A recent study by Eva Beaujouan and Caroline Berghammer looked at the fertility gap among women in 19 European countries and the United States. The fertility gap is the difference between the number of children women would like to have (fertility intentions) and the (final) fertility rate. Their study used a uniform research design, making it the first to systematically measure and compare the gap across many countries along cohort lines. Studying this difference is relevant because fertility intentions and actual fertility are influenced by different processes and determinants. Intentions are often seen as behavioural goals that involve the clear decision to act, but in fact, intentions as well as their realisation entail a large degree of uncertainty. Consequently, the reality does not necessarily match the initial fertility intentions. The resulting fertility gap can be seen as a reflection of a lack of necessary structural conditions, which make it difficult for women to carry out their initial intentions.
The authors looked at the combined fertility intentions of women born between 1965 and 1979 at age 20 to 24 and completed fertility of women in the same birth cohort at age 40. Their results indicate that on average, compared to earlier expectations and intentions, women had fewer children and were childless more often. The fertility gaps were largest in southern European countries. While traditionally large family sizes resulted in high fertility intentions, unstable labour market conditions and lack of support reconciling work and family life prevented women from fulfilling these intentions. In most European countries, the largest gaps were found among highly educated women.