Academic journal article Demographic Research

Social Mobility and Fertility

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Social Mobility and Fertility

Article excerpt


Intra- and inter-generational social mobility have in the past played an important role in attempts to explain fertility behaviour, and continue to do so today. The opinions expressed by social scientists in the first part of the 20th century are renewed and confirmed. More specifically: (1) intra-generational social mobility has been reinforced by the personal well-being aspirations and job careers of women; (2) status anxiety parents feel for their children pushes fertility down in large areas of the developed world (mainly in southern European and eastern Asian countries). Therefore, the provocative idea of Ariès that in the rich world, the child-king has now been replaced by the couple-queen does not perfectly hold.

1. Introduction

When fertility began to fall in the now developed countries, some social scientists noted a connection between upward "social mobility" (henceforth "mobility") and low fertility. In developing his theory of social capillarity, Dumont wrote in 1890:

Any man tends ... to climb unceasingly, as oil rises in a lamp wick... For one who starts at the bottom to arrive at the top, it is necessary to run fast and not to be encumbered with baggage. Thus, while an ambitious man can be served by a good marriage... his own children, particularly if they are numerous, almost inevitably slow him down (quoted by Greenhalgh, 1988, p. 630-631).

This idea of "competition" between one's own children and upward mobility is key to explaining fertility transition. However, it is only one of many possible links between mobility and fertility. More than one population issue should be taken into account. The problem may be divided into two topics: (1) Fertility and intragenerational mobility; (2) Fertility and inter-generational mobility.

In reference to the first point, the concept of intra-generational social mobility (i.e. when an individual rises from one social class to another during her/his adult life) will be extended to include the personal well-being aspirations of the parents (i.e. when parents limit their fertility in an effort to improve their living conditions).

In reference to the second point, the idea of inter-generational mobility (i.e. when children belong to a different social class than that of their parents) will also be extended to include parents' aspirations of having high quality children. We do not take into consideration another aspect, or that of the impact of inter-generational mobility on the fertility of the children themselves. The study of this topic, by authors such as Bresard (1950); Girard (1951); Berent (1952); Westoff (1953, 1981); Westoff et al. (1961, 1963) and Zimmer (1981) has produced rather controversial results.

Demographic literature is herein examined, in order to re-consider from this particular point of view several explanations for both fertility behaviour (not only fertility decline) and low fertility, in developed and developing countries. This investigation also provides the opportunity to speculate on the future of post-transitional fertility patterns.

2. Fertility and intra-generational mobility: do personal well-being aspirations drive fertility choices?

2.1 Contrasting pre-transitional and transitional periods

According to Dumont's idea of social capillarity, in a modern society, the smaller the size of one's family, the higher one's social climbing opportunities. This idea lies at the core of Davis' (1963) interpretation of transitional fertility decline, as well as other authors who wrote during the birth depression of the 1930s, such as Lorimer and Osborn (1934, pp. 325-327) and particularly, Carr-Saunders (1936, ch. XVII). Their explanation of fertility transition may be convincing, as the notion of a close relationship between modernisation and fertility decline, emphasised by almost all of the fathers of the demographic transition theory, is best explained in terms of individual strategies. …

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