Sunday, May 29, 2011

Norway, The World's Largest OB Ward: Natal Policies and the Booming Diaper Market

I’ve heard that there are more sheep than people in New Zealand, by several factors. Similarly, in Norway—despite the obvious biological paradox—babies clearly outnumber adults. I feel shamed walking down the street without a stroller. And I feel that I am being silently ridiculed by the men and women running with babies in baby backpacks, pushing their Bugaboos or sipping a pilsner at the bar with their tot. I’m kidding. But it is true that babies are everywhere in Norway. And there is more to the story.

Despite my hyperbole, there really do appear to be babies everywhere when you walk around Trondheim. Whether you are running along trails, sitting outside at a café or skiing the slopes, you will see people toting babies. I even saw a baby sprawled out on a mat on the floor less than five feet from the bench press in the gym: but I didn’t feel comfortable asking him for a spot.

The presence of so many babies in public places tells me two things: (1) Norwegians don’t let having a child stop them from doing anything, and (2) the government initiatives aimed at boosting the birth rate and incentivizing having children are working. The first point is more of a cultural phenomenon and doesn’t surprise me much. Norwegians are active people, mothers and fathers share equal responsibility in rearing children and women are less frequently stay-at-home moms here—to a large degree. Baby showers are unheard of here, weddings are often conducted in legal offices with pen and paper and women would, in general, feel caged here if they were to stay at home for years and focus on motherhood. What Americans might view as grand occasions for celebration—or, for some, death sentences—Norwegians seem to view as just another part of life and don’t create much fuss.

The second point is equally as interesting. It’s widely known that Europe suffers from a sub-replacement fertility rate—the rate of birth is not sufficient to replace a nation’s population. Most estimates suggest that women need to give birth to an average of 2.33 children to adequately replace the population, but most European nations are woefully under two. Measures have been taken to combat the shortfall though: extended maternity leave, paternity leave, tax incentives and job guarantees for mothers who have children. But Norway’s pro-natal policies are practically luxurious. Women who have a baby can take 56 weeks off at 80 percent pay, or 46 weeks off at 100 percent pay. They must take three weeks off immediately before the birth and six weeks off immediately afterwards. But dad isn’t left out either: he can take ten weeks off with full salary. Both mother and father can take an extra year of unpaid leave after the 46 or 56 week period is over and still keep their jobs. Healthcare is entirely free—of course higher taxes cover it, but still—and, as long as your child attends Norwegian schools and universities, that’s free too. Why not have a child? Well, that’s the question that the Norwegian government hopes its citizens ask themselves, presumably. And it seems to be working. No wonder there seem to be so many people with-child here. It's another example of how the Norwegian government takes care of its people, and how a government can create effective policies. Arguments no doubt abound about the loss of productivity in the workplace from such generous maternity and paternity leaves. And argument is good, and constructive. But the policy as it is works for Norway and suits its needs regardless of whether or not it would be effective elsewhere. Norway’s fertility rate is now among the highest in Europe at just over two babies per woman. Employers and businessmen should rest easy knowing that there will be a steady stream of employees in the years to come. Or, perhaps they ought to capitalize now and open a stroller and diaper outlet. Cheers, future baby boomers of Norway!

1 comment:

  1. Employee protection is very strong in Norway. It is hard to fire people without good cause. So emplyers become leery of hiring someone without strong references, because hiring mistakes are costly and hard to fix.

    So, when you are recently graduated, and looking for a job, a maternity leave vacancy is your best friend. Because they are time-limited, employers are more willing to give a chance to people who have not yet got references.