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In Focus: Dropping Fertility

 In In Focus, Magazine, Magazine Intro, Society

Since the 1960s, Iceland’s fertility rate has been steadily dropping. Fertility rates in 2017 were the lowest recorded since record-taking began in 1853. It should be mentioned that despite these historically low numbers, there is a constant growth in population, mainly due to immigration. Though the population may not be declining, it’s worth taking a closer look at what’s behind the demographic change.

See you later, baby

For many years, Iceland was one of the European countries with the highest fertility rate, a trend that reversed in 2016. Since then, the country has had the second-lowest fertility rate in the European Union. Iceland is not alone among Western countries when it comes to dropping numbers of births. As more women prioritise education and work, the average age of first-time mothers rises. Today, Icelandic women have their first child on average at 27, five years later than they did in 1980. While women’s changing societal role is an obvious factor in this drop, Iceland’s ever-rising cost of living may be another.

Of course, delaying having their first child may mean that families end up having fewer children overall, whether due to more difficulty conceiving or simply fewer fertile years. Though many women have no problem conceiving, older first-time mothers can be more likely to encounter difficulty in the process, an indirect effect delaying children may have on fertility rates.

Mind the gap

One factor that may be encouraging Icelanders to delay having children, is the country’s lack of a comprehensive childcare policy, which leaves a 15-month gap between parental leave and public childcare. New parents in Iceland have up to nine months of parental leave: each parent receives three untransferable months, and the couple receives an additional three which they can divide as they choose. However, children aren’t guaranteed a place in public preschools until they are two years old. This leaves a gap which most parents bridge with the aid of private daycare or nannies, paid for out of pocket.

In 2012, under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, the Social Democratic Alliance proposed a bill which would lengthen parental leave from nine months to 12. The bill was passed shortly before the end of their term, only to be reversed by the Independence Party and Progressive Party after the election that followed. Their concession to ease the life of new parents? Lowering VAT on disposable diapers.

The City of Reykjavík recently announced a plan to ensure children 12 months and older a spot in daycare. As the current government has proposed lengthening parental leave to 12 months within the next three years, it’s possible the current gap could be closed. It remains to be seen whether both governments will follow through on their promises, but if they do, conditions for starting a family in Iceland will certainly improve.

A rough start

Statistically speaking, the older a first-time mother is, the more likely she is to have trouble conceiving. Fertility treatments first became available in Iceland in 1991. Public health insurance only partly covers their high costs: would-be parents pay at least ISK 480,000 ($3,900/€3,500) out of pocket per treatment.

In early 2019, Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir introduced changes to the way IVF treatments are funded by Icelandic Health Insurance which were criticised by the Icelandic Infertility Association, who said they resulted in an ISK 507,000 ($4,200/€3,700) increase in costs for hopeful parents. Svandís has asserted that the new regulations represent a shift in funding rather than a decrease. Either way, it’s apparent that the cost of fertility treatments may further affect Iceland’s fertility rate.

Changing places

Though Iceland’s birth rate has dropped, the country’s population is still on the uptick thanks to a steady stream of immigrants. While in 1990, only 1.9% of Iceland’s population were foreign citizens, today, they make up over 12% of the population. The increasing migration is fuelled by a local labour shortage, particularly in low-wage work. As Iceland’s immigrant population grows, so does its influence, as can be seen in ongoing wage negotiations, where tourism industry workers, many of whom are immigrants, have organised strikes, demanding a raise in minimum wages.

Despite its currently low fertility rate, Iceland’s population is projected to grow from its current 350,000 to 436,000 by 2067. It remains to be seen whether changes in policy, demographics, or society will reverse Iceland’s steadily dropping fertility rate. 

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