The new year looks full of uncertainty, but zoom out a bit and one trend will inevitably shape the decades ahead: the dramatic shift in global demographic balances. The developed world is aging. By 2050, the population aged over 60 will have doubled. Untended, or underestimated, demographic shifts can create instability and economic pain for countries, companies and individuals. Proactive gender balancing could be a powerful lever in building more sustainable strategies at each of these levels.
Yet is the aging trend inevitable and irreversible? Maybe it’s time to rethink our approach to babies. The big baby debates of the 20th century were around population explosion and how to decrease fertility rates. Almost everywhere in the world, this has succeeded. Almost too well. Many countries are watching their populations shrink, which means that the ratio between young and old is becoming something we have never seen before, with the pyramid of old to young inverting. At issue is the ‘old age support ratio,’ the number of working people to cover the costs of those who have stopped. The UK ratio is forecast to fall to 2.9 by 2050, from 3.3 in the mid-1970s.
Much of today’s discussion takes this new reality of a greying world as a given. I sat through an entire conference on Ageing Societies recently without the word ‘fertility’ being mentioned. In many companies, the topic of fertility and parenting is usually relegated to the women’s network and seen as a minor sub-text of diversity work. Yet we would argue that it is a central pillar of any corporate sustainability strategy. Healthy companies and economies need healthy demographics.
We might start by asking why our societies are ageing? It’s not a disenchantment with babies. The Economist magazine surveyed 19 countries and found that almost everywhere, people now dream of having more children, not less. Their poll signals “a global shift¨. Judging by the collective desires of parents and would-be parents, more suffering is caused by having too few babies than too many.” So why have we gone from baby boom to baby bust in a short generation or two?
Because the people who made the babies have changed. The massive arrival of women into the labour force in the 20th century is a still-undigested shift. Women the world over have moved into work, but men, countries and companies have not yet adapted to this reality. Childcare is patchy, parental leave is mostly limited to women, and careers are still unfriendly to parents. In countries where it is hard to balance work and family, birth rates have dropped precipitously. If forced to choose between work and children, modern couples have few economic options. They choose work. Parents are voting with their wombs.
We are midway through an unfinished revolution. Our global infertility is a symptom of our collective reluctance to complete a transformation in gender roles. Women refuse to lose their hard-won financial security to be the main caretaker of children. Men have not been educated or encouraged to welcome a full parenting role, neither by their cultures, nor by their companies. Any hint of moving into ‘women’s work’ still seems a challenge to outdated perceptions of masculinity. Until companies and governments align in encouraging and facilitating a shift in behaviours and mindsets, we will continue to paint our world in ever darker shades of grey. Companies and governments have a huge interest in more sustainable demographics. This might even be a relatively popular platform across the political spectrum.
Governments have been a bit readier to nudge men into parenting than companies have. Sweden has more than nudged. Its parental leave policy is designed with mandatory minimums for men (90 days). Germany and Japan, both of which have seen some of the most startling population declines, have started to encourage flexibility in parental leave sharing between parents. In Japan attempts to evolve inflexible attitudes to gender roles are a huge economic platform for Prime Minister Abe. It now has some of the world’s most favourable parental leave laws, but only 2% of Japanese fathers use them. The UK’s new parental leave laws were voted in in 2015, but again only 2% of British fathers took them that year. The best countries are all Nordic or Eastern European… where parental leave (and the associated gender balancing of parenthood) has been at work for decades. The US is a global outlier, now the only developed country in the world with no paid maternity leave, let alone paternity leave. Companies (and managers) that have slowly grown more flexible for working mothers, struggle to be equally flexible for fathers.
Getting our demographic house in order isn’t hard. It takes recognising that women refuse to be the only caretakers of children. Parental leave (rather than maternity leave) and good subsidised day care are usually pointed to as the key success criterias. “They seem to be the main reason France and Sweden have robust fertility rates,” suggests The Economist.
The 21st century discussion needs to move on to more balanced demographics across ages. While ‘family planning’ has come to mean birth control, in the future, it is likely to flip. It will focus on designing incentives for having more children, not less. Companies have a powerful role to play – and benefit to reap – in innovating forward. The heart of the matter is gender balancing all of our half-changed roles – at work and at home.
Ageing countries – and companies – will need a huge overhaul of approaches to retirement, pensions and the dramatic lengthening of working lives. Countries will need better arguments to counter the growing distaste for immigration, as there will be a dramatic shortage of youngsters to help their elders with everything from taxes to bedpans. Most companies haven’t even started this conversation. Yet their employees are ageing too.
For companies and managers, here’s a range of proactive and gender balanced demographic strategies:
- MORE BABIES – become an employer of choice for smart parents of any sex
- Gender Neutralise: Move from maternity leave to parental leave. Let people choose how they will structure their work/ family balance by modernising language and banning the stereotypes.
- Be transparent: Communicate about family-friendly policies – for everyone.
- Promote parents: Don’t let parenthood harm career prospects. Ensure managers are ready and willing to implement existing flexibility and parenting policies. Make role models of successful people with families.
- MORE OLD PEOPLE – benefit from the knowledge and experience of seniors
- Ban ageism: Allow older people flexibility to continue working in a variety of ways. Remove mandatory retirements, promote part-time work or consulting and sub-contracting.
- Age diversity: Encourage inter-generationality in teams and start working at understanding the untapped potential of older consumers and customers.
- MORE IMMIGRANTS – support growth strategies with global talent recruitment
- Lobby for immigration: Companies and managers will need to improve their arguments for globalisation, becoming more convincing on the benefits of immigration to increasingly resistant populations. The world’s aging populations will need the world’s young. If they don’t make their own, they will have to become more welcoming to others’.