Friday, May 28, 2010

Naïve about leave

Since my maternity leave has officially started, I am indulging in some TV catch-up, and today that included watching the season finale of American Idol. I got a little confused as the line-up made me think I was stuck somewhere between the ages of 10 and 16 – every act conjured up childhood memories*.

This being the first day of my maternity leave, it has been spent milling about for the most part. In Norway, maternity leave starts 3 weeks prior to your expected due date. Parents have the choice of taking either 46 weeks at 100% of pre-leave salary or 56 weeks at 80% salary. You can read more about maternity leave benefits in Norway here.

Daddies aren’t left out either. As of July 1, 2009, men can take up to 10 weeks in paternal leave permission (this comes out of the 46 or 56 total week allotment).  Dad even gets an additional two paid weeks of omsorgspermisjon to help mom get back on her feet immediately after birth. Basically, fathers in Norway get more fully paid maternity leave than mothers in the US or UK. You can read a little more about paternity leave in Norway here.

Why is the leave allowance so long here in Norway and so comparatively short in other places? On the one hand, it would be super to say it is because of the value placed on the family unit in countries like Norway. Unfortunately, that would be both naïve and incorrect. Have a look at this map:

The maroon area represents countries with at least 18 weeks of paid maternity leave.

What do the majority of those countries have in common?

If you guessed that their politics were historically rooted in either socialist or communist** regimes, you’d be right.

But even more fundamental than this histo-political information is why it matters. In a nutshell, birth rates tend to decline over time in strong communist or socialist regimes. When birth rates decline, there are less people to pay tax into the communal pot that will then be returned to the population in the form of social benefits. Basically, if there aren’t any new taxpayers being born, the whole system will collapse.

So countries like Norway recognized this negative birth rate*** and had to come up with a plan to get people back in the bedroom to produce the next generation of taxpayers. Ask any Norwegian who has adult children and they will scoff at how long parental leave is now – it wasn’t always that way. Ask someone with older children and they, too, can remember their own leave even in the last decade not being as long as current mandates. But to get people to have more kids, the government provides extra incentives such as longer parental leave rates, subsidized barnehage (day care), child benefit payments, and extra financial support if you are a single parent.

Does this level of social benefit for procreation’s sake leave recipients with a sense of disproportionate entitlement when it comes to other benefits? Kanskje. But that’s for another post.  I have to go see who won American Idol.  Not to worry, though – I have 46 weeks to ponder this.
* Shout out to Hall & Oates for representin’… they were my first concert and Daryl was my first crush – other than Johan from the Smurfs, but I guess he technically didn’t count since he was animated.
** Notice I said communist OR socialist . They are not the same thing, folks, despite silly propaganda that will try to convince you otherwise.
*** A negative birth rate means that more people are dying than are being born.


  1. I don't know how people people do it WITHOUT leave!

  2. WOW!! Cannot believe the big day is almost here. Keep in touch

  3. enjoy your leave...take it easy ! the big day is almost here.. :)

  4. Hi,

    First of all I must say that I enjoy reading your blog. You certainly talk about some interesting ideas and you do so in a manner that makes me want to sit down with you in a dingy pub somewhere and discuss many of life’s peculiarities. However, me being me, I cannot help but interrogate some of your ideas a bit further.

    Two things in particular are worth mentioning. Firstly, you ask, “why is the leave allowance so long here in Norway and so comparatively short in other places?” then you go on to say that although it “would be super to say it is because of the value placed on the family unit” ... “that would be both naïve and incorrect”. Then, referring to a political map, you go on to say that this is the result of socialism and/or communism rather than values. Here is where my first disagreement arises. The basic assumption you’re making is that a political system like socialism is not based on values about things like family. Just as capitalism is based on certain ideas of individualism, so too is socialism based on certain ideas of social obligation – these are values and they are values that are manifested in Norway’s welfare state.

    Secondly, you say that socialist countries encounter negative birth rates and therefore generous maternity (and paternity) allowances are aimed at increasing these – or in your words getting “people back in the bedroom to produce the next generation of taxpayers”. While this is undoubtedly true, to really understand this you need to view it in the bigger picture, which is that virtually all Western countries have negative birth rates. A 2003 OECD report, for example, concluded that “fertility rates have declined in most OECD countries to levels that are well below those needed to secure generation replacement”.

    In short, negative birth rates are therefore related to standards of living and the capacity to make reproductive choices rather than socialism per se. In this respect it is interesting to compare Norway’s response to that of many other Western countries, including the US. Many countries choose to solve the problem of negative birth rates by importing people from other parts of the world, rather than increasing payments to would-be parents already in the country (how would the US survive without immigrants?). This may reduce the tax burden, but is not without its own problems.

    Anyway, I’m sure I’ve gone well over my quota of comment space so I’ll leave it at that.

    Thanks for the blog.

  5. EL, DD, and AP -
    Thanks for the wishes - not long now! (gulp!)

    Andrew -
    Thanks for taking the time to read the blog and to share some insightful thoughts!

    Just to be clear, I am all in favor of a gloriously long maternity leave in Norway as it affords me an opportunity to spend time with the Kid without financial stress - this is not something I ever envisioned would be possible in my native land.

    Having said that, I think it’s worth examining why the leave regulations are what they are. I think the main point where you and I might differ on this is that I do not believe that political systems are built primarily on values such as the importance of the family unit. Rather, I ascribe to the notion that economics underpins most, if not all, political organization.

    Considering the ideological foundations of any major political system such as capitalism, socialism, or communism shows that they were not founded based on an idea of human worth but rather on the notion of who should control the cash (to put it in very un-academic terms). A read of Marx, for example, is an excellent example of the idea that a political system should exist primarily to govern how money is distributed throughout society and who should control said money. This is obviously a much more in-depth discussion than can be had in a comments section – perhaps this is where that pint in a dingy bar would be of more use!

    My bottom line is not to suggest that governments don’t care about their citizenry, but that perhaps there is not so much altruism as there is a desire to ensure promulgation of the political/social system through continued financing from a consistent fresh batch of taxpayers.

    To your second point about negative birth rates, more recent (post-2003) OECD statistics show that, while birth rates are undoubtedly declining (due to a variety of reasons, but primarily to do with the potentially prohibitive cost of having a child coupled with the freedom to choose reproduction as opposed to procreating as a societal mandate), many Western countries actually consider their birth rates sufficient to maintain fiscal equilibrium (including, according to the link below, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Iceland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States). Following is a link to a 2007 OECD report that addresses the very issue of whether governmental policies such as the ones I mentioned in the original post have an impact on raising birth rates. One of the most interesting points in the report (on page 5) is that most countries do not institute policies to help facilitate increased birth rates, so Norway is unique in this respect.

    As for the issue with immigration, that truly is a whole separate topic worth exploring. In a nutshell, there is not one Western country that has survived without increased immigration. Norway is an example of this as well – one only need flip on the TV in a country such as Poland, for example, and have a gander at the commercials (paid for by the Norwegian government) actively recruiting skilled laborers to come to Norway with promises of kittens and rainbows.

    Again, thanks for sharing your perspective on these things!

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