The Fertility Transition in Historical Perspective. Timothy W. Guinnane Professor of Economics and History Department of Economics, Yale University. The Fertility Transition in Historical Perspective.
Timothy W. Guinnane
Professor of Economics and History
Department of Economics, Yale University
The fertility transition is the point at which couples begin to deliberate limit the number of children women bear
Most western European societies, along with Canada and the United States, experienced this important change before the beginning of the 20th century
Earlier European societies had relatively late marriage for women (ages 22 and later) and many adults never married (10-15 percent). This limits population growth. Fertility transition shifts limitation of population to reductions in family size.
By mid-19th century, sub-populations in manyEuropean countries, along with Canada and the United States, clearly limiting fertility
France the first country to experience general fertility transition. Probably began before the Revolution of 1789, well underway by early 19th century
Fertility transition appears to start in period 1860s-1890s in much of western Europe, including England and Wales, Germany, Belgium, and Italy.
United States experience is mixed. Some regions see fertility decline in early 19th century. By early 20th century, native-born, urban white women have below-replacement fertility. Other sub-populations have much higher fertility, however.
In general, rural regions within these countries experience fertility transition later (although not always)
Once fertility transition begins, tends to be abrupt, with family size falling from 7-8 births per woman to 2-3 births per woman within two generations
No general agreement on the causes of the fertility transition. The “right” answer may be different for different societies and sub-groups
Some stress changes in the social and economic logic of large families brought about by industrialization and the expansion of market forces into agriculture
o Some European industries, such as textiles, were heavy employers of women
o Neoclassical economics stresses changes in the (relative) cost of children. If women have better labor-market opportunities, children are more expensive
Some stress changes in ideas about the roles of women, and the role of religion in life.
o Fertility transition tends to be later among Catholics (although not always). Papacy fought against contraception as a modern ill
o Most current research stresses “secularization” rather than differences between Catholics and Protestants
Massive migration from rural areas to urban areas shifted population from regions where fertility had always been higher to cities, where fertility transition had begun
Infant and child mortality also decline in the 19th century
Earlier views stressed this as cause of fertility transition: if women thought fewer of their children would die, they could have fewer births
We now know this is too simple. Infant and child mortality declines preceded the fertility transition in some countries, but in others they occurred simultaneously
Reverse causation is partly why: infant and child mortality declines reflects improvement in public-health systems, nutrition, etc. But it also reflects better care by parents who had fewer children to care for
Much of the European fertility transition pre-dates the use of many modern contraceptive methods
Contraceptive “pill” not widely available until 1960s, more than 100 years after start of European fertility transition. How did they (not) do it? Evidence is only indirect, but still solid
In some societies, including France, male withdrawal (coitus interruptus) was widely used
Various “rhythm” methods used, along with periodic sexual abstinence
These methods have high failure rates, but are sufficient to reduce fertility from high, pre-transition levels to the 3-4 births per woman that characterize the early fertility transition
Inexpensive rubber condoms become available from 1850s, replace more expensive, less reliable condoms already available
Other rubber barrier devices (diaphragm, cervical cap) also used in the late 19th century
Actual availability and expense of devices depends on local law and communication networks. Many countries try to prevent dissemination of knowledge and devices
Most of the relevant societies developed good vital-registration systems in by the mid-19th century (U.S. is an exception; it had not). Much valuable research based on an analysis of aggregate data from these sources
U.S. and some other countries did not have vital registration, but had accurate census. With indirect demographic methods these censuses can be used to study the fertility transition
Lower fertility tends to produce (in the short run) an older population. Lower fertility exacerbates aging-related problems in medical and social-insurance systems
Some European governments have tried to use policy to encourage women to have more children
Efforts have not been successful; even with very generous subsidies for maternal leave from employment, child-care systems, etc., low fertility seems resistant to government-sponsored opposition
Only successful way to have higher fertility in wealthier societies is route taken by Canada and the United States. They have much higher fertility rates today than most western European societies because they admit large numbers of immigrants from relatively high-fertility countries
Some developing countries today already have relatively low fertility. Examples include most of Latin America, as well as parts of East Asia
As the fertility transition takes hold, poor societies may also face the challenge of paying for an older population
Some, such as China, will be especially affected, as they turned rapidly from a high-fertility to a low-fertility society
Countries with high fertility today seek ways to promote smaller families. The UN and other agencies often stress the importance of family planning clinics and other efforts to promote sterilization or modern contraceptive methods
The historical experience suggests these methods make reducing fertility easier. But the historical experience also suggests that the desire to have smaller families is more important than the technology of contraception
This suggests more attention to the social and economic logic of high fertility. Why do women in poor countries want to have a large family, and what policies can make large families less desirable?
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