Re-Emerging Diversity: Rapid Fertility Changes in Central and Eastern Europe after the Collapse of the Communist Regimes

By Sobotka, Tomás | Population, July-October 2003 | Go to article overview
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Re-Emerging Diversity: Rapid Fertility Changes in Central and Eastern Europe after the Collapse of the Communist Regimes

Sobotka, Tomás, Population

Demographic developments in central and eastern Europe have long attracted specialist attention for the varied effects of the population policies pursued in these countries during the communist era. The political upheavals occurring since the collapse of the Soviet Union have re-established economic and social conditions as the key influences in the process of family building. Using a set of indicators for fertility, contraception and union formation, Tomás SOBOTKA analyses the different paths taken by these countries in the 1990s. Over and above the apparent uniformity of the decline in fertility since 1989, the author distinguishes between, on the one hand, the countries of central Europe, where the decline seems to result primarily from a shift towards later childbearing, and on the other, the group formed by Romania, Bulgaria, the Russian Federation and the republics of the former USSR, where completed fertility is tending to fall sharply, mainly due to the growing proportion of one-child families. The trends observed in the first group can be interpreted as an alignment with western patterns of behaviour and lifestyles, and those in the second group as the result of the economic and social crises affecting these countries since the demise of the communist regimes.

The avalanche of events that led to the demise of authoritarian regimes swept through the countries of central and south-eastern Europe in the "revolutionary year" 1989 and reached its climax with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The political division of Europe into east and west, clearly distinguishing the members of the two competing political blocs and two different social and economic systems for more than four decades, had come to an end, paving the way for a less clear-cut political, social and economic differentiation of Europe.

The radical social and economic transformations generated a strong impetus for the subsequent change in the demographic behaviour of the populations in this region. Fertility patterns, initially characterized by early and almost universal childbearing and by a strong attachment to the two-child family norm, changed rapidly over the 1990s. A substantial decline in period fertility has taken place in all previously communist countries of Europe, which now form the region of lowest fertility in the world, with total fertility rates (TFRs) ranging between 1.1 and 1.4 children per woman in 2000. An interesting discussion has evolved around several issues: Why did total fertility rates decline to such low levels? What was the impact of the postponement of childbearing on period fertility? Is eastern Europe experiencing the same transformation as the western European societies since the mid-1960s? Are fertility patterns in eastern Europe becoming more heterogeneous?

This article aims to provide detailed evidence on fertility changes in the countries of central and eastern Europe during the 1990s and to discuss the evolving regional differentiation in fertility patterns. In doing so, it touches on most of the questions posed above. First, a general overview looks at fertility changes in a longer time perspective. Developments in fertility are then linked with evidence on changes in family formation and with data on contraceptive use and induced abortion. The final discussion focuses on increasing differences in the timing of childbearing and the effects of fertility postponement on parity-specific fertility rates.

I. Data and methods

Data were collected from various sources. Basic data on fertility, abortions and various demographic indicators originate from the Council of Europe (2001, 2002) and from Eurostat (2001-2003). Detailed data on births by biological birth order and age of the mother, and data on the age distribution of women, were obtained from Eurostat and from official vital statistics data and publications. Indicators related to cohabitation, contraceptive use and mother's status at first birth were compiled from published tables of the FFS (Fertility and Family Survey) Standard Country Reports and RHS (Reproductive Health Surveys) conducted in many countries of the region throughout the 1990s.

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Re-Emerging Diversity: Rapid Fertility Changes in Central and Eastern Europe after the Collapse of the Communist Regimes


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