Which country has the highest fertility rate in Europe?

Ever heard of Tórshavn?

Translated from Old Norse it means Thor’s Harbor. As an exuberant Europhile, I have the place on my bucket list.

By all accounts Tórshavn is a pleasant locale, but temperatures top out at 53 degrees (12 Celsius) in the summer. It is the capital of the Faroe Islands, an archipelago of some 779 islands, skerries and rocks, of which 17 are populated. The Faroes are halfway between Norway and Iceland, 200 miles from the northernmost tip of Scotland.

This windswept North Atlantic archipelago recently grabbed headlines in the UK Telegraph: “What the Faroe Islands could teach Europe about fertility”.

While many countries are scrambling, doing anything they can think of to incentivize the bearing of children, the Faroese seem to have the desire – and will – to survive.

With the highest total fertility rate in Europe (2.3+), for the last three decades they have held steady above replacement level. This is exceptional among affluent economies. Neighboring islands aren’t doing nearly as well. Orkney and Shetland (Scotland) are respectively at 1.4 and 1.6, and the Aland Islands (Finland) are at 1.7.

The Faroes exception is a demographic mystery. Did postmodernism and political correctness somehow miss this North Atlantic nirvana? I wish.

Says former health minister Hans Pauli Strøm, “I’ve been monitoring the fertility rate for years and wondering when it would start to fall like in other countries. But it keeps surprising me.”

Strøm cited three reasons for the consistent above-replacement fertility. First, people living close to one another can move about easily. That in turn facilitates better family ties. Grandparents are essentially around the corner. But the third reason provides some insight into the culture:

Faroese employers are traditionally extremely accommodating towards parents. There’s a mutual understanding between employers and employees about the flexibility required for bringing up children. That means it’s widely accepted if you need to take time off to care for a sick child or leave early because they injured themselves in nursery.

Sounds like traditional family values are prevalent. Childcare is inexpensive. There is a full year (52 weeks) of family leave when a child arrives. Generous childcare payments are indexed to income.  

All this is financed through high taxes like the rest of Scandinavia. Seems like the Faroese are getting their money’s worth back from the government.  

A mother of three who moved to the Faroes from Denmark had this to say:

My employer has never questioned me or made comments such as ‘really, again?’ if I had to stay home with a sick child. They even host regular Christmas and summer parties for the kids. It makes me want to be flexible in return too. 

Family-friendly policies are not new to the Faroes, thus there are no frantic state interventions to stave off societal collapse.

There is also rising cultural consciousness. The islands were settled in the 9th century by Vikings; male descent is thus 87 percent Scandinavian. Female (mitochondrial) descent is 84 percent Celtic. Faroese youth actually put down their phones, don national dress on holidays and heartily embrace their heritage.

The Faroes are unique in many ways, demographically and otherwise.

Life expectancy is high: 79.9 for men; 84.4 for women.

Unemployment is less than 1 percent. Almost 90 percent of working-age folks are actually working, the highest rate in Europe.

The Faroes have the world’s highest adoption rate in proportion to the population (50,000). Ten to fifteen children are adopted every year from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

There has been a significant emigration of young people, mostly to pursue higher education. Traditionally, fewer women return than men. This gender deficit led to an organized matchmaking initiative, ultimately bringing some 300 southeast Asian brides. But now the population is adding more females than males. One reason: it has become “cool” to attend the first-rate University of the Faroe Islands.

The political situation is even more fascinating. As a self-governing Danish territory, the Faroes are a country in all but name. They issue passports and their own currency, the Faroese Króna, pegged to the Danish Krone. They have their own license plates and postage stamps, and in 2005 were ceded autonomy in foreign relations. Unlike Denmark, they are not part of the EU, and maintain strong trading relations with Russia.

But back to the family-friendly aspect. Former health minister Strøm:

There’s not a feeling that you have put your life on hold to have kids. You can almost live life as you want even if you’re also having to bring up children. 

That’s good to hear. Maybe Mr Strøm didn’t mean it this way, but his comment speaks volumes about today’s world. First, you don’t “put your life on hold to have kids.” Kids are your life. It’s called family life. Today people put family life “on hold” to pursue careers and creature comforts. This leads to fewer children and families.

The same goes for “You can almost live life as you want even if you’re also having to bring up kids” [emphasis added]. How about living life “as you want” being family life – rather than something couples are “having to” do?  

But let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. There is good news from the Faroes, a place where it seems that affluence does not conflict with family. The rest of us could learn from that.

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