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Interview: Renowned Demographer Stephen J Shaw on Hungarian Family Policies

Dániel Deme 2023.03.16.

Internationally renowned demographer and documentarist Stephen J Shaw has kindly agreed to be interviewed by Hungary Today. We have asked the Japan-based expert to give his personal, independent assessment regarding the effectiveness of Hungarian family policies, and to share the broader findings of his multi-year research.

– You have done a fairly unique research into the problem of population decline, and the fall in birthrate. You have chosen to sit down with people from various regions and talk to them about these issues. What do you expect to get out of this particular approach?

– I chose the approach because any other approach that people had taken before me did not give fulfilling answers. It was clear that something else was going on, and after over a decade worth of research it was quite stunning to come up with a scenario that no one really understood.

People had some explanation to what was happening in Italy, German, Japan, etc., but they all localized the issues. It is easy in statistics to correlate things that are connected, and it sounds like A causes B, when in fact it might be C that causes it. There might be something else going on that data does not show. So for me the only way to show what else might be happening, I spent about a year and a half traveling and talking to people, before I did any statistical analysis. Really just to find something that would answer the premise, that there must be some common connection here.

It cannot be a random series of coincidentally identical trends happening in such different parts of the world.

It is common sense that there had to be a connection. If you have seen the documentary, it documents my journey in trying to find what the connection is. It was after a year and a half that I started to notice something obvious actually.

Stephen J Shaw. Screenshot: Hungary Today

 – Are you closer to the answer now than when you have started your journey?

– It is clearly answered. I remember the moment when I found the data to be able to work this through. I am keen to explain to people what it is: it is an explosion in childlessness. It is not smaller families. Family sizes have been, for many decades, in most countries remarkably stable. From Japan to Italy, the trends are identical. The number of people having one, two, three children is not dissimilar now. What has changed, is the number of women that remained childless. That took some novel data techniques to derive what I call a cycle of childlessness. Not measuring people as they turn forty-five, but to measure childlessness almost in real time, and then link that to events to see why did this explosion in childlessness happen. And that is what I documented in my film.

– I am surprised that you have managed to come to a conclusion in your field of research, as watching you documentary the single most used phrase was: ‘I do not know’. Why cannot people make a minimum effort in defining the reasons behind their attitudes, or decisions for or against having children? Is this indecision part of the problem, or just a symptom?

– I think it is part of the symptom. Why do people not know? I think it is a societal issue of not knowing when the right time is. That is, I think, the second most common answer in the documentary: “not now”. Because we have got all these other things to do first. Some of those are work-related, some of those are education related, some are leisure related, and to make sure that you are with the right partner, which is not getting any easier.

So when people say “I do not know”, I do not think this is referring to whether they want a child or not. They do not know the time, and often they have not asked themselves when the right time might be. We got ourselves into a situation when it is not easy to define when that right moment is. There was an over-optimism in thinking that it is easy to become a mother after reaching thirty. Every country that I looked at there was a fifty-fifty percent chance of one ever becoming a mother after thirty. It seems to be pretty much universal. What that might be is partly a question of fertility, but also frankly meeting a partner, or having a break-up unexpectedly, when it can be a challenge to start looking for a new partner again. All those things that can get in your way when you are thirty that I think people are not aware of.

– Hungarian family support policies have gained international publicity, in some cases with a positive mark, in others they were met with skepticism. Which of the Hungarian family support policies do you regard as most effective? Tax incentives, loans, help with family homes, etc., if at all?

– All of these may be a good thing on their own right. I do not want to dismiss any of those ideas as being unhelpful. But what we find is that there is really no evidence from multiple countries around the world implementing these policies and having any long-term change in birthrates. I am based in Tokyo, here Japan continues to try more and more ideas, Korea nearby has been trying for a very long time… But so have many countries in Europe doing the same thing. If you look at countries like Denmark, you have one year free paternity leave, free education for life, and yet you have no different birthrates in Denmark compared to many other countries. So it appears that finance alone is never going to be enough of an incentive to persuade someone to start a family.

Why that might be? If you are asking someone to change their career path, meaning to stop working earlier than they would have otherwise, but they are not at a certain level career-wise, particularly women, but potentially both sexes, a lot of people are reticent to do that. The idea that finance incentive can influence how many children a woman might want to have, there is a lot of evidence that it simply cannot. What has happened, such as the Swedish roller-coaster in the past, when you incentivized families to have more children, you do find a short-term blip. People decide to have that extra child that they were probably going to have anyway. But then you find that there is a drop that takes you to a worse place than where you were originally. So you just move things forward.

So the question now becomes Hungary. It is interesting. Hungary is offering significant advantages. It sounds remarkable. Is there a level at which people could be tempted to have a child earlier than they wanted to or to have more children? The jury is still out on that. But I can share with you really, what we are seeing in the past ten fifteen years in Hungary is that there is no change in family size, which is remarkably stable.

If you look up mothers, the ones who have one, two, three children, this has really not changed significantly. What happened previously was a change in trends. As you know, Hungary went from quite high birthrate levels, and then in the 90s this settled down significantly. However,

what we do see in Hungary, is a decrease in childlessness.

I am not here prepared to say if this is a significant or long-term trend. It may well be that. And this is part caused by some incentives that are available. Or maybe the concept of becoming a parent in Hungary is something that is becoming more palatable to younger people. Whatever the reasons are, it is quite noticeable.

If I can give you an example going back to 2011 in Hungary, childlessness was nudging over 41 percent, which is at the higher bands or really any nation. You got to look at Italy and maybe South Korea as still having those numbers. But in years after it fell rapidly down to around thirty percent at around 2016. And it has been pretty consistent since then. There is some evidence going to 2020 that it has been falling again.

That is really quite a remarkable change. I have not really seen that anywhere that springs to mind, to go in ten years from over 40 percent childlessness down to thirty.

What we should remember is that when you reduce childlessness, people have their first child by definition. But what happens then is that in the same family structure size, those people are going to have two, three, four plus children more as those who would remain childless. In another words its not just a case of people having only one child, it spreads across the distribution equally.

Japan’s birthgap is just as critical as the one experienced in Western developed nations. Photo: Pixabay.

– What struck me about your recent interview with Canadian author Jordan Peterson is when he complained that in Quebec they have introduced similar financial incentives for families with zero effect. The obvious answer to this, from a Hungarian perspective at least, is that these incentives were not coupled with a pro-family narrative. In Canada the pro-abortion movement is taking its cause to a constitutional level, the topic of emancipation of women is taken to extremes that may not be conducive to traditional family policies. There is also a different narrative about gender roles as compared to Hungary. How do they expect to make a positive change in these issues when there is a seeming contradiction between social measures, and the social narrative?

– There is nothing in the data that say that for instance reducing access to abortion necessarily leads to an increase in birthrates. Winding the clock back in women’s education either is not the right thing to do for example. I hear those voices, they come on the documentary website, comments about feminism… I just do not think it is productive to help us. What I do see, when I talk to young people around the world, and this would be my single biggest recommendation to Hungary or any country around the world: if you start educating young people from 14 to 24 years old about what their personal future might be like, and you show them those futures what they might turn out, like many people who appear in my documentary, who are regretful, lonely, and frankly confused about how life worked out the way it did, why they did not meet the right partner the right time…

If you show young people that actually somewhere along the way if you want a family, it is probably better to have it sooner than society might currently encourage. And perhaps in Hungary compared to Canada, maybe that young people are choosing to get married earlier simply because there is a better understanding of how life might turn out for people who are childless, or those who do not have a family.

But that is getting out of my territory. It is clear to me that governmental policies over all, and in terms of specific actions, are really playing with decimal points, with rounding errors. And I would caution one further, whilst Hungary has significantly increased birthrates in the past ten years or so, it is still not out of the woods at all. On one hand there may be positive findings there, and fortunately the metric we currently use, the TFR total fertility rate, is very deceptive. You might think that the step from 2.0 children per woman to 1.9 will be the same as 1.9 to 1.8, which would be the same all the way down. But its absolutely not. It accelerates. It turns out that the difference between 1.3 and 1.6 is really not that different. You are still on the precipice, frankly. You have got to get back up to 1.8 to be at a point where you can take a breath.


Stephen J Shaw’s recent interview with Canadian clinical psychologist, Jordan B Peterson

– Hungary was criticized in Western media for its efforts to help women become mothers, and raise more children. Some compared it to Nazi experiments of social engineering, some said they were misogynistic for trying to keep women in the “kitchen”, away from their careers. When did support for families and helping young women to conceive become a politically unacceptable enterprise?

– The same point was made about Japan that mothers used to be revered here, and somehow that changed. What sometimes gets reported is almost anti-motherhood. You find points like “childless people are happier”. In today’s world more and more people are thinking about a childless life, or thinking about the environmental impact of having a child. The narrative is this direction.

To give you an example, there is one survey from the UK’s Open University, a sample of 5000 respondents on relationships. It was picked up by many media in the world, including the BBC. The headline that came out of it was that childless women are happier. But when you actually look at the study, it says that women are marginally happier within a relationship only. And by a significant margin the happiest people of all are mothers. But the media skipped that point. They have actually inverted the study and instead of reporting that the happiest group are mothers, the claimed that the happiest group are childless women.

Time and time again I find myself diving into studies that seem counter to what makes sense according to my own research. There was one published in a psychology journal that had to be retracted. The question was whether women were happier with a partner or not, and it got reported that they are significantly happier without a partner. But at some point what the question it was asking was: is your partner with you in the room now when you are completing this survey? It had nothing to do whether you are separate or living alone. It only turned out that women were happier answering these question when their partner was out of the room. But some journalists took this and reported that “oh, women are much happier when they do not have a partner”. It’s disturbing.

– I am fascinated with the Universe 25 experiment and the parallels with current trends in Western welfare-type societies. The criticism of the experiment always comes to a conclusion that humans are not mice and are thus able to be masters of their collective destiny. But are we in complete control of civilizational trends that seem to affect our species globally and simultaneously under the conditions of similar social development, or is this a myth?

– What I would say along this line is if you look at the shift to childlessness in these countries, one after the other often based around the same economic turmoil, the question becomes why did not societies revert to the low levels of childlessness prior to that. Something happens economically, there is this huge fundamental shift and it never goes back. Hungary perhaps is excluded interestingly, but I am equating high levels of childlessness with a stressed society. There is something fundamentally disruptive that is preventing 35 percent of people, who would declare that they do want children at some point (from not having them). Some 30 percent of people in the industrialized world end up not having children. This to me equates a society in stress.

If you have a birthrate anything less than 2.1, you are going down. The question is how long it takes to go down. We will see in generation after generation a massive shrinking and aging of population, which is a core problem here. So some future generation has to resolve this or there will be no future.

– It is very interesting that you mention stress in society as a possible cause of the population decline. It was precisely the conclusion of the Universe 25 experiment that large groups living in close proximity will eventually experience a form of stress that will start some degenerative evolutionary effects with devastating consequences for reproduction and fertility.

– Yes perhaps organization is a factor here, but those people who are having the first child, even in cities, tend to go and have the same number of children as they did years ago. In the case of Hungary it’s more like 25-30 years ago. So it’s really about that group that remain childless. The urbanization has perhaps made it more difficult to conceptualize how you would raise a family in your current living accommodation or in the environment that you are in. But it is interesting, if you have the first child, you are as likely to go on having 2, 3, 4, as decades ago.

– If you had a final message to our government, or any government, what would you advise them to emphasize to young people in order to wake them up to the dangers of this phenomenon?

– The documentary I am making shows the real impact of what the future can be without children. I do not mean that selfishly. I only mean that this is allowing people to see their own future. It is the best way to allow people to imagine how they life might turn out.

Involuntary Childlessness: Jordan Peterson Discusses Hungarian Demographic Policies
Involuntary Childlessness: Jordan Peterson Discusses Hungarian Demographic Policies

Hungary is working hard to turn the tide, but a positive birthrate remains elusive.Continue reading

Featured Photo: Facebook Stephen J Shaw

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