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Fertility in Nordic Countries During and After Economic Recessions

The role of the state, crisis management and global perceptions in changes to total fertility rates
Source: Nadezhda1906

Fertility rates tend to be pro-cyclical, meaning they rise when the economy grows and decline during a recession or periods of economic stagnation. This is often explained as a result of childbearing being associated with increased expenses and more long-term financial commitments, so when one’s job becomes insecure or incomes drop, individuals opt to delay the decision to have a child.

To better understand the potential influence of economic recessions on total fertility rate, Chiara L. Comolli (University of Lausanne), Gerda Neyer and Gunnar Andersson (Stockholm University), Lars Dommermuth (University of Oslo), Peter Fallesen (Stockholm University and Rockwool Foundation), Marika Jalovaara (University of Turku), Ari Klængur Jónsson and Martin Kolk (Stockholm University) and Trude Lappegård (University of Oslo) analysed birth rates during and after the 1990s crisis and the 2008 Great Recession. They looked at Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – countries with strong welfare states. With harmonised population register data, they reviewed the fertility histories of native-born women in these five countries and looked at their childbearing risk by age, parity (number of pregnancies completed by a woman) and education between the late 1980s to mid-2010s. Comolli and her colleagues went further by including the birth of a third or fourth child, separately analysing women between the ages of 16-29 and 30-45, and distinguishing between different levels of education.

The authors found that the declines in childbearing risks after 1990 were more varied across the Nordic countries than after the 2008 recession. Following 2008, the decline was not as dramatic but lasted longer and was less varied across the countries. The likelihood of having one’s first child declined among women in their 20s, who opted to postpone childbirth, but this decline was recuperated by women in their 30s during the 1990s. This was not as prominent during the 2008 recession as birth rates among older women also declined.

Based on education level, highly educated women were least affected throughout the entire period after 1990s crisis. The chance of having their first child either slightly increased (Finland), remained stable (Denmark and Norway) or declined less (Sweden) than among women with a low or medium level of education. However, while immediately following the 2008 recession the chances of entering parenthood declined at the same pace among all educational groups, they diverged after 2014, with primary educated women suffering a significantly steeper drop in their chance of becoming a mother.

What can be gathered from their findings? Looking at the 1990s, each country handled the crisis differently, but they mobilised and extended their active labour market programmes and support for young people. By 2008, the countries had learned from the previous economic crisis and all responded in a similar fashion, which may have led to less variation in fertility rates among the five countries. Extensions or cuts to social and family policies in welfare states during economic crises may influence childbearing behaviour during and after the recession. These policies then influence the perception of uncertainty during the crisis by individuals. This means, if individuals believe the welfare state will not be able to protect them, they may decide to postpone having children.

However, although demographers often view fertility in the context of the nation state, such a limited view may no longer be suitable. Mass communication, global changes in production or economic turmoil elsewhere tend to affect national economies more than in the past. International events like climate change or pandemics may also increase people’s perception of uncertainty. Fertility declines like in the Nordic countries can be found across many developed contexts, so it is necessary to begin considering the role of perceived global uncertainty in people’s decisions on having a child.  

Author(s) of the original publication: 
Emily Lines