The Postponement of Childbirth 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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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

8 thoughts on “The Postponement of Childbirth in Europe

  1. Your last link (to Sobotka) does not work.

    I think there should be a link to educational changes too.

    Almost every female friend I have with a higher education has her first child after 30. Most people I know (in the Netherlands) work a few years before they want to start a family, and the higher the education the higher the age you start working. – and the number of women with higher education has risen.

  2. I think the US case might be able to shed a lot of light on some of the cultural/non-biological issues involved in this – I wonder if the fertility patterns in the US are split along the familiar cultural lines of “secularization”. And then there’s Maureen Dowd, of course, and the glass ceiling. In Germany, for example, this is – to my knowledge – clearly an education issue – less educated women tend to keep having their first child early – they don’t plan, or if they do, their planning horizon is clearly shorter. Also, I’m wondering to which extent the break down of industrial age employment patterns and the resulting security, the shift from the secondary to tertiary sector, in which employment is arguably less secure, has resulted in a risk avoidance behavior that will have interisting consequences for the design of a welfare state in the (near) future. It probably does have a function as an automatic stabilizer in a demographic sense, and maybe it should have more of that for low-risk societies like Germany.

  3. “Your last link (to Sobotka) does not work.”

    Ok, thanks, I think its fixed. It is a very interesting presentation. Sobotka did his doctoral thesis on this topic, he’s now working with Lutz at IASA.

    “I think there should be a link to educational changes too.”

    Don’t worry, this will come. This is a very complex problem, and I will be linking to tow or three of the papers looking at different aspects. All I want to highlight here is the timing (age component) effect.

    Obviously part of the picture are the ever higher levels of education needed to enter work in a high-value added economy. Female emancipation is also another big part.

    “I think the US case might be able to shed a lot of light on some of the cultural/non-biological issues involved in this”

    It might do, but this would be in what you might find to be surprising ways. A big part of the statistical picture is adolescent pregnancy (which is also a factor in the relatively higher fertility found in the UK and Ireland, more anglo-factor). The other big part of the US picture is huge immigration from Latin America, and the fact that the relatively less emancipated Latin women tend to have less education, marry younger, and hence have more children. But at some point this situation inverts. The postponement factor will eventually go to work in the US, then, as I am suggesting, they will probably have low fertility for decades.

    Another line of enquiry I am working on at the moment, is that increasing life expectancy and fertility are somehow linked. US life expectancy is very low by European standards. I have also put a page on this:

    http://www.edwardhugh.net/lifeexpectancy.html

    If this is the case, at some stage US longevity should rise and fertility fall. (This is very speculative, but I will at some stage try to explain the mechanism through which this might work). Of course there is the opposite hypothesis that the obesity issue can bring life expectancy down in the US, so your guess is as good as mine here.

    “Also, I’m wondering to which extent the break down of industrial age employment patterns and the resulting security, the shift from the secondary to tertiary sector, in which employment is arguably less secure, has resulted in a risk avoidance behavior”

    This is the Hans-Peter Blossfeld argument in the paper he presented. One for another post. Don’t be greedy, one point at a time. This conference is something to savour.

  4. This is the Hans-Peter Blossfeld argument in the paper he presented. One for another post. Don’t be greedy, one point at a time. This conference is something to savour.

    Thanks Edward, just had a look at his presentation. Interesting – maybe increased understanding of these mechanisms (real or imagined) will be the topic that can bring the progressive left and the traditional right together to do something useful with respect to the European welfare regimes. My guess is we’ll be moving to Scandinavia rather sooner than later. Interesting results about Ireland.

  5. we will see some changes in our relation with our “old” but frankly i do no see any problem with this trend, we can afford it.

    i prefer ,by far, quality over quantity (provided by our highly educated mothers) and we do not need more humans on this planet.

  6. “we will see some changes in our relation with our “old””

    The point is Fredouil, this ‘with our old’ bit is to miss the point. We are becoming old, we are the ‘old’, as societies here in Europe. Older and wiser? well we will see. Of course, you are in Australia, and with a median age of around 36 you are a bit younger. Many European countries are now on or around median ages of 40 and are heading steadily up to the 50 mark.

    “but frankly i do no see any problem with this trend,”

    Problem no, but challenge yes. And if we don’t face up to the challenge, then problem.

    The structure of our life cycle is changing, now our institutional structure needs to adapt too. The centre of gravity of our working life needs to move upwards, this means starting work later, and, of course, retiring later, significanty later.

    I just noticed this from your home country, France:

    “A commission of inquiry into the €1,100bn debt mountain built up by France over the past quarter-century will on Wednesday call for a new law to straighten out public finances within five years.Failure to curb deficits would result in a €20bn-a-year shortfall of funds to pay state pensions by the year 2020”.

    These are the sort of challenges we will face, and we need to address them.

    Also the transition from more-or-less constant population growth to stationary or declining populations means that we will be moving from a relatively high growth environment (2% per annum), to a low growth or even no-growth one.

  7. Another line of enquiry I am working on at the moment, is that increasing life expectancy and fertility are somehow linked. US life expectancy is very low by European standards.

    To the extent that the state provides old-age pensions, they are inextricably linked. As the population lives longer after retirement, more resources are diverted from working people (which class includes potential child-rearers) to pensioners.

    One potential work-around is increased participation of grandparents in child-rearing, but this seems impractical in places when children are likely to move away from their childhood homes in search of education or employment. In my (US) experience, though, those women who do manage to make ends meet after a teenage pregnancy invariably do it with the help of their parents.

  8. 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 has been true throughout the relatively civilized and economically developed world for at least three millenia (i.e. recorded history).

    This was arrested by the establisment of boundaries, most concretely by a concept called: “nation states.”

    Wealthier more educated people have ALWAYS had less children.

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