childcare subsidies to parents who together earn more than US$160,660 (€118,000) in 2013.

Compared with the rest of Europe, children in the Netherlands spend a very limited number of hours in formal childcare, which is related to the large number of Dutch women who work part time. Childcare centers are generally open during standard business hours only, and women often adapt their work hours around the school times of their children (Mills and Täht 2010). Children start school at age four, but many come home for lunch and are out of school on Wednesday and Friday afternoons. Although in-school lunches and after-school care have been increasing since the early 2000s, particularly in urban areas, school schedules still appear to limit the hours that Dutch women work. It is important to note, however, that grandparents and other informal caregivers play a key role in childcare. More than 40 % of children under the mandatory school age are cared for, on average, for one day a week by grandparents or other family members (Mills et al. 2013).

Childcare became a central issue in many European countries after the introduction of the Barcelona Targets in 2002. The Barcelona Targets provide a prime example of how the family policies of European countries might be influenced by supra-national entities such as the European Commission or the European Union. Specifically, the intention was to encourage member states to “remove disincentives to female labor-force participation and strive, taking into account the demand for childcare facilities and in line with national patterns of provision, to provide childcare by 2010 to at least 90 % of children between 3 years old and the mandatory school age and at least 33 % of children under 3 years of age” (European Council 2002). Although measurement remains challenging, a recent report showed that the Netherlands meets the Barcelona objective of 33 % childcare coverage for children under three, but the use of formal childcare is predominantly part-time (Mills et al. 2013). In this respect, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, with high rates of female part-time employment, differ dramatically from other European countries.

Figure 9.4 compares full-time employment rates for mothers of 0–2 year olds with full-time formal childcare coverage rates for European countries in 2010. In general, we see a weak relationship between mother’s full-time employment rates and full-time childcare coverage. The association is strong in the Netherlands, however, with low full-time childcare coverage and very low rates of full-time mother’s employment.


Fig. 9.4
Full-time employment rates of mothers and full-time (30+ hours per week) formal childcare rates for children up to 3 years old in European countries, 2010 (Data from European Union Labour Force Survey (EU LFS) and European Union Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (EU SILC), see Mills et al. 2013)

Child Allowance

A means-tested child allowance has been provided in the Netherlands since 1946, not as a pro-natalist policy, but to support family welfare. The minimum level for the first child is almost US$82 (€60) per month (Fokkema and Esveldt 2006). Benefits are paid until age 17, increasing with the age of the child from ages 6 to 12. Before 1995, child allowances were paid according to the age and number of children in order to provide higher benefits to large families. During this period, the larger the family size, the higher the benefit level for each child. After 1995, however, this seemingly pro-natalist policy was discontinued, and the allowance was paid only according to the age of the child. After the recent financial crisis, the generous spending on child benefits was cut by about US$1 billion (€700 million) in 2013, from an annual total of US$13.6 billion (€10 billion) to US$12.6 billion (€9.3 billion) (Rijksoverheid 2014). The cut in benefits was also designed to encourage poorer parents to work. The annual child allowance (kinderbijslag) for children age 12–17 is scheduled to go down from about US$1,270 (€932) in 2013 to US$1,045 (€768) by 2016. The annual allowance for children age 6–11, which was US$1,491 (€1,096) in 2013, is scheduled to be reduced in a similar manner over time (for a detailed summary in Dutch, see Rijksoverheid 2014).

Parental Leave: Maternity and Paternity Leave

Women in the Netherlands have a legal entitlement to 16 weeks of maternity leave at 100 % pay. The Labor Act of 1919 and the Working Hours Act of January 1996 stipulated that women should not work for at least 8 weeks after childbirth and 2 weeks before their due date. Today, maternity leave falls under the Sickness Benefits Act, with employees entitled to a total of 16 weeks, including 4–6 weeks to be taken before a birth (zwangerschapsverlof) and the remainder after the birth (bevallingsverlof). This provision for fully paid maternity leave is typical of many European countries such as Germany (14 weeks at 100 % pay), Switzerland (14 weeks at 80 % pay), and Austria and France (16 weeks at 100 % pay) (ILO 2013). Women in Sweden are entitled to more than 1 year (480 days) of maternity leave at up to 80 % of salary, with the possibility of transferring some of the leave to the father. Other countries have 52 weeks at either full or partial pay (e.g., United Kingdom at 90 % and Denmark at 100 %) (ILO 2013).

In the Netherlands, mothers and fathers are also entitled to parental leave to care for young children. This varies by employer. Some trade-union or collective-bargaining agreements stipulate some pay for a specified number of hours, generally up to 1 day during the first year after the birth of a child. A father also had the right to paternity leave immediately after a child is born. This increased from 2 to 5 days in 2014.

Cultural and Normative Values about Parenthood and Childcare

The previous figures suggest that other factors beyond the availability and use of childcare are related to women’s decisions to participate in the labor force or have children. Using the European Social Survey, which was collected in 2006/2007, it is possible to situate the Netherlands in a comparative context in relation to cultural and normative values about parenthood and childcare. Figure 9.5 provides a comparative European view of the level of approval, ambivalence (neither approval nor disapproval), or disapproval of whether a woman with a child under 3 years old should have a full-time job.


Fig. 9.5
Approval or disapproval of a woman with a child under age three working full-time, selected European countries (European Social Survey (ESS) 2006/2007, author’s calculations; see note to Fig. 9.4 for a key linking country codes to full names)

In more than half of the countries, only 50 % approve of a woman with a child under three having a full-time job. There is a striking similarity between the level of approval of women with young children working full-time and the actual levels of childcare enrollment and employment shown in the previous figures. The low levels of approval in countries such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany suggest why these countries have non-existent or ineffective policies on childcare and female employment. The negative views on full-time female employment may help explain the lack of momentum to create policies on women’s employment and childcare.

Inadvertent National Constellations That Affect Fertility

The Paternalistic Welfare State and Importance of Political Regimes

The Dutch welfare state emerged out of Keynesian economic policies, which were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s, focusing on the role of the state and corporate institutions. During this time, life-course risks (e.g., unemployment, disability) were transferred from citizens and families to paternalistic state institutions, often (co)governed by corporatist institutions such as trade unions or employer’s organizations. The government sought to implement an ideal of the “the good life,” with signals that were a mixture of accepted practices, such as married women staying out of the labor market, and the realization of social and political ideals, such as state pensions and insurance against unemployment and disability, a healthcare plan, and policies to increase educational attainment (Wielers and Mills 2011). These policies were codified in a number of laws that assigned citizens more rights, to which they, generally willingly, adapted their lives.

During this period, the role of the full-time housewife was promoted by the government and codified in various regulations (e.g., taxes). Although this traditional division of gender roles was not enforced, the constellation of social-security arrangements made certain life choices more attractive and thus prevalent, and there was little public resistance to these options. Although there were women with full-time jobs in the 1960s, they were generally unmarried without children. The political, cultural, and moral implications of the paternalistic state were put into question in the 1960s by young people and the women’s movement, which organized itself around the issue of abortion and later the division of paid and unpaid labor (Kool-Smit 1967). The Social-Democratic1 government changed its position toward more moral liberalism, which was staunchly resisted by the large political group of Christian Democrats, who disagreed with the idea of individual freedom on moral issues.

One consequence of the government’s paternalistic policies was very low flexibility in the Dutch labor market, which made it vulnerable to economic shocks. The economic crises in the 1970s, and particularly the 1980s, fueled a growing recognition that the welfare state could not fund long durations of unemployment or disability (Mooi-Reci and Mills 2012). These crises were followed by considerable job growth, relative stability in job quality, a clear rise in labor-market participation (particularly of women), and increased flexibility in the labor market by means of temporary jobs, part-time employment, and the growth of temporary employment agencies.

From about 1918 to 1994, the Christian Democrats took part in all elected governments, in which they upheld many traditional views and laws related to the family and individual rights. In 1994, a new government was formed, consisting of Social Democrats and Liberals.2 Several cultural issues that had been pending for decades could now be resolved, and the new government implemented multiple pieces of social legislation that had been held back on “moral” grounds, such as legalizing gay marriage, prostitution, and euthanasia. The main goal of the new cabinet was, like that of its predecessors, to increase labor-market participation. It was only in the mid-1990s that new policies related to the family were introduced such as fiscal equality between men and women, expansion of childcare, the extension of shop opening hours, and the right to part-time work.

Dutch Gender Roles: The Right to Part-Time Work and the One-and-a-Half-Earner Model

In the middle of the 1990s, employment in the Netherlands started to grow rapidly, particularly the number of part-time jobs and the number of hours worked in part-time jobs. The stagnant Dutch labor market improved its flexibility and became highly successful (Visser and Hemerijck 1999). This created a tight labor-market situation, with improvements for workers in flexible jobs. The government developed legislation to drive out wage discrimination in part-time jobs and to provide a legal “right to part-time work,” under which every employee was granted the right to reduce his or her number of work hours (Visser 2002). This right was championed by Dutch “part-time feminists” as a way for women to remain at home and still participate in the labor market. Importantly, part-time workers had the same benefits as full-time workers, such as healthcare coverage and pensions. These new laws were enacted in 1997 and 2000 (Wielers and Mills 2011). In addition, legislation was introduced to reduce the risks of temporary jobs. An employer can extend a temporary contract with an employee only twice and, at maximum, for a period of 6 years. After that, the employer has to offer the employee a longer-term contract (Remery et al. 2002).

Increased flexibility in the labor market has had mixed effects on the life courses of individuals in the Netherlands, with detrimental effects on some groups such as new labor-market entrants and women (Remery et al. 2002; de Vries and Wolbers 2005). Although the growth of fixed-term contracts and part-time work has permitted young people and women to enter the labor market in large numbers, these have often been “stop-gap” jobs for young people or unequal or dead-end jobs for women. At the same time, the persistence of the “modern male breadwinner” or “one-and-a-half-earner” model, where the man works full time and the female partner works part time, has meant that men’s careers have remained relatively stable (de Vries and Wolbers 2005). The degree of employment security, the ability to enter or re-enter the labor market, and the possibility to balance work with family responsibilities—all these are pivotal conditions for individuals to make long-term commitments to have children (Mills and Blossfeld 2005).

Unequal Pay for Unequal Work

Feminism in the Netherlands has historically focused on the right to part-time work or to remain out of the labor force and less on equal wages or career opportunities. The Netherlands is truly exceptional in international terms in its high share of part-time jobs, with most women employed part-time. In 2005, 61 % of women were working in part-time jobs, as well as 15 % of men (SCP 2006, p. 145, based on data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—OECD). Typical female jobs are in personal services, mostly labor intensive and poorly paid. Schippers (1987) characterized the situation as one of “unequal pay for unequal work,” and this segregation has continued. This is in contrast to Hakim’s (2000, 2003) more positive take on Dutch women’s part-time work as offering favorable part-time career paths. Although she is correct that women are protected in stable part-time careers, several researchers (e.g., Schippers 1987; Kalmijn and Luijkx 2006; Luijkx et al. 2006) demonstrate that there is no equality in the careers of Dutch men and women. This inequality and the resulting economic dependence become particularly problematic for women in the event of a divorce or death of a spouse, when they become economically vulnerable (Uunk 2004).

Education Level, Field of Study, and the National Education System

Education Level, Field of Study, and Fertility

The relationship between level of education and fertility has been a central focus within demography (Rindfuss et al. 1980, 1984, 1996; Balbo et al. 2013). Higher education (particularly of women) operates to postpone the timing of fertility and particularly the age at first birth (Bulatao and Casterline 2001). Longer educational enrollment can also limit the quantum of fertility by leaving a shorter reproductive period to have more children. Highly-educated women in the Netherlands are more likely than less-educated women to remain childless (CBS 2004). If they do have children, many postpone first births and compress higher-order births, or in other words “catch up” by having higher-order children at short intervals (Sobotka 2004).

Women in the Netherlands have made considerable gains in education, now exceeding men in higher education levels (Mills and Praeg 2013). An area that has received less attention is specific fields of study, which lead to particular occupational trajectories that may or may not be amenable to combining family and employment. A growing number of studies have linked educational and occupational fields to fertility (Hoem et al. 2006; Lappegård and Rønsen 2005; Martin-Garcia 2010; Van Bavel 2010; Begall and Mills 2013). This research generally shows a positive association between “classic” female educational fields—such as teaching and health-related studies—and higher fertility. Possible explanations may be either self-selection of women into jobs that offer working conditions supportive of work-family balance (Cook and Minnotte 2008; Begall and Mills 2011) or preferences of women with high family orientation for occupations with stereotypical feminine qualities such as contact and caring (Van Bavel 2010). Another explanation is that socialization and formative educational institutions infuse particular attitudes and values in girls and boys. Although it is difficult to distinguish these different processes, Begall and Mills (2013), examining Dutch cohorts born between 1940 and 1985, found that women who studied technical, economic, or cultural subjects had a significantly lower transition to first birth than women with a degree in educational studies (teaching). They likewise found that women in occupations with a higher proportion of women had a significantly faster transition to first birth.

Education System, Free Higher Education, Child Well-Being, and Fertility

Although education systems are a central topic within stratification research in sociology, they are often ignored in demographic fertility studies. Education prepares young people for the transition to the labor market, and the costs of education and level of competition are pivotal for the early life course. National education systems differ in many aspects, such as the number of school years required, how certificates and job training are valued, the costs of education, how the education offered matches the demands of the labor market, and how “easy” it is for young people to translate their skills into jobs and develop the stability often desired to start a family (Allmendinger 1989; Mills and Blossfeld 2005; Shavit and Müller 1997). In general, vocational training that allows more immediate entry into the labor market can give young people stability at an earlier age than other types of higher education.

Only gold members can continue reading. Log In or Register to continue

Stay updated, free articles. Join our Telegram channel

Jun 25, 2017 | Posted by in GYNECOLOGY | Comments Off on The Dutch Fertility Paradox: How the Netherlands Has Managed to Sustain Near-Replacement Fertility

Full access? Get Clinical Tree

Get Clinical Tree app for offline access