Work-life Balance and Wives' Marital Satisfaction: Essential viewpoint in developing measures to counter declining fertility

Fellow, RIETI

Opportunity costs alone cannot fully explain the falling fertility rate

Japan seems to be evolving into a money-worshipping society. We hear people say both in the streets and in the media that we are in an era in which happiness can be measured in monetary terms. Is that really true? It appears that money-oriented thinking is impacting measures intended to cope with declining fertility. Many researchers, myself included, have been calling for enhancing compatibility between work and family life, changing the practice of inflexible and long-hour working, and promoting the joy of childrearing as the fundamental principles upon which policy for mitigating fertility decline should be constructed. However, a money-oriented measure with dubious effects, such as an increase in the child allowance, comprises the core of the policy. This is partly due to the fact that many parents cite the economic burden of childrearing as an impediment to having children. But in reality human behavior is governed by factors not easily quantifiable in monetary terms. This is not to say that money is unimportant. Indeed, not only economists but also sociologists such as myself have been focusing on the opportunity costs of marriage and childrearing, that is, the amount of immediate and future income loss caused by a job leave or a job change resulting from marriage or childbirth. I have obtained empirical evidence confirming that the presence of a parental childcare leave system, which both enables employees to balance parenting and work more easily and reduces opportunity costs, leads to a higher fertility rate, provided that the other conditions remain unchanged. This is also why emphasis is generally placed on the importance of measures for enhancing the compatibility of work life and parenting.

However, is the singular concept of opportunity costs enough to understand the state of affairs? This question has long been on my mind. Underneath this question is the concept of work-life balance; a sort of "win-win" situation in which those who value both work and family - or work and private life - do not have to give up either, assuming a society where people who hold both work and family roles are the majority. Emphasis is placed on two aspects: reforming employment practices and the labor market so as to create a society that accommodates flexible work arrangements, and on enhancing the quality of family and personal life through flexible work conditions. I have attempted to clarify the relationship between the former of the two aspects and declining fertility by examining the situations in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries (see note 1). Based on the empirical findings from this study, I have concluded that it is imperative to create an employment and work environment that accommodates flexible work arrangements to prevent the total fertility rate from declining further as a result of increasing female labor force participation.

So, what is the relationship between work-life balance at home and declining fertility? Economists might think it a personal matter that should be left to the individual. I also have some apprehension about commenting on the life decisions of others. Still, I believe it is necessary to know what factors in everyday life are affecting such decisions if the ongoing trends of late marriage and declining fertility are closely related to the lack of satisfaction in marriage and childrearing. But then, how does a change in family life relate to government policies and social reform? To find this out, I had to look at things from a different angle. Since we try to measure everything monetarily, we fail to capture factors that are unmeasurable in monetary terms. If we were to measure everything - including the value of money - by the degree of happiness or satisfaction it brings, we would be able to see how personal life factors relate to societal factors. Based on this perception, I have attempted to identify factors that determine women's levels of marital satisfaction and then to measure the relative value of things in terms of the degree of their contribution to this satisfaction. What follows is a summary of the findings from this research which will soon be published as a RIETI discussion paper.

Better work-life balance is effective in promoting childbirth

It was confirmed that the level of wives' marital satisfaction has a significant impact on the degree of their desire to give birth. The higher the level of marital satisfaction, the greater the desire to give birth to a first child as well as a second one, although no such tendency is observed among those who already have two children. For instance, among those who are "very satisfied" with their marriage, the percentage of those who are "strongly desire" to have a first child is 24.5 times greater than that of those who "do not desire" to do so, whereas the corresponding figure for those who are "neither satisfied nor dissatisfied" with their marriage is 4.4, thereby yielding the odds ratio of 5.6 (=24.5/4.4). Likewise, when those who already have one child were asked about their desire to give birth to a second, the percentage of "strongly desiring" respondents is 6.6 times greater than that of "not desiring" respondents in the "very satisfied" group as compared to 2.7 in the "neither satisfied nor dissatisfied" group, thereby yielding the odds ratio of 2.4 (=6.6/2.7). The degree of desire to give birth is also closely associated with the fertility rate. On the likelihood that married women will give birth, I have estimated that about 68% of those who said they would "strongly desire" to give birth actually did so in five years. The corresponding percentage for those who said they "might desire, depending on conditions" and those who said they would "not desire" are estimated to be 42% and 8% respectively. Thus, improving marital satisfaction of wives is effective in promoting childbirth.

The questions are, what factors are affecting the marital satisfaction of wives and how much of an impact does each of these factors have on the level of satisfaction. In this regard, I have employed a specific analytical strategy. Namely, in identifying these determinants, I decided not to use information derived from inter-individual comparison but instead to use only information about how changes in individuals' personal lives affected marital-satisfaction outcomes. I considered that such an approach would provide findings that inform us of underlying causal relationship between marital satisfaction and its determinants. The table below shows the results of an analysis of determinants for marital satisfaction, which was based solely on information about such intra-individual processes, obtained through a panel survey tracking individuals. It should be noted that the significance ranks for determinants are based on the degree of statistical explanatory power and therefore that smaller frequency in change results in lower explanatory power. For instance, unemployment of a husband has a huge impact when it occurs but the rank of this factor becomes low because only a small number of sample women experienced such an event.

RankWork-life balance factorsOther factors
1Number of shared major life activities valued 
2 Number of years in marriage (negative impact)
3 Birth of a first child (negative impact)
4Number of hours husband and wife talk to each other on a weekday 
5Number of hours husband and wife spend together on holidays 
6 Unemployment of husband (negative impact)
7Proportion of husband's share in childrearing 
8 Aggregate amount of household savings and securities
9 Husband's income

The "major life activities" in the above table refer to: the three holiday activities of 1) relaxation, 2) household and parenting tasks, and 3) hobbies, recreations, or sports, plus the two weekday activities of 4) dining and 5) relaxation. These activities have been evaluated based on whether wives consider them as valuable time spent with their husbands. As shown in the table, work-life balance factors have a significant impact on the level of marital satisfaction. This finding indicates that the way husband and wife spend time together at home can be changed to achieve better work-life balance, although institutional changes, such as the promotion of greater flexibility in employment and work arrangements, must also be attained. In particular, it is important to enhance quality - something that can nurture mutual emotional support - in time the couple share together. It is not difficult to acquire such quality. All it takes is for a married couple to cherish the time spent dining and relaxing with each other on weekdays; to share more time together on days off - taking care of the house and children and enjoying hobbies, recreations, or sports, - in addition to time spent relaxing together; and to increase the number of hours spent talking to each other during these activities.

It is noteworthy that wives' marital satisfaction sharply falls after giving birth to a first child but no such decline is observed with the birth of either a second or third. The impact of having a first child is significant; measured in the degree of deterioration in marital satisfaction, it is roughly equal to two-thirds of the impact resulting from a husband's unemployment. There is no doubt that inability to adapt to life with a child causes considerable stress for some wives. Wives in nuclear families with work-centered husbands bear the enormous psychological burdens of having to take on alone the task of childrearing - a role in which they had no experience before. The presumption that every woman can deal with the task of childrearing because women are naturally suited to it must be invalidated. It is necessary to delve more deeply into the problem and consider how society should respond. To begin with, however, it is important to promote the granting of paternal childcare leave so as to enable husbands to sufficiently take on childrearing tasks, particularly when a first child is born, and to create a family environment in which husband and wife can share the "major life activities." As another conceivable step, it should be ensured that community-based childrearing support be designed to benefit first-time mothers as the primary beneficiaries. A negative experience with a first child will no doubt lower the likelihood of giving birth to a second.

Reconsideration of work sharing is needed in addition to enhancing work-life balance

Generally speaking, it takes more than just changing the way a married couple spends time at home to achieve a better work balance. To enable married couples to live their family life in a desirable manner, the way people work, particularly men, must change. According to research conducted by Akiko Nagai (2006), only 20% of husbands in Tokyo typically return home by 7 p.m., compared to 80% in Stockholm, 60% in Hamburg, and 50% in Paris. Another report, published by Benesse Educational Research and Development Center (2006), also shows that in 25.2% of families with a child aged three to six in Tokyo, fathers typically return home after 11 p.m. This compares to 9.9% in Seoul, 2.0% in Beijing, 2.1% in Shanghai, and 5.0% in Taipei. It is evident that the men's excessively long work hours hinder proper work-life balance.

A possibility that decreased regular and overtime hours yields lower income  undermines wives' confidence in their husbands' financial capability, and thereby leads to lower marital satisfaction exists, however. To evaluate this possibility, I assumed a household for which the monthly income decreased by ¥100,000 as a result of reduced husband's work hours, and then I estimated the degree of improvement in work-life balance necessary to maintain the original level of marital satisfaction by equating husband's income and various work-life balance factors according to their effects on wife's marital satisfaction. The results indicated that the deterioration of marital satisfaction resulting from the ¥100,000 decrease in monthly income can be offset when: 1) the number of days in which the wife perceives dining or relaxing as valuable time spent with her husband increases by one day per six weekdays; 2) the amount of time the husband and wife talk to each other on weekdays increases by an average of 16 minutes per day; 3) the aggregate amount of what the wife considers valuable time spent with her husband increases by an average of 54 minutes per holiday; or 4) the proportion of husband's share in childrearing increases by 3% (for instance, from 15% to 18%). It should be noted that the original level of marital satisfaction can be maintained by fulfilling any one of these four conditions. Of course, this is just a scenario for the average couple and I acknowledge that for some couples the difference of ¥100,000 in monthly income could have a significant impact. Generally speaking, however, marital satisfaction is something extremely difficult to buy with money. The same can be said about an attempt to "buy" the sense of burden associated with childrearing by means of providing childcare allowances. In conclusion, any income decrease resulting from a husband's reduced work hours can be more than compensated for by achieving a better work-life balance and this surely would have a positive effect on the wife's martial satisfaction; as long as there is a guarantee that the reduced work hours of husband will not lead to a fire by his employer.

So then why do Japanese men work longer hours and thus get home later than those in other countries? A greater amount of work per employee is believed to be the root cause. Figuratively speaking, it is as if eight people are trying to do the work of 10. What is needed here in Japan is the introduction of "work sharing" in the true sense. The idea of work sharing was introduced in Japan at a time when labor demand was shrinking amid a stagnating economy. The term has since been used to refer to a restructuring scheme under which a company reduces employees' work hours and subsequently their salaries rather than reducing the number of employees. This is why there has been less and less discussion of work sharing since the economy began its resurgence. However, work sharing in its original form is not limited to the sphere of initiatives designed to minimize displacement of workers in economically hard times. It also refers to a method of employment adjustment adopted in good times, in which a company meets growing business demand by increasing hiring so as to keep the number of work hours per employee at a fixed and suitable level. This is thought to enable working people to have sufficient time for personal and family life while distributing job opportunities over a greater number of workers (particularly women and young people, who are relatively underutilized today). Both the government and companies are being urged to map out ways to unite the continuous pursuit of high economic productivity with the happiness of employees and citizens. Important for Japan, in addition to striving to achieve a better work-life balance, is a reexamination of the notion of work sharing. As in Michael Ende's fantasy novel Momo, it is important for people to recover their "stolen time."

September 5, 2006

YAMAGUCHI Kazuo, "True Relationship Between Female Labor Force Participation and Total Fertility Rate: An Analysis of OECE Countries," RIETI Discussion Paper 05-J-036, December 2005 (full text in Japanese; English abstract is available)


NAGAI Akiko, 2006, "Kazoku seisaku to kazoku seikatsu no O-Bei hikaku" [Comparison of family policies and family life in the U.S. and Europe)," transcript of speech delivered at a special symposium "Shigoto to katei no ryoritsu wo mezashite" [Toward a better work-family balance] commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Institute for Research on Household Economics

Benesse Educational Research and Development Center, 2006, "Yoji no seikatsu anketo: Higashi Ajia 5-toshi chosa sokuho" [Young children's life survey: preliminary report from five major cities in East Asia]

September 5, 2006