Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Kinderwunsch Gap

Why is there such a gap between the number of children European women say they would like to have (their Kinderwunsch) and the number they actually have? As the story I posted yesterday points out,
Indeed, surveys taken a few years ago by Eurobarometer of women’s child preference came up with a majority response of two or three children.
Yet almost all European countries have fertility rates below, and many well below, the natural replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman. The latest data showed a rise in the fertility rate from 1.47 children per woman in 2003 to 1.60 in 2008-2009, but this is still below the natural replacement rate and well below the average Kinderwunsch.

EU countries vary widely in the extent and generosity of their family policies - paid parental leave, day care, and the like, but it is not clear that these policies make much difference. (One exception was East Germany - German Democratic Republic) - which had a very low fertility rate and very high female labor force participation. The introduction of a very generous paid maternity leave policy did lead, nine months later, to a marked increase in the birth rate.)

Clearly, the wish for children competes with many other desires - especially but not only for female labor force participation (especially important for survival, not just self-realization, where there are high rates of divorce, single parenthood, and cohabitation). Even a generous substitute provider in the form of the 'cuckolding state' cannot ensure anything close to the optimal family structure for bearing and raising children. Later marriage also produces lower fertility and the sandwich generation stresses of caring simultaneously for dependent children and those children's grandparents.

It used to be that low fertility was associated with the northern European welfare states like the Scandinavian countries and high rates with southern European countries like Italy, Spain, and Greece. For some time, we have seen the opposite tendencies, with rising fertility in Sweden, where female labor force participation is still very high, and the lowest fertility in countries like Italy, Spain, and Greece. France now has a natural increase in population (net of immigration) not seen in 30 years. Outside Europe, such widely different countries as Iran and Brazil, India and China have all undergone rapid declines in fertility rates.

Some decades ago, I developed a theory - well no, I didn't develop it, it was never more than an idea - that there is a curvilinear relationship between the status of women and their total fertility rate (TFR). As the opportunities for women increase, the opportunity costs (the sacrifices required, the desired goods given up) of having children, and so of realizing their Kinderwunsch, increase. But as their prosperity grows and family policy supports a balance of family and work life and spreads the cost burden of childrearing more evenly between men and women, parents and non-parents (as Swedish family policy aims to do), so the sacrifices or tradeoffs of having the number of children you want begin to decline.

So as a country develops and industrializes, fertility first expands and more babies survive, (the first great demographic transition). Then it declines rapidly as the economy grows and the status and opportunities of women increase, leading to a big gap between Kinderwunsch and TFR. (As formal replaces informal old age and disability insurance (aka children), your 'social security' also ceases to depend on having your own children and socializing them effectively in an ideology of filial piety.) Then, as prosperity and status increase further, women are able to come closer to having the number of children they desire. They come somewhat closer to being able to have it all.

OK, it's just a thought, and doesn't explain a lot of things like the postwar baby boom.

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