Demography is Destiny

Leaders can use cultural capital to change fertility

Leaders can use cultural capital to change fertility

by Shannon Roberts | October 20, 2017


In 2007 Patriarch Ilia II of the Georgian Orthodox Church was concerned about Georgia’s declining population, low birth rates, and high abortion rates.  

In a highly personal approach to the problem, he announced that he would personally baptize and become godfather to any third-or-higher Orthodox child born to a married couple in Georgia and formally registered with the government. While such an incentive might be ineffective in many countries, Georgia is almost 90% Georgian Orthodox and Patriarch Ilia II is widely trusted and respected. 

Many countries around the world are introducing financial incentives to encourage more births, but his appreciative and valuing approach was free – and it has proven to be highly successful, showing that national leaders can use social or cultural capital to effect targeted social changes. 

Since the first mass-baptisms in late 2007, Ilia has baptized over 30,000 babies and caused a sharp spike in births, as depicted in the graph below:

Before Patriarch Ilia’s policy, Georgia had below-replacement-rate fertility. After the mass baptisms began, the fertility rate rocketed to above-replacement levels and has stayed there for nearly a decade.  In particular, third-order births nearly doubled between 2007 and 2010, and then continued to rise over time.  The entire observed fertility increase also occurred in married fertility to which the honour was offered, while unmarried childbirth actually fell.  The divergence is so large and persistent that, combined with the birth-order data shown above, it seems extremely likely that much of this jump was due to Patriarch Ilia’s offer of baptism.

In an interesting twist, in 2013 Georgia also greatly expanded its financial incentives for childbearing. While these had some effect, they were not as effective as the encouragement from the beloved religious leader. 

It is interesting to observe how social and cultural factors affect fertility. In this case demographically-significant changes were caused with a comparatively low price tag.  Yet, it is difficult for other governments to emulate such a successful approach because Georgia’s case is unique in that Patriarch Ilia had the social capital and respect to cause such a change. 

Yet, culture undoubtedly impacts family size and how women feel about motherhood in all countries.  The idea of honouring big families isn’t new; a number of current and historical leaders have utilized this approach to increase birth rates.  For instance, in 2008 Russia established a special prize called the “Order of Parental Glory”.  Parents with seven or more children (biological or adopted) are invited to the Kremlin and receive the medal from the president himself.

While all societies are not as homogenous as Georgia, there are still always subgroups to which various respected institutions matter.  Such institutions include workplaces, churches, the attitudes of doctors, and social organisations. 

Questions we might ask of our own cultures include:

- Do workplaces offer flexible, part-time options which are realistic for parents with families?

- Do professions offer high barriers to women who wish to re-enter the workforce after having time off with children?

- Do family members discourage having the third or fourth child a family may want due to cultural norms and priorities?

- Do churches celebrate children and accommodate families and babies?

- Are community support groups available to parents?

- Do mothers feel alone in their ‘mothering’ because everybody else is at work and/or don’t have children?

- Do workplaces subtly avoid advancing the careers of women with or expecting children, depriving students of role models who achieve both professional and familial ambitions?

- Are we realistic with young people, telling them about the need to both plan for both a happy career and family life – which may include balancing family, children and housework as valued contributions to society – rather than just telling them to only “follow their dreams”?

- Are government policies implicitly more appreciative of the time parents spend in the workplace than the time spent fostering families?


Questions such as these are likely to drive fertility trends as much, if not more than, a few more dollars of government support as the case in Georgia has shown - and at a much lower cost to taxpayers.


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