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Changing Desires for Children in Europe. Maria Rita Testa and Wolfgang Lutz. IUSSP, Tours, France July 2005.

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changing desires for children in europe

Changing Desires for Children in Europe

Maria Rita Testa and Wolfgang Lutz

IUSSP, Tours, France

July 2005


 The Emergence of Sub-Replacement Family Size Ideals in EuropeCurrently the leading fertility policy rationale in Europe is that governments should create conditions that enable young couples to close the gap between ideal family size and actual fertility

«Below-replacement ideals [are] prevalent among young Austrians and Germans. .….for the first time, people’ stated preferences have deviated from the two-child ideal that has held such a sway since the end of the baby boom» Data Source: Eurobarometer, 2001 (Goldstein, Lutz, and Testa, Population Research & Policy Review, 4-5, 2003 )

  • The two-child ideal is no longer universally widespread in Europe
  • Ideals are declining for the younger generations of women

We examine the personal ideal family size

Question item: “And for you personally, what would be the ideal number of children you would like to have or would have liked to have had?”

We consider it as reflecting personal values and attitudes towards childbearing, i.e., the ideal number of children under the hypothetical condition of absence of constraints

Ideal family size is not a useful concept for predicting fertility but it is still related to actual fertility



**differences significant at 1% level

Data Source: Eurobarometer, 2001



Through social learning the young generations take the actual fertility of the previous generation as a standard for their personal ideals

  • These findings are confirmed by the new results of a multilevel study (Testa, Grilli, 2004)
  • Even after controlling for several individual and contextual variables Germany and Austria show up as the countries with the lowest fertility ideals in Europe
  • At the contextual level the actual childbearing experience of the older generations does influence the personal ideal fertility of the younger cohorts (possible causal mechanisms: social learning, social influence, social control) and these effects become stronger at the lower levels of actual family size
downward spiral in ideal family size
Downward spiral in ideal family size
  • Rindfuss et al. (2004, p. 855): “Changes in attitudes likely create a feedback mechanism, influencing behavior; and changes in behavior likely create a feedback mechanism influencing attitudes.”
  • Here the argument would go as follows: Once the number of children (siblings, friends, children seen in other families, media) experienced during the process of socialization falls below a certain level, the own ideal family size would become lower which in course may result in further declining actual family size and still lower ideals in the subsequent generation.
low fertility trap hypothesis
“Low Fertility Trap” Hypothesis
  • Peter MacDonald takes the view that a TFR of 1.5 presents some kind of a watershed. Once a country falls below this level it is more difficult to go up again than stay above 1.5.
  • Idea of non-linear dose-response relationship between government efforts and fertility level. Different from frequently held view: “Fertility will never fall too low, because then governments will do something about it” (UN Population Projections, “Beyond Six Billion). What can governments do if ideals family size keeps falling ?

Basic Idea of “Low Fertility Trap Hypothesis”Once fertility falls below a certain level and stays there for a while it can imply a demographic regime change that is difficult to reverse

Three possible self-reinforcing mechanisms that could lead to such a situation:

1. Normative/Ideational: If actual fertility is lower, norms of the next generation will be lower

2. Economic: Modified Easterlin Hyothesis

3. Negative Momentum

modification of easterlin s relative income hypothesis
Modification of Easterlin‘s Relative Income Hypothesis

Two parts:

  • (a) fertility is the result of the relationship between personal aspirations and expected income
  • (b) smaller cohort size will lead to better situation and therefore to higher expected income
  • Alternative (b): very low fertility leads to prospect of ageing, cuts in social benefits, general pessimism about the future and hence low expected income.
  • In Europe currently we observe for young people combination of

High aspirations - Low expected income and pessimism

  • Viewed under a long-term perspective, the demographic transition taught us that the balance of births and deaths (if we assume that systems eventually will move towards homeostasis) can be disturbed for many decades due to the fact that fertility is strongly embedded in the system of social norms and that such demographic regimes can be very persistent once they are well established.
  • Because of this we have seen many decades of “overshooting” birth rates that have resulted in historically unprecedented population growth. It cannot be ruled out that the same forces of social momentum, once a new low fertility regime has been established, will result in decades of “undershooting” birth rates resulting in historically unprecedented population ageing and decline.