Europe is living through a stunning fertility collapse. For 2023, births in the Czech Republic are forecast to fall 11 percent from the previous year and a shocking 19 percent since 2021, declines that match the years of the country’s post-Communist economic catastrophe. In neighboring Poland, 2023 births are likely to drop more than 10 percent from 2022 and nearly 18 percent from 2021, figures the country hasn’t experienced since World War II. To the west, births in Germany in 2023 will fall more than 7 percent following an equally grim 2022. After baby booms in 2021, the data are broadly similar in Finland (down 13 percent since 2021), Denmark (10 percent), and the Netherlands (9 percent). Even in France, Europe’s recent fertility leader, 2023 births are down 7 percent from 2022 and 9 percent since 2021, declines not seen since the mid-1970s.

Yet no country in the world is as socially and politically central to debates over the future of the family as Sweden. It has long been touted by social scientists as proof of the compatibility between gender egalitarianism and family formation. Societies in Southern Europe and East Asia are said to be trapped in an interregnum between patriarchy and feminist equality, doomed to experience low rates of union formation, “lowest-low” fertility, and unprecedented levels of childlessness. Sweden, on the other hand, has supposedly solved all these problems through a gender revolution. There, near-replacement fertility is said to be realized in a society in which even men have become feminists, the state supplies universal daycare and flexible employment for mothers, fathers take up their share of domestic labor, and both parents are awarded generous leave from their jobs to raise the next generation. As one 2015 study claimed, it is precisely in “extraordinarily equal” Sweden, where “family-friendly public policies are especially effective,” that we supposedly see how “the spread of more egalitarian values on the national level and more progressive and family-supportive policies … will have a positive effect on fertility and family stability.”

“Swedish births for 2023 will settle at their lowest level in two decades.”

The most recent fertility figures from Sweden call this narrative into question. Swedish births for 2023 will settle at their lowest level in two decades, while the country’s annual fertility rate, the number of births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 49, will likely set an all-time record low. While such absolute levels are shocking, so, too, are the rates of decline. Since 2021, the number of births in Sweden is down more than 12 percent, and the fertility rate has fallen almost 14 percent. The country’s 2023 total fertility rate, a projection of lifetime fertility of all women alive in a particular year, will surely sink below 1.5 children per woman—not only a new record low, surpassing the previous record set in 2022, but also a level once thought impossible in social-democratic, family-friendly Sweden.

Other data suggest this isn’t a temporary decline. Swedish period fertility, the number of children born to all women in a single year, is famous for its erratic waves, booming in the late 1980s and crashing in the early-to-mid-1990s only to boom again in the aughts. Yet cohort fertility, the number of children born to a cohort of women born in the same year over a lifetime, had long been exceptionally stable. This is because Swedish women delayed childbirth for a period only to recover it later. But those days are now over. Cohort fertility in Sweden has been in steady decline for a decade, and Swedish women born in 1982—aged 42 in 2024—thus far have the lowest cohort fertility in more than 70 years.

Chances are remote that Swedish women will accomplish a fertility catch-up in the late 2020s as they did in the 2000s. In 2022, the average age of Swedish mothers at the birth of a child was 31.8 years, up from 30.1 in 2000. This is nearly two fewer years for fertility recuperation. Most damaging for any possible catch-up scenario is the big birth decline among Swedish women aged 35 to 39, down more than 8 percent in 2022, the largest one-year decline for this age group in nearly half a century, and surely down again in 2023. Women at this age are among the most resistant to fertility postponement, being the most secure in finances and in relationships, as well as nearing the end of their lifetime fertility. Any extended birth decline among this age group will inevitably turn fertility delayed into fertility foregone.

Marriage rates, too, have been falling in Sweden for 15 years—precipitously since 2016. And marital unions aren’t being replaced by long-term cohabitation. Since the Swedish state began counting such “consensual unions” in 2011, there has been a steady decline in their rate of formation. Most notable are the falling rates of marriage and union formation among parents; in 2021, they were doing so at rates around half the level of just a decade earlier. While the country experienced a small post-Covid marriage boom in 2022, the effect still fell short of pre-Covid levels and disappeared in 2023.

And among the gender-egalitarian family-friendly countries of Europe, Sweden is hardly the worst performer. Fertility and family formation are declining in Norway and Finland even more dramatically. France’s 2023 fertility figures are especially troubling in light of the country’s recent ability to buck falling birthrate trends across Europe, generally credited to its huge family-policy budget, which amounted to 3.4 percent of GDP in 2019—the highest among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development states and underwriting a robust national system of crèches, child allowances, paid maternity leave, and job guarantees for parents taking leave. The family-formation disaster in Spain and Italy is spreading to lands once thought to have safely transitioned to the feminist family-friendly future.

Such levels of family decline cast social science’s feminist consensus around the family into grave doubt. Sweden hasn’t experienced any notable reversals in gender equality. The country continues to be ranked as the most gender-equal country in the European Union, and it has neither pulled back on its generous family policies nor slashed daycare slots. The same is true across the Nordic countries, France, and the Netherlands. Yet the family is in sharper decline here than anywhere else in the Western world.

If feminism can’t save the family in Western countries, our policymakers are truly at a loss. Belief in the power of gender egalitarianism and the dual-earner/dual-carer model—to not simply support existing families, but also promote the creation of new ones—has been standard on the left for a generation. More recently, the right, too, has accepted the inevitability of working mothers and embraced its own form of gender equality, while in some quarters even coming to support family policy.

Having given up on the male-breadwinner model decades ago and actively promoted gender egalitarianism for just as long, Western countries “going back” to patriarchy is hardly a viable model. They all lack the social preconditions for a family wage, a remasculinization of higher education, legal coverture (aka “marital unity”), or employment preferences based on marital status. Yet data from the past 10 years strongly suggest that feminism is no longer a viable model, either. Economic explanations of recent fertility declines are exceptionally weak, according to research by economists and demographers. Rather than looking only to social causes, it is time for more research into potential psychological, biological, and environmental reasons behind family decline. Policymakers in Western countries are going to have to get a lot more creative if they hope to stave off the failure of the most basic of social functions: successful reproduction of the next generation.

Darel E. Paul is a Compact columnist and a professor of political science at Williams College.


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