Sunday, March 12, 2006

Ideal family Size

by Edward Hugh

This is a sort of 'summary' post to introduce a fairly complex topic. Basically one part of the 'low fertility' debate centres around the idea that many women in the end have less children than they actually want. This argument is normally deployed to support the idea that developed societies are far nearer replacement fertility than they think, and that with the right kind of institutional support fertility can be teased (word used advisedly) back up again.

This is normally associated with the idea of a carrot rather than a stick variety of pro-natalism. Obviously the former is the only type which can actually hope to have any kind of success in a 'mature' society. The demographer who is perhaps most closely associated with the view that policy can work is the Australian Peter McDonald, and you can find a representative sample of his ideas here.

Now the data used to support the idea that women tend to want around two children each is normally extracted from attitude and opinion surveys. This data is hard to interpret, and of yet to be determined real validity, but let's leave this on one side for the moment. It is the best we have.

Normally in an EU context this type of information is to be found in Eurobarometer surveys, and the next one of these relating to desired fertility is due this summer (June I think). Meantime the Austrian demographer Wolfgang Lutz has drawn attention to the fact that desired family size was already found to be falling in some countries in the last Eurobarometer survey (2001), and in particular in some countries (Germany and Austria) where fertility has already been at below replacement levels for a generation or so. The German-speaking regions seemed at this stage to have formed some sort of cluster of low fertility ideals, since ideal family size averaged 1.6 in the former East Germany, and about 1.7 in both Austria and the former West Germany. Lutz has written many times on this topic, but the most interesting paper is perhaps this one: The Emergence of Sub-Replacement Family Size Ideals in Europe (written with Joshua Goldstein and Rosa Maria Testa). I reproduce below the conclusions of this paper:

In the larger debate about below-replacement fertility, childbearing intentions have been largely ignored because they have seemed to be such an unresponsive indicator of changing behaviour. Now, for the first time, we see that fertility ideals really do seem to be changing. Demographers have placed great emphasis on the importance of tempo effects, delayed childbearing, in producing low period fertility rates. The survey results we present here, however, indicate a deeper and more durable societal change, a decline in family size ideals.
What does this imply about future fertility? First of all, it would suggest to us that we should not be surprised if fertility declines further in Germany – or fails to increase, as Bongaarts and others have argued. Expected fertility averages 1.5 children per women among the younger cohorts in Austria and Germany. It would not surprise us if cohort fertility does not surpass these levels. Second, low family size-ideals may create a momentum of their own making it more difficult for pro-natalist policy makers to raise fertility levels in the future. Finally, if the generational lag in fertility preferences is correct, this would imply that we will see falling family size ideals in other low-fertility countries, like Italy and Spain, in the decade or so ahead.

The below-replacement ideals prevalent among young Austrians and Germans may or may not be a sign of the future in low-fertility populations. But it is notable that for the first time people’s stated preferences have deviated from the two-child ideal that has held such sway since the end of the baby boom. It is hard to imagine that this reconceptualization of family life will be without any consequences, just as it is hard to imagine that low fertility can persist indefinitely without being accompanied by a change in ideals.

More recently the EU funded DIALOG project collected data from 30,000 people in 14 European countries on their attitudes and opinions concerning family numbers, fertility behaviour and demographic change. The study found that in the main the two child 'ideal' was still common across Europe, but noted that below replacement ideals now existed in Germany, Italy, Austria and Belgium and the Czech Republic (The desired number of children per women in Germany was found to be (1,75), in Italy (1,92), in Austria (1,84), in the Czech republic (1,97) and... in Belgium(1,86)).

The results of this summers Eurobarometer now eagerly awaited.


CapTVK said...


One small note of caution on the EU DIALOG report, it should be noted the survey in Belgium was only done in Flanders. So it might not be entirely representative for Belgium as a whole.

But my guess is we´ll see the same trend in the upcoming Eurobarometer.

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog of a family size researcher.