More children, more working women

More children, more working women

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has rolled up its sleeves to simultaneously achieve two targets that contradict each other. On one hand, it wants to reverse the decreasing birth rate; on the other hand, it wants to further increase the female labor force participation rate. For this purpose, the Family and Social Policies Ministry and the Development Ministry have been preparing an incentive package for some time. Last week, respective ministers Fatma Şahin and Cevdet Yılmaz hosted a working lunch for the press. It was quite an educational lunch, with plenty of debate.

I have written it before. We can discuss how realistic a target “more children” is; however, we cannot deny that it brings forth an important strategic issue. Turkey’s population is fast aging because of the rapidly declining birth rate. Last year, the rate was lower than the 2.1 “fertility rate” (the number of births per woman at fertile ages). According to the Turkish Statistical Institute’s (TÜİK) population projections, this rate will drop down to 1.65 toward the end of 2030s.Based on this development, the population of those aged over 65 compared to the entire population, which is currently 8 percent, will rise to 16 percent at that time. Again at that time, the rate of labor force participants will reach its peak and then start to decline. Consequently, the number of people aged 65+ per labor force participant, is increasing at a slow tempo, will start increasing rapidly.

Room for maneuver

This ageing issue is of course not peculiar to just Turkey. Having said that, as the Development Minister Cevdet Yılmaz pointed out, Turkey may not be able to handle the ramifications of this issue as others, given that it will be subject to the negative economic effects that come with an ageing population without adequate prosperity. The government wants to offset this issue by maintain the birth rate at 2.1.

During the afternoon lunch presentation, examples of European countries that had managed to successfully overcome this issue were brought forward. Can Turkey also succeed, with incentives such as longer maternity leave and flexible working hours for the working woman who has given birth? As it was emphasized at the presentation, there seems to be room for maneuver. There is a distinctive difference among educated women between the ideal number of children to have and the existing number of children. In higher education, this difference is two to one. While the ideal number of children is determined as two, the current average is only one. The incentives may be effective to a certain extent. However, as seen in these examples of successful countries, the increases achieved regarding birth rates are quite limited.

Incentives to expand the labor force

As the minister also accepts, even if there is some success in increasing the number of births per capita, this can only slow down ageing among the population. The time gained because of the increase in income per capita should not be underestimated; however, the final solution does not lie in population politics. Turkey, in contrast to Europe, has an opportunity available to it.

Even though the female labor force participation rate is increasing, it is still at a very low rate, around 30 percent. With a fight against the conservative mentality, which does not view the working woman favorably, clever incentives and the elimination of existing regulation that deters women from working, the female participation rate could come close to Italy’s at 55 percent by the 2030s. This way, the increase in employment may be accelerated, provided that other conditions are also met, income per capita could also increase more rapidly.

The government is aware of this. It has included policies within the incentives package to increase the number of working woman more rapidly. However, more working women mean fewer children. As a result, there will be an increase in the birth rate of certain segments and a fall in some other segments. In the final analysis, you can only slow down the drop in the fertility rate.

I am not against incentives for more children. I also support incentives in favor of working women.
However, there should also be other measures considered concerning the aging population question.

For example, as Eser Karkaş, who was mentioned during the debate; Karkş was involved with the importing of skilled labor from overseas.

*Seyfettin Gürsel is a columnist for the daily Radikal in which this piece was published on Oct. 30. It was translated into English by the Daily News staff.