For Chinese Men, Starting a Family Now Comes at a Price
On May 22, 2019, my wife gave birth to our son. It was my first child, and while I had been looking forward to and preparing for his arrival for a long time, all the responsibilities of new fatherhood still caught me off guard. Before I became a father, I regularly watched sports, went to the movies and hit the gym — all while pulling double duty teaching and researching at my university. That changed after my son was born; suddenly my days revolved around feeding, changing diapers, burping, and putting the baby to sleep, not to mention caring for my wife and trying to shield her from conflicts with our parents over the proper way to raise a child.
Having a child massively changed my life in ways I never expected. I was struck, then, when some of my friends in academia texted me their congratulations, not just on my son’s birth, but for how my new status as a father would certainly be a boon to my career. My teaching and research, they assured me, were about to reach new heights.
The existence of a “fatherhood premium” has long been recognized in sociological circles. The lesser-known counterpart to the “motherhood penalty,” it says men’s careers, earnings, and well-being generally improve after having children.
Over the years, sociologists have come up with numerous possible explanations for this phenomenon. Some studies attribute the fatherhood premium to men becoming more responsible and working harder after having children, resulting in improved performance and higher wages. Others posit that employers take greater care of new fathers, believing that as “family men,” they both need and deserve higher pay.
Whatever the explanation, the fatherhood premium generally manifests as both higher wages and better subjective well-being for fathers after childbirth.
That did not seem to track with my experience as a new father in China, however. Instead, I found myself encountering many of the same conflicts between work and family more often associated with motherhood. Curious to find out whether I was an outlier, or if my experience was reflective of China’s shifting norms, I decided to make the fatherhood premium the subject of my next research project.
Surprisingly, there has been almost no empirical research conducted on the fatherhood premium in contemporary China. There are two possible reasons for this. First, research on gender issues in China is typically only considered from a female perspective. Second, past analyses of male study groups have failed to produce statistically significant results.
This is unfortunate, but also exciting, since it meant that I was venturing into unexplored territory. To begin, I looked at the China Family Panel Studies, a large-scale, biennial longitudinal sample survey designed and carried out by the Institute of Social Science at Peking University since 2010. A preliminary analysis of the CFPS data found that having children had a significant negative impact on women’s wages, but no effect on men. In other words, men were not penalized for starting a family, nor were they rewarded for it.
Next, I turned to another data set — the China Health and Nutrition Survey — to see how childbirth changed the earnings of men and women over time. The CHNS was a tracking survey jointly conducted by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Participants were surveyed every two to three years from 1989 to 2015, for a total of 10 rounds of data.
What I found suggested that, in the late 1980s, childbirth still had a significant positive effect on men’s wages, and almost no negative effect on women’s wages. At the time, China had yet to embark on large-scale market reforms of its state-owned enterprises and public agencies, and the vast majority of government organs, SOEs and public institutions still provided childcare services to their employees. The high-pressure intensive parenting methods popular today were also still in their infancy, meaning the burden of child-rearing was relatively light. As a result, women paid a lower price for having children, while their husbands actually benefitted from childbirth. Having a child, in other words, was generally a net positive for a family.
That’s no longer the case. After the deepening of market reforms following Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour” in 1992, China’s “cradle-to-grave” welfare system for urbanites disintegrated, and free, employer-provided childcare services became a thing of the past. Over time, it became harder than ever for women to juggle work and family, while the gradual trend toward intensive — often referred to in Chinese as “scientific” or “refined” — childrearing techniques has increased parents’ burdens.
In this environment, the impact of childbirth on the incomes of both sexes has changed significantly. For men, the fatherhood premium has been replaced by a fatherhood penalty, while for women, the motherhood penalty has become more severe. The income disparity between men and women is also widening.
I believe there are two key factors behind these shifts: the collapse of China’s work unit system and changing standards of what constitutes a “successful” child. As child-rearing responsibilities have been pushed back onto families, men can no longer afford to remain on the sidelines. Instead, they must now share some of the childcare burden, making it more difficult for them to enjoy the fatherhood premium at work. Even then, their efforts are insufficient to mitigate the increased penalties faced by their wives.
This helps explain the growing problem of low fertility in present-day China. As the earnings premium for fathers fades away and the penalties on mothers grow more severe, both sexes’ interest in childrearing is declining. In 2015, after years of debate, the Chinese government announced it was formally ending the one-child policy. This year, it increased the limit to three children per family. Yet fertility remains low, suggesting that simply lifting birth restrictions is not enough to reverse China’s falling birth rate.
A more holistic view is needed. In addition to a more relaxed family planning policy, the government should adopt proactive policies related to employment and families in order to ease the increasingly onerous burden of childrearing on both sexes. As long as parents are professionally penalized for their decision to have children, it will be hard to turn the country’s demographic slide around.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A son plays with his father in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, 2017. Zhao Yong/People Visual)