Whither the Child? Causes, Consequences & Responses to Low Fertility

Barcelona, Spain | March 12-13, 2010

Exploring the cultural sources of declining fertility and its consequences for children, adults and the societies they live in.

This STI Experts Meeting, led by Professor Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia, sought to explore the cultural sources of declining fertility and its consequences for children, adults and the societies they live in.  In the last four decades, fertility has fallen dramatically in the developed world and much of the developing world. Indeed, in most of the developed world, fertility stands well below the replacement level of 2.1. The economic, technological, and social sources of falling fertility rates are well understood. The meeting addressed the less well understood sources of falling fertility rates by looking at how cultural changes—in views toward children, popular conceptions of the good life, and beliefs about gender roles—have played a central role in fertility declines the world over. This meeting also explored the consequences of falling fertility rates for children, adults, and civil society, as well as cultural and policy responses to low fertility.


Post by Social Trends Institute.

Principal Inquiries

• Is fertility decline a consequence of the loss of religious faith or hope for the future in modern societies?
• Paradoxically, are more traditional ways of understanding family and gender playing a role in fueling contemporary low fertility? What do the experiences of Scandinavia and Southern Europe tell us about such a view?
• What are the social and emotional consequences of being an “only child” for children?
• How do children influence the emotional and spiritual lives of adults?
• Does parenthood influence patterns of social and civic engagement on the part of adults?
• Is low fertility linked to religious polarization, where the forces of secularism and religious orthodoxy are both on the rise?
• If low fertility—or at least the “lowest low fertility” found in much of Europe and East Asia—can be viewed as a social problem, what are the best cultural and policy responses to low fertility?

Academic Leader

Bradford Wilcox – University of Virginia


Alícia Adserà – Princeton University
Fertility, Feminism, and Faith: How is Secularism Influencing Fertility in the West?

David Eggebeen – Pennsylvania State University
The Social and Civic Consequences of Parenthood for Adults

Catherine Hakim – London School of Economics
What Do Women Really Want? Crafting Family Policies for All Women

Eric Kaufmann – Birkbeck University of London
Sacralization by Stealth?: The Religious Consequences of Low Fertility in Europe

Hans-Peter Kohler – University of Pennsylvania
Do Children Bring Happiness and Purpose to Life?

Ron Lesthaeghe - Royal Belgian Academy of Sciences
The Unfolding Story of the Second Demographic Transition

Wolfgang Lutz – Vienna Institute of Demography of the Austrian Academy of Sciences
The Future of Fertility

Elizabeth Marquardt – Institute for American Values
Gift or Commodity: How Ought We to Think About Children?

Joseph Potter – University of Texas
How Pentecostalism and Popular Culture are Driving Brazilian Fertility Down

Leonard Schoppa – University of Virginia
Feminism as the New Natalism

Susan Short – Brown University
Growing Up in China After the One-Child Policy

Bradford Wilcox – University of Virginia
Before, During, and After the Baby Carriage: The Division of Labor and Wives’ Contemporary Marital Satisfaction


Christopher Caldwell – The Weekly Standard
Phil Longman – New America Foundation
Mariano Martínez-Aedo – Institute for Family Policies - Spain
Carolyn Moynihan – Mercator Net
David Quinn – The Iona Institute
Reihan Salam – New America Foundation | Forbes

Paper Abstracts

Causes of Low Fertility
Alícia Adserà (Princeton): “Fertility, Feminism, and Faith: How is Secularism Influencing Fertility in the West?”

Fertility rates in developed countries have fallen to previously unseen levels. Within that general downward trend, fertility has varied significantly across countries, plummeting to 1.3 or below in Southern European countries, Germany and Austria. Conversely, fertility has remained comparatively high, though under replacement rate, in Anglo-Saxon and Nordic countries, were norms of intra-household equality are more widespread. At the same time, Western societies have undergone differential processes of secularization – though their extent is subject to heated academic debate.
Do changes in religious practice explain shifts in fertility rates across developed countries? Are beliefs about the ideal number of children related to particular religious views or religious affiliations? Is the effect of religion conditional on labor market institutions and the opportunity costs they may impose on professional women?  Has secularization affected fertility choices by reshaping the structure and labor roles within the family? In particular, do gender ideologies (such as feminism) interact in specific ways with welfare states and labor institutions to restructure work-family arrangements and the value couples put in having more offspring?
The paper will review the existing literature on how shifts in religious attendance and beliefs are linked to family size across countries and denominations. It will then explore the questions listed above employing the following survey data: (1) ISSP 1994 and 2002 on Family Roles; (2) ISSP 1998 Religion II (and 2008) to study the relationship between objective (prayer, attendance) and subjective measures of current and childhood religiosity and fertility in the OECD; (3) European Social Survey and World Values Surveys.

Ron Lesthaeghe (Royal Belgian Academy of Sciences): “The Unfolding Story of the Second Demographic Transition”

This paper presents a narrative of the unfolding of the Second Demographic Transition (SDT) since the theory was first formulated in 1986. The first part recapitulates the foundations of the theory, and documents the spread of the SDT to the point that it now covers most European populations. Also for Europe, we focus on the relationship between the SDT and current period fertility levels. It is shown that the positive relationship between these two is not a violation of the SDT-theory, but the outcome of a “split correlation” with different sub-narratives concerning fertility postponement and recuperation respectively for two parts of Europe.
The second part of the paper addresses the issue of whether the SDT has spread or is currently doing so in industrialized Asian countries. Evidence gathered for Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan is being presented. That evidence pertains to both the macro-level (national trends in postponement of marriage and parenthood, rise of cohabitation) and the micro-level (connections between individual values orientations and postponement of parenthood). Strong similarities are found with SDT-patterns in Southern Europe, except for the fact that parenthood is still very rare among Asian cohabiting partners.

Joseph E. Potter (Texas) and Paula Miranda-Ribeiro (Federal University of Minas Gerais)“Below Replacement Fertility in Brazil:  Should We Have Seen it Coming?”

Ten years ago, we conducted an interdisciplinary investigation of the influence of television on family values and reproductive behavior among, mainly, low-income Brazilians.  The communities we studied were a small town in the interior of the Northeast, a favela in the city of São Paulo, and a mid-size city in a remote part of the state of Minas Gerais.  Our research focused on values related to family, virginity, sexuality, marriage, gender relations and consumerism, and how mass media played a role in transforming them in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.  There were two main tensions that we observed during our fieldwork.  The first was that between the values, norms, and ideas portrayed on television shows, especially telenovelas, that were targeted for an audience of upper and middle-class Brazilians living in the main metropolitan cities, and those of the communities which we studied, many which considered themselves to be far less “modern” or more conservative than people living in cities such as Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo.  The other was the intergenerational conflict or friction between youth and their parents.  The question we address here is whether the low levels of fertility prevailing in Brazil for the last five years, a TFR of 1.8, was foretold in the interviews and focus groups we conducted a decade earlier, some of which included young women who would be of prime childbearing age a decade later. 
Consequences of Low Fertility
David Eggebeen (Penn State)  “The Social and Civic Consequences of Parenthood for Adults.”

This paper examines the relationship between parenthood and involvement in a variety of social and civic activities for adults in four European countries and in the United States.  The data are drawn from the most recent World Values Surveys (2005) conducted in Britain (n=1,041), Sweden (n=1,003), Spain (n=1,200), Poland (n=1,000), and the United States (n=1,249). These countries are chosen because they differ in social, cultural, and political environments that have been shown to be associated with patterns of civic engagement, fertility, and in patterns of civic engagement.  The major question this paper seeks to address is:  Is parenthood (no children, 1 or 2 children, 3 or more children) associated with involvement in variety of social and civic institutions? Several different dimensions of civic engagement will be assessed: the extent of involvement (counts of memberships), as well as involvement in different types of civic groups: (recreational, “new” order groups (e.g., consumer or environmental), “old” order groups (e.g. unions, professional, political parties), and humanitarian (churches, charities).  Beyond the main effects of the linkage between parenthood and involvement, this paper will explore the extent to which gender and marital status might moderate or interact with parenthood.

Elizabeth Marquardt (Institute for American Values): “Gift or Commodity: How Ought We to Think About Children?”

As the birthrate declines, children arguably become a rarer “commodity,” considered at once expensive and, for some, desirable, but desirable only when and if the time is right in one’s life. This attitude stands in marked contrast to the idea found in the world’s great religious traditions of the child as a “gift,” a blessing from the Creator whose arrival is both welcome and is largely outside the control of the mother and father who receive and raise the child. This paper will examine the idea of the child as gift or commodity, and will do so from the child’s point of view. It will draw upon sources including a new, representative, cross-sectional study of young adults who had sperm donor biological fathers. Questions that will be explored include: How does it feel to be a product, bought and sold—of being, in a sense, “made” rather than “born”? In a post-legal-abortion era, how does it feel to be told you were an “accident” (and are children in some family structures more likely to hear this narrative)? How might policy goals of seeking to ensure that more babies are “planned” or “wanted” resonate in the ears of young people who are both yesterday’s children and today’s new parents? And finally, does being “wanted” at the outset actually predict better outcomes for children?

Susan Short (Brown): “Little Emperors? Growing Up in China After the One-Child Policy.”

China’s one-child policy, a state population-reduction initiative initiated in 1979, is one of the most fascinating family experiments of the 20th century.  Through regulating births, and promoting child “quality” over child “quantity,” the state essentially remade the Chinese family.  Popular images of childhood in China range from “spoiled little emperors” indulged by parents and grandparents to “unwanted and abandoned baby girls.”  At the same time, children in China today grow up in time of rapid economic growth, increasing inequality, and expanded global awareness.  In but one generation, adolescence has been transformed. In this paper we describe the lives of adolescents in China today.  Drawing on the 2006 China Health and Nutrition Survey, which collected data from approximately 4000 households in nine provinces, we depict three dimensions of adolescent experience: education, health, and time use.  Subsequently, drawing on questions about priorities in life, we expand upon adolescent social and emotional experiences. 

W. Bradford Wilcox (Virginia): “
Before, During, and After the Baby Carriage: The Division of Labor and Wives’ Contemporary Marital Satisfaction.”

Over the last half-century, demographic, economic, and normative shifts have pushed the trajectory of marriage and family life in the United States in a generally egalitarian direction, with men taking up a larger share of the housework and childcare associated with family life. Nevertheless, the gender revolution of the last half-century is incomplete: women still perform the majority of childcare and housework in American families; indeed, in recent years, the percentage of stay-at-home mothers has actually increased. In other words, there is much about the division of labor in contemporary family life that remains gendered. What is not clear from the scholarly literature is how the relatively egalitarian or gendered character of family life affects the quality of marriages among contemporary women. Some studies indicate that more egalitarian divisions of labor make married women happier, whereas other studies suggest that more gendered divisions of labor make for higher-quality marriages among women. Surprisingly, despite the continued “stalled revolution”, research has not considered the possibility that the relationship between divisions of labor and marital happiness may differ as a function of motherhood. Accordingly, using data from the nationally-representative 2000 Survey of Marriage and Family Life, this study seeks to extend our understanding of marital quality by exploring the possibility that the relationship between the division of labor and women’s marital happiness varies by the presence of children.

Eric Kaufmann (London):
Sacralization by Stealth?: The Religious Consequences of Low Fertility in Europe.”

The advent of chronically low fertility in Europe will ultimately lead to a reversal of the secularization process. Religious Europeans have higher fertility than their secular counterparts. Fundamentalist or orthodox religious groups are more fertile than moderates or nominals. Women are also disproportionately religious, which affects religious growth. What of religious boundaries? Among natives, fundamentalists and charismatics are explicitly oriented against the secular 'threat'. We already see an end to religious decline in the most secular countries. In addition, immigrants tend to be both more fertile and more religious than Europe's natives. Immigrant fertility is falling toward host levels, but secularisation - especially for Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus - is negligible in the second generation. Ethnic minority status reinforces resistance to secularism. The outcome of this process will be a reversal of historic secularization patterns in Europe between 2020 and 2075, depending on our assumptions. This paper, in addition to summarizing current demographic trends, sets forth the latest projections for the size of the secular, Muslim, Christian and 'Other' population in several countries to 2030, 2050 and 2100. It ends with a discussion of some political pathways which flow out from these developments.
Cultural and Public Policy Solutions
Leonard Schoppa (Virginia): "Feminism as the New Natalism: 21st Century Prescriptions for Addressing Low Fertility."

When marriage and fertility rates first began falling in Europe and Japan, feminists applauded this evidence that women were finally taking advantage of new freedoms afforded by the relaxation of social norms that had pressed earlier generations of women into the roles of wife and mother.  As fertility rates reached record lows in Germany, Southern Europe and Japan, however, feminists in these societies soon joined the conversation about why birth rates had fallen so low and eventually began to articulate a feminist explanation for the trend and a prescription for addressing the problem.  This paper traces the emergence of “feminism as the new natalism” and evaluates the studies and arguments that are the basis for these claims that fertility will only recover when societies that have defined marriage and motherhood in traditional ways open up to embrace diverse types of families and work-family balance.  It then examines the uneven efforts to put these prescriptions into practice in low-fertility societies, with a particular focus on recent family policy changes in Japan, Germany, and Italy.

Catherine Hakim (LSE): "What Do Women Really Want? Crafting Family Policies for All Women."

Until recently, the focus of social policy in the European Union, and perhaps in all OECD countries, has been the elimination of the entrenched sexism and racism that pervaded all labor markets, and replacing that with a new ethos of equal opportunities for all in meritocratic economies.  Arguably, this has now been achieved, and the focus has moved to immigration, declining fertility and aging societies. But whatever the current concern, full-time homemakers tend to be left out of the picture by policy-makers and academics alike. Children are dealt with exclusively by childcare policies for their working mothers. One notable feature of current research in demography and the sociology of the family is the absence of any central guiding theory on the relative importance of childbearing in women's (and men's) lives.  Family policy debates are constrained by the fear of promoting pro-natalist policies, in case this is linked to eugenics and Nazi Germany policies which cast a long shadow in Europe.  Hence Sweden insists that it has never had pro-natalist policies, only ‘gender equality’ policies. Preference theory is a new theory that helps to make sense of current debates, explain current and future patterns of employment and fertility among women, and develop social policies that address the interests of all women and all families.  It offers empirically-based statements about the relative priority women accord to market work and careers versus family work and private life (corresponding to three distinct models of the family), and states that women are heterogeneous in their lifestyle preferences, to a greater extent than are men.  Preference theory also specifies the historical context in which these core values become important predictors of behavior. It notes that five historical changes collectively produce a qualitatively new scenario for women in rich modern societies in the 21st century, giving them options that were not previously available to them. The theory provides a basis for analyzing the biases embedded in most current social policies, which are focused on working women and careerists to the exclusion of full-time parents and part-time workers.
Declining fertility is prompting a revaluation of motherhood and reproductive work, and a change in emphasis in public policy. The bias towards support for working mothers needs to be balanced by new measures to support home-centred women as well.  Many family-friendly employment policies are of wide to appeal to all workers, and could potentially be made even less discriminatory.  However the emphasis on publicly subsidized childcare which benefits only work-centered women, and some adaptive women, should be replaced by a diversity of policies supporting all groups of women to an equal degree, even if in different ways. Examples are given of policies that are flexible enough to offer benefits for all women, such as the hugely popular homecare allowance in Finland and Norway, and cafeteria employer benefits.

Wolfgang Lutz (Vienna): "The Future of Fertility."

This paper will try to systematically address three fundamentally different questions which are often confounded: (1) What do we know about the likely future trends in fertility as it would evolve without interventions? What arguments are there that would suggest either a spontaneous recovery of fertility or further declines? (2) What is the desirable or optimal level of fertility for Europe and what are the criteria for such an optimum? I will discuss criteria related to the consequences of population ageing, to global environmental change and to national/ethnic identity. (3) If the assumed optimal level of fertility is likely to be different from the expected one, what means do governments have to influence the level of fertility in ways that are both effective and socially acceptable? In trying to answer these questions the focus will be on Europe (and the West) in a global perspective considering the changing weight of  Europe’s population in the world population as well as differential contributions to major global trends such as technological development and global climate change. The paper will also go beyond the traditional demographic dimensions of age and sex and explicitly consider educational attainment and other dimensions such as religion.