Tuesday, January 08, 2013

On how non-traditional families and higher fertility in developed countries go together

One question that multiple commenters raised in my year-end post asking what readers would like to see is the question of what sort of policies and cultural changes would be necessary to boost fertility rates in developed countries. I'd point these readers to the pragmatism voiced in a recent post at the Global Sociology Blog, "Let’s Make 2013 The Year We Bury The Concept of 'Traditional Family'".

It has never been a cultural and historical reality. It is an ideological construct, like any claimed “tradition”. There is no objectivity to it. Family structures are always a product of the intersection between structure, institutions and culture. Just go read Stephanie Coontz’s Family: A History. It’s all there. The boundaries of what makes a family have always been porous and who counts as kin or relative has always involved an ever-changing cast of characters. In other words, rather than corresponding to an objective reality, the invocation of “traditional family” obfuscates rather than illuminates. It is a power play, an attempt to reify and solidify a definition of a certain, limited type of family for ideological purposes. It is time to reject the phrase once and for all, along with the political content embedded in it.

[. . .]

The family, as social institution, is structured at the intersection of a multiplicity of social forces to which it has to adapt. Conversely, it also has some impact on these forces. But this means that “family” in an of itself does not exist. In multiplicities of social contexts, one will find multiple family forms, some more patriarchal than others.

And this is really what is at stake here: the emergence and greater acceptability of non-patriarchal family forms, from single-mother-headed households to LGBT families (with or without children), to child-free singles (men and women). The invocation of “traditional family” is reflects the weaning power of a social control device. Time to finish it off.

As Aslak Berk noted in his July 2009 post "The decadent shall inherit the Earth" and as I noted in September of that year in a longer piece comparing West Germany with France, policies and cultural attitudes which militate against forming non-traditional families--LGBT families, families with working mothers, et cetera--don't boost the number of traditional families so much as discourage the formation of families, and the births of children, tout court. Aslak, first:

The problem with the traditional family from a demographic perspective is that it often forces the mother to choose between career and children. In very traditional societies, where women do not have the opportunity to pursue careers, this does lead to high fertility rates. But once you give the women the opportunity to pursue careers, the traditional family structure makes them choose, and a lot of them will choose their careers and maybe one child. Countries with more flexible family structures that give women the opportunity to combine their careers with motherhood get a double bonus: both higher female employment rates, since those who would prioritize motherhood in a more traditional society get the chance to work, and higher fertility rates, since those who prioritize their careers have more children. Indeed, an often-noted trend in the demographic literature is the emergence of a strong correlation between female labor force participation rates and fertility in developed countries.

Next, me.

Jean-Marie Le Goff's paper "Cohabiting unions in France and West Germany: Transitions to first birth and first marriage", in issue 7.18 of Demographic Research, sheds life on this phenomenon through a comparison of France and the former West Germany. The two territories, each with roughly similar populations and roughly similar levels of development, have diverged significantly in the post-Second World War period.

French total fertility rates (TFR) have traditionally been higher, on average by the value 0.3 to 0.7 since 1965 (Council of Europe, 2001). In 1965, the TFR was 2.7 in France and 2.4 in West Germany. In both countries, the TFR decreased drastically until the middle of the seventies and levelled off thereafter. In 1999, the TFR was 1.8 in France and 1.4 in West Germany. Moreover, pronounced differences in nonmarital births between France and West Germany have emerged since the beginning of the eighties. France witnessed a big increase in non-marital fertility rates; from roughly 11% in 1980 they reached 41% in 1999. In West Germany, the increase in non-marital births was less pronounced, from 8% to 18% (Council of Europe, 2001). In most developed countries, an increase in non-marital births occurred simultaneously with an increase in non-marital unions (Kiernan 2001a and b). France appears to follow this pattern, but West Germany constitutes an exceptional case.

Women in France, Le Goff argues, have access to a whole variety of family structures, from the traditional nuclear marriage family to a family marked by cohabitation to single motherhood, with a relatively long tradition of recognizing the responsibilities of parents towards their children regardless of their legal status, with the idea of mothers working outside of the home not only being accepted but supported by any number subsidies to parents to affordable and accessible day care. In West Germany, social and policy norms tend to support traditional family structures. The result? In France, people are childbearing age are split between two sectors, one defined by marriage relationships and the other defined by cohabitation relationships. On the other side of the Rhine, people of childbearing age are split between people who have children and people who don't. Katja Köppen's Second births in Western Germany and France (Demographic Research 14.14) further points out that whereas Frenchwomen seem to enjoy an institutional structure that encourages motherhood and there isn't a contradiction between high levels of education--hence employment--and fertility, there is such a contradiction in western Germany, with government spending priorities in the latter country being directed towards the support of traditional families. It's not too much of a surprise, then, that the German Federal Statistics Office reports that of childless women is rising, particularly in the former West Germany.

The number of childless women is increasing in Germany. As reported by the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis), in 2008 21% of the women aged 40 to 44 years had not given birth to a child. By contrast, 16% of the women who were ten years older (birth cohorts from 1954 to 1958) and only 12% of the women who were 20 years older (birth cohorts from 1944 to 1948) were childless. A share of 26% of the women aged between 35 and 39 years had no children yet in 2008. However, the proportion of childless women will still decline in this age group.

These and more 2008 microcensus core results regarding childlessness and births in Germany were announced today by Roderich Egeler, President of the Federal Statistical Office, at a press conference in Berlin.

In the eastern part of Germany, the number of childless women is by far smaller than in western Germany. While in the ‘old’ Länder, 16% of the women aged 40 to 75 years have no children, their share amounts to only 8% in the ‘new’ Länder. Regarding younger women, too, the difference is considerable. In the ‘old’ Länder, a share of 28% of the women aged between 35 and 39 years (birth cohorts from 1969 to 1973) have no children yet, while the relevant proportion amounts to not more than 16% in the ‘new’ Länder.

Sobotka points out that West German women have evidenced considerably higher rates of childlessness than their French counterparts since the 1940s.

This growing body of research points towards a strong conclusion: if a developed country, or at least a country well advanced in the demographic transition, wants high cohort fertility, it has to support alternative family structures in such a way that women will have the autonomy necessary to combine participation in the work force with motherhood. Times have changed, and if any number of countries--Germany included--are to avoid very prolonged demographic winters they're going to have to adapt.



Colin said...

I'd be careful about reading too much into differences between East and West Germany, given the size and nature of migration between the two. Young women have moved from East to West in large numbers (more so than men), and it could well be that childless women are more inclined to move.

Anecdotally though, it does seem that there's something of a U-shaped correlation between fertility and gender equality, with the social attitudes of somewhere like Italy or Singapore being typical of the 'trough'.

Randy McDonald said...

East German women who don't have children leave to pursue careers in the West? A possibility, sure. The Franco-German comparison seems more telling, I think.

Don't forget Iran. Apparently fertility in urban Iran is approaching lowest-low levels, unaided by policies of the Islamic Republic which include limiting the opportunities women might have for higher education and setting up internet dating.

jemand said...


Doesn't Italy itself have a significant north/south division, both in fertility, and in social attitudes toward gender equality?

Not in anyway undermining your point, since that difference goes the way you might expect in a developed country, if I am remembering correctly.

Randy McDonald said...

@ jemand:

Fertility in northern Italy has recovered somewhat from its nadir, while fertility in southern Italy has hit lowest-low levels and stayed there.


However, that might just be an artifact.


Benj said...

Being from France, I can help with the answer: it's because of African and Muslim immigration. People of African/Muslim origin (even after 3-4 generations like today so that can't be found in any french stats) have more children. And they are a lot in France. Without them, the FTR would be at best 1.7 maybe lower like in all Europe.
Anyway, someone who writes that traditional family is an ideological construct and other PC nonsense like that can't be taken seriously. Traditional family is the basis of all civilizations.
By the way just check the only western countries where fertility is still high like Ireland and in fact, only Israel is left: in these countries the family is still very traditional.

Randy McDonald said...

@ Benj: National TFRs for France are boosted by immigrant/immigrant background fertility in the same way and even much the same degree that national TFRs for the United States are. That said, as you've noted even if you exclude people of African immigrant background from the fertility issue you would have a fertility rate of 1.7, i.e. substantially higher than the European average.

(Please provide links and citations demonstrating your claims. Please?)

The traditional family is an ideological construct, and has already been destabilized worldwide by the granting of equal rights to women. Law and, to an increasing degree, society no longer see the nuclear family as one which must be dominated by men. That's a rather significant shift, don't you think?

As for fertility, according to OECD data from 2009 the developed countries which exhibit not only the highest fertility rates and the ones showing a tendency to recover include Anglophone countries, the Nordic five, France, and the Benelux states.


Leaving the special case of plural Israel aside, Iceland is the OECD country with the highest fertility rate as of 2009, and there two-thirds of births are to non-married partners. (Only a third of births in Ireland are, which is a somewhat lower rate than Iceland in 1980.) If anything, in high-income Western countries there seems to be a connection between having a large proportion of children being born to non-married partners and having a high fertility rate.

Benj said...

"The traditional family is an ideological construct, and has already been destabilized worldwide by the granting of equal rights to women"

We are not speaking about the same thing. The traditional family is a married couple with children. I never spoke about domination by men. And the traditional family is not an ideological construct. The ideological construct is the idea that everything is an ideological construct. We know for example today that Nations are not "ideological constructs" as has been explained to us since after WW2 - population genetics show that most ethnic groups and old nations do have indeed a large share of common ancestors. So there is a basis in reality.

Regarding high fertilities: I don't call 1.9 or 2.0 high fertility. And Island is interesting but it has a lower population that some quarters of Paris. So not exactly representative of anything.

The fact is in France the "high" fertility comes from populations who still cling very strongly to the traditional family. The 1.7 FTR for native French (a crude estimation as nobody knows, I think from Muchele Tribalat) is higher than other native Europeans that's true but the reason is mainly the "family policy" of the government - a lot of aids and money and help for women. That helps rising from 1.4 to 1.7, nice but not enough.

Randy McDonald said...

Defining the "traditional family" as something not dominated by men is a non-starter. In most Western cultures, the very identity of the family is defined by the father--descent is reckoned patrilineally, not otherwise. More to the point, of the two human genders it has tradtionally been the male that enjoyed the greater legal privileges, especially in the context of marriage (married women's property is an innovation barely more than a century old in North America and Europe, for instance). Societies which shift so as to allow women greater freedom simply can't maintain the traditional family.

"We know for example today that Nations are not "ideological constructs" as has been explained to us since after WW2 - population genetics show that most ethnic groups and old nations do have indeed a large share of common ancestors."

That may be true of specific regions, but what, exactly, constitutes a nation? Why do some regions coalesce to form a nation and others not? (Why is Wallonia separate from France? Was was East Germany separated from West Germany, and why is Austria still separate? Why is Alsace French? Et cetera.)

It's also worth noting that whatever historic genetic patterns might be, these have become increasingly less relevant worldwide as migration continues.

"Regarding high fertilities: I don't call 1.9 or 2.0 high fertility."

In the context that we're talking about--high- and middle-income societies well advanced in the demographic transition--a TFR of 1.9 or 2.0 does count as high fertility.

"And Island is interesting but it has a lower population that some quarters of Paris. So not exactly representative of anything."

It's representative of a society where the traditional family is no longer predominant, at least as measured by the proportion of children born to non-married parents, and where fertility rates are high and have remained high for some time. Iceland, admittedly, lies towards the high end of a Nordic region that combines non-traditional family structures with high fertility ...

"The fact is in France the "high" fertility comes from populations who still cling very strongly to the traditional family."

1. The current French TFR, just above two children per woman, is high by the standards of high- and middle-income societies well-advanced in the demographic transition. A fertility rate of 1.7 for French of--let's say--"non-African" descent is still high: higher than the national TFRs of all of France's neighbours, it compares to the non-Hispanic white TFR of 1.8 in the United States.


"[This is product of t]he "family policy" of the government - a lot of aids and money and help for women. That helps rising from 1.4 to 1.7, nice but not enough."

I'd point you to the comparative studies of French and West German demographics I pointed to, each of which makes the point that this institutional structure friendly to motherhood outside of traditional norms boost fertility, possibly encouraging the demographic groups that in West Germany would opt against having more than one child (or any children at all) to have these children in France.

(A question: why, exactly, is high fertility among "French of African descent" a problem?)

jemand said...

Thank you Randy! The refusal to discuss demographic matters within a larger framework of racist or sexist fears of change, along with the well-researched detail in data, are things that I absolutely love about this blog, and keep me coming back.

And I do think when discussing such long term and large changes in social structure, family structure, immigration, etc. there *IS* a lot of fear of these changes, which can manifest in framing such as assuming fertility among French of African decent is a bad thing, ignoring that "traditional family" if you go back long enough usually included a man with however many women he was rich enough to marry/ own / otherwise keep around, etc. And even down to recent times, has most definitely been dominated by men.

The fear is understandable given the rate of change in the world, but on the other hand, the resentment it encourages against the childless-by-choice, career women, and immigrants in the speaker's region is not a good thing. And furthermore, policy which might get passed on the back of widespread resentment of this kind is likely just to make a lot of people have a very bad time, but not actually alter any of the underlying trends which are driving the demographic changes.