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3.1. Fertility and marriage patterns

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3.1. Fertility and marriage patterns



The average number of children per woman was about two to three in the 1960s. At that time, the total period fertility rate (TFR = an indicator corresponding to the mean number of children per woman) was below 2.5 only in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Romania, Slovenia and Sweden; nowhere in Europe was this number below 2.0. In several other EU Member States, the TFR was above 3.0: Cyprus, Ireland, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal and the Slovak Republic.


Since 1970 fertility declined in most Member States, sometimes quite substantially. In Ireland for example, the TFR even halved between 1975 (3.75) and 1994 (1.85), in the Netherlands between 1964 (3.17) and 1977 (1.58), and in Portugal between 1968 (3.00) and 1993 (1.51). In Germany fertility also dropped by about 50%: from 2.51 to 1.25 (1963- 1995). Fertility decline was less abrupt in other Member States like France and Sweden. Generally speaking, fertility decline is the common trend in the last quarter of the 20th century, and each country has its own fertility history (Figure 3.1)


Figure 3.1. Total Period Fertility Rate in the Member States in 1960, 1980 and 2005 and the forecast for 2050


In the current millennium, no EU Member State has a TFR above 2.0. This means that fertility is below the so-called replacement level of 2.2 children per woman everywhere in the EU. In 2005 Ireland (1.88) and France (1.92) reported the highest fertility rates, while the Slovak Republic (1.25) and Poland (1.24) had the lowest. As many as 16 out of the 27 EU Member States had fertility rates below 1.5 in 2005.


The overall fertility decline resulted in a more homogeneous fertility pattern over the past decades among the various EU Member States. Northern and Western Europe were the first regions where the TFR started to decline to (well) below the replacement level; currently, these regions have slightly higher fertility rates than elsewhere in the EU, although still below replacement; Southern and Eastern European fertility decline occurred later.


Determinants of changing fertility patterns include female labour force participation and education. However, closely related to both there is also a demographic factor i.e. the rise in the mean age of mothers at the birth of their first child. Postponement of having children1 triggers a decline in (period) fertility rates. As soon as the postponement trend diminishes, the (period) fertility rates may stabilize or even rise. An example is the Netherlands, where in the 1970s the age of the mother at first birth started to increase sharply, whilst the TFR dropped considerably. During the ’80s the TFR rose slightly due to the ‘catching up’ of women who had not yet given birth to a first child. Since the ’90s the TFR has raised slightly further due to the fact that the increase in the age at first birth has slowed down. The rising levels of female education were especially important: if the educational levels had not risen, the age at first birth would have been lower than what it currently is. As higher educated women have their first child later in life than less educated women, the mere increase in the number of women with higher education explains about half of the general rise in the age at first birth over the past decades, at least in the Netherlands (Beets et al, 2001).


The trend towards postponing the first child started in the Scandinavian and Western European countries in the early 1970s; elsewhere the age at first motherhood started to rise somewhat later. In Eastern Europe this trend has been visible since the late 1980s or early 1990s. In the 1960s the mean age at first birth was 23 to 24 years in many EU Member States, although slightly lower in Eastern Europe. Currently the age is around 27 to 29 in most EU Member States in Northern, Western and Southern Europe, while Eastern Europe is lagging behind with levels between 24 and 26 years of age.


Closer inspection of the TFR in a birth cohort perspective shows that women born at the end or just after the Second World War were the first to finish their fertility career with a number of children below replacement. Women from birth cohort 1955, who turned 50 in 2005 (i.e. they are currently at the end of their reproductive life) finished below replacement fertility in all countries except France (2.23), Ireland (2.67), Poland (2.29), the Slovak Republic (2.85) and Romania (2.26). Cohorts born in the 1930s only rarely had completed fertility below replacement. On average, women born in the 1930s had their first child earlier than women born later. Women born in 1955 still had their first child relatively early in many EU-countries, at ages between 24 and 26. Only in younger cohorts steep rises in the age at first birth occurred: women born in 1965 had their first child on average between ages 25 and 28, although a bit earlier in Eastern Europe.

Currently, cohort TFRs are more elevated than period TFRs due to changes in fertility timing. If women born in a certain year (birth cohort) postpone a birth, the fertility rate for that particular year (period TFR) is lower, but the ultimate number of children born to women of that particular cohort (cohort TFR) may remain unchanged.2 This implies that period TFRs will fluctuate much more than cohort TFRs (a cohort TFR may, more or less, be interpreted as the moving average of the period TFR) The fact that period TFRs currently are below cohort TFRs, suggests that some increase in period TFRs may occur. As soon as the rise in the age at first birth levels off, period TFRs may increase, at least as long as the ultimate number of children per woman does not change. This is one of the main reasons that countries in Eastern and Southern Europe with currentlylowest low fertility’ will most likely have (somewhat) higher fertility in the future.


The drop in the TFR went together with a rise in the proportion of women that remain childless. Data show that childlessness stood at about 10% in birth cohort 1935 in Belgium, France and the United Kingdom, and 12-13% in Italy and the Netherlands; in Ireland and Portugal the percentage was about 5. In general, the percentages are higher in later birth cohorts; in cohort 1955 for example, up to about 18% in Finland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, but in Belgium, Italy and Spain they are more or less stable (at about 10%) and even lower in France (8%). More recent cohorts show higher levels, but women from these cohorts may still have a child. Whether childlessness levels for women born in the 1960s, 1970s or later will really top 20% remains to be seen.


Birth cohorts in which 25% of the women already have a child at the age of 20 — thus 75% is still childlessfinally end up with a childlessness level of around 10%. This ‘pattern of early childbearing’ is characteristic for Eastern European countries. Opposite is the ‘pattern of late childbearing’, where the 25% border is not reached before the age of 25, which leads to a childlessness level of 15% or over.


More men than women remain without children, due to lower ever-marriage-rates for men than for women (Toulemon, 1995). Research shows that having a partner or not is the most important reason for remaining without children. Next to that, education is crucial (Bloom and Trussell, 1984; Prioux, 1993). Higher educated women are much more likely than lower educated women to remain childless. This does not always imply that higher educated women opt voluntarily for this situation. Difficulties in finding a partner to share parenthood with may be a reason, as well as difficulties in becoming pregnant at higher ages. However, there is evidence that higher educated women conceive more easily, ceteris paribus, than lower educated women (Beets et al, 2001; Esveldt et al, 2001).


Increasingly, children are born outside marriage. In 1960 only Austria, Estonia, Latvia and Sweden had over 10% of children born outside marriage. Currently Cyprus and Greece have a level below 10%. More than 40% of children are born outside marriage in Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Latvia, Slovenia, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Bulgaria. These levels may even be slightly flattered as women may get married after discovering a pregnancy, i.e. the conception rates outside marriage are higher than the birth rates outside marriage.3


1      Postponing the first child should be understood in a macro context, i.e. the relative change that occurs in the mean age of the mother at first birth, when comparing fertility behaviour in successive years or to women from successive birth cohorts. Individual women may not be aware themselves that they are postponing to have a child as they may not have (had) concrete plans or a fixed timing from which they deviated.

2      Vice versa it means that if women in a birth cohort would start getting their babies earlier than in previous cohorts, the period TFR would become higher than the cohort rate.

3      However, non-marital birth rates may not include children born to married women whose husbands are not the biological father.