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Where Are the Children?

Fertility in Advanced Societies: A Review of Research*
Copyright: Željko Radojko 

Fertility levels dropped drastically over the last decades, with some countries more recently making a slight recovery. But why has this happened? What are the main factors influencing the number of children born in a particular country? What is the role of individual preferences, characteristics and personal network? Is fertility ‘contagious’among co-workers and friends? Do economic recessions and unemployment influence fertility? What is the role of the welfare state and have policy measures aimed at increasing fertility worked? These questions have been addressed by demographers and social scientists from a plethora of angles over the last decade. Focusing on empirical research, Nicoletta Balbo, Francesco C. Billari and Melinda Mills summarize the main approaches and core results in a comprehensive review.

In their publication the authors make a distinction between research of individual behaviour (micro-level) and research addressing the social and political framework of societies (macro-level). In a third, intermediate and often overlooked category (mesolevel), they consider research directed at the social interactions of individuals.


Individual micro-level determinants


Fertility Preferences and Intentions

Individual preferences are shaped early in life, which in turn have a considerable impact on decisions concerning children. Preferences also play a crucial role in the decision to remain voluntarily childless. Additionally, research has shown a ‘mixed sex of child preference’ in Western countries; where a preference to have at least one boy and one girl makes it much more likely to have a third child in order to reach this goal.

However, asking people their ideal number of children is not a reliable indicator of how many children they will actually end up with. This answer is often influenced by the expectations of partners, changes in partnership status, work or other family events. A more reliable indicator seems to be the intentions to have a(nother) child at all, or within a specific time frame of 2 or 3 years.


The role of the family of origin

A positive correlation has consistently been found between the number of siblings and the number of own children, and between the age at first birth of parents and that of their children. Most studies focus on teenage motherhood, demonstrating that having had a young mother increases the likelihood of having a child at a young age. Corresponding results have also been found for later ages and for men.

To explain such intergenerational similarities, biological and genetic factors have also been used as an explanation. For example, a study using Danish twin data found that genetic influences appeared to largely override previous shared social (familial) environments for younger cohorts.

Other findings suggest that in higher educated and high-status families, goals beyond family formation are more easily transmitted, together with aspirations for material goods. Therefore, if consumption aspirations are high, parenthood will be reduced or at least postponed whilst parents’ religiosity is positively associated with their children’s fertility.


Education and human capital

Although evidence suggests that higher educated women have their first child later than their lower educated counterparts, it also indicates that they are more likely to recuperate at a later age and have, overall, more children. However, according to Balbo, Billari and Mills there are also recent empirical studies showing that education does not significantly impact fertility or that there is even a strong inverse relationship between educational attainment and the timing of first births.


Relationship status and quality

The review also shows that married couples are generally more likely to have a first child than cohabiting couples, but with significant country differences: For instance, in France, cohabiting couples have approximately the same probability of having a child as their married counterparts, while in the U.S., cohabitation is associated with a lower probability of childbearing. Generally, partners who already have children from previous unions are more likely to have a child together in a ‘second nest’.

Exploring the role of unstable and unhappy relationships, research provides evidence of two opposing mechanisms. Some studies find that couples experiencing marital instability are less likely to have a child. This is due to a reduced frequency of intercourse or because children might raise dissolution costs. Other studies suggest that union instability may lead to earlier childbearing since having children may be a way to enhance marital solidarity.

Concerning the division of household labour, there is a substantial amount of evidence showing that an unequal distribution of domestic work lowers intentions to have a child. When household duties are shared in a gender-equal way, it has beneficial effects on the progression to a second child. Country differences have, however, been found: For example in the U.S., the probability of having a second child is higher in families with either very low or very high gender equality.


Social network meso-level determinants

According to this review, the importance of social interaction in explaining observed fertility patterns has not yet been coupled with a convincing body of empirical research. The central reason is the lack of suitable data and the difficulty to model and properly identify social interaction effects. So far there are only a handful of studies addressing this issue.


Social interaction and resources

The higher the number of nephews and nieces, the higher the number of preferred children: As several studies show, social pressure from kin and friends significantly influences women’s intentions to have a child. Turning to the timing of childbearing, research that investigates the impact of social interaction demonstrates that fertility may be ‘contagious’.  In other words, when a sibling or a co-worker has a child, the individual is also more likely to have a child. A recent study even showed that social interdependencies among individuals can explain the substantial shift of first birth to a later age that occurred in Austria in the past decades.

Studies focused on ex-communist Eastern European countries have shown that the greater the available social resources, the higher the probability to have (or want) a(nother) child, and to have the child sooner. In Western European countries, access to informal care arrangements (i.e., care provided by grandparents) seems to positively impact the probability of having a first child.


National macro-level determinants

It is difficult to separate the impact of any specific policy from the broad range of policy instruments that potentially influence fertility. It is also problematic to empirically establish whether a specific policy was successful due to the temporal lag between policy initiation and take-up. Finally, policies may not only impact fertility and induce change, but are often a reaction to changes in fertility and an integral feature of these changes.


Economic trends

The relationship between the total fertility rate and GDP has been found to be ambiguous. Several studies find a pro-cyclical relationship between economic growth and fertility in the developed world. Fertility decline during economic recessions is seen as a result of childbearing postponement, especially of first births, which can later be largely compensated during times of economic prosperity. Other studies, however, find contrasting results: economic upswings bring about the increased employment of women, who are at that phase less likely to become mothers. Focusing on unemployment, findings consistently showed that the higher the unemployment rate, the lower the number of births or the higher the postponement. This was consistent for both first and second births.


Welfare regimes

Numerous scholars have explained country differences in fertility and life course patterns by linking them to different welfare systems. The nature of the safety net individuals can draw upon in times of crisis enable or constrain decision-making about parenthood. Regimes where the households’ caring responsibilities are largely supported by the welfare state, such as Nordic socio-democratic countries, or by market provision (Anglo-Saxon liberal market regimes), enable higher fertility. Conversely, states where these responsibilities are mainly assigned to the family (conservative and Southern European regimes), have lower fertility levels.


Policy Measures

There is mixed evidence regarding the relevance of social policies for fertility developments. Their effects, although small, seem to affect the timing of births rather than the number of children. Many studies investigate the effects of childcare provision: While some find that regions with poor childcare coverage have higher fertility, others, find that public availability of childcare has a positive effect on fertility. Higher tax rates, as well as generous public pensions, have both been associated with low fertility.

The effect of family policies varies according to the institutional context and individual-level determinants. In Britain generous child allowances encourage young motherhood and in Sweden parental-leave allowance reduces postponement. A rigorous analysis conducted in 2010, however, found a positive effect on the total number of children due to an increased expenditure for family policy programmes that help women to combine family and employment. Fiscal policies that more easily allow implementing quasi-experimental strategies have attracted the attention of many economists. Positive effects of fiscal incentives on the total number of children have been found in Germany, Sweden, Canada, and the U.S.

The authors of the review point out that there is still a lack of understanding in how such macro-level factors are actually linked to individual behaviour and meso-level forces which they consider crucial for our understanding of fertility developments in advanced societies. Therefore they recommend a stronger research focus on empirical tests of this link. 


*This PopDigest has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 320116  for the research project FamiliesAndSocieties.

( has the aim to investigate the diversity of family forms, relationships and life courses in Europe, to assess the compatibility of existing policies with these changes, and to contribute to evidence-based policy-making. The consortium brings together 25 leading universities and research institutes in 15 European countries and three transnational civil society organizations.

Author(s) of the original publication: 
Daniela Vono de Vilhena