Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Postponement of Childbearing in Europe

At the present time some 66 countries have fertility rates which are below the level necessary for population replacement (TFR 2.1). Within the next decade the number of counries in this group is set to grow to the point where a majority of the world’s population will be living in regions where the existing population no longer replaces itself. This development in an of itself is no disaster - many countries arguably suffer from excessive rates of population increase - but equally reducing fertility too rapidly can lead to economic and social 'imbalances' that may well turn out to be, in and of themselves, 'undesireable'.

Understanding why this is happening has begun to present an important challenge for many areas in contemporary social science as there are evidently factors involved in the process which embrace areas as diverse as demography, sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, economics and of course biology.

One of the characteristic features of this most recent fertility decline is that it is driven largely by a delay in childbearing: couples (and obviously in particular this means women) wait longer and longer before taking the decision to have a child. Understanding the dynamics behind this 'delay syndrome' is the key to developing a social policy to address the consequences, so it is particularly timely that the Vienna Institute of Demography was host last week to a Conference on this very topic: The Postponement of Childbearing In Europe. A number of interesting and important papers were presented, and I will be looking at a number of them between now and xmas. Indeed I have opened a page on my website which will be dedicated to the Conference.

But, just as a taster, why is postponment so important?

In the first place it is important to bear in mind that the currently registered low levels of fertility - and in particular what is known as lowest-low fertility (sustained fertility rates of 1.3 or below) - may not be taken to mean that completed cohort fertility is as low as it seems at first glance since what is involved is in part a temporal phenomenon (see this presentation by John Bongaarts and Griffith Feeney of the UN Population Council), and this temporal phenomenon gives rise to a measurement problem. Essentially women are both having fewer children, and at the same time they are also having them later, so in the short run there is a 'displacement effect' which tends to exaggerate the fertility (TFR) readings and fertility could eventually ‘recover’ to rather higher levels through increased childbirth at the older ages . However it is important to bear in mind that the postponment process has now been operating in many European societies for thirty or more years now, and it may continue for some decades yet (see this presentation by Joshua Goldstein and Wolfgang Lutz) so with very low levels of fertility operating for more than half a century the actual long-run 'equilibrium' level may be somewhat academic for a social and economic policy which needs to operate in the short to mid-term.

The debate of which this conference forms a part is important since, as I have already indicated, in recent years a general and progressive delay in the average age at first childbirth has been observed throughout the OECD world, and in particular in every European Union country. The percentage of births to mothers aged thirty or over now exceeds over 40% of total births in a number of countries, including Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. Indeed delayed first child birth is now considered one of the most characteristic features of the most recent fertility change, a fact which has lead some authors to talk of yet another demographic transition: the "postponement transition toward a late-childbearing regime".

Spain is a prime case here, since Spanish women are now the oldest first-time mothers in Europe, and arguably in the world, bearing the first child, on-average, at around 29. The position of Spain, however, is by no means unique. Women in at least six other European countries (Ireland, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland) as well as in Japan currently have their first child at an average age of over 28.

As I say the mean age at first birth in many 'late first birth' countries is, in fact, likely to continue to rise further in the near future, possibly eventually breaking the 30 year benchmark. A variety of factors lead demographers to suggest that it unlikely - at least in the short-term - that the mean age will increase much above this threshold with Czech demographer Thomas Sobotka concluding that a mean age of 32 may constitute something of an outer limit for the record late-first-birth pattern (at least with current assisted reproduction technologies).

In the meantime the issue which faces us is learning to live with the postponement process. That is what this and my subsequent posts on this conference are really all about.

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