Academic journal article Demographic Research

Overview Chapter 2: Parity Distribution and Completed Family Size in Europe: Incipient Decline of the Two-Child Family Model?1

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Overview Chapter 2: Parity Distribution and Completed Family Size in Europe: Incipient Decline of the Two-Child Family Model?1

Article excerpt


By the end of the 20th century the two-child family became the norm throughout Europe. Between 40 and over 50 percent of women in the 1950s and 1960s cohorts had two children. There were some incipient signs that shares of two-child families were declining, especially in Central and Eastern and Southern Europe. An increase in childlessness among recent generations was an almost universal trend. The increase in proportions of one-child families was prominent in CEE and in SE. Wherever shares of childless women and of women with one child continue to grow, the obvious result will be entrenched below replacement fertility. Much depends on progression ratios to first and to second births. In CEE mainly the progression ratios to second births are declining. In the Nordic countries progression ratios to first and to second births were relatively stable and even more so in France. Altogether, most people opt for two children, very few for three or more, the frequency of the one-child family is increasing as are the proportions of people remaining childless. The latter trends were more pronounced in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe and not so much in Northern and Western countries.

1. Introduction

From the middle of the 19th through the second half of the 20th century, the prevailing "large family" model of three or more children was gradually replaced by the two-child family. A diverse set of social, economic, political and cultural developments generated this process. Improved standards of living, advances in public sanitation, and increasing attention to personal hygiene were among the important conditions of declining mortality, particularly due to a drop in infant mortality, which was one reason for the decline in childbearing. Rising costs and declining benefits of children and childrearing were additional reasons for parents of successive generations to have smaller numbers of children. Gender relationships were changing in society and in the family, with increasing proportions of women employed. At the same time, people's economic aspirations and expectations, as well as their growing individualism, materialism, secularism and desire for personal self-fulfillment, were undermining the satisfaction derived from having children. These were among the principal conditions leading to small family size.

This chapter will explore in some detail the demographic developments that generated the two-child family model which prevailed throughout the developed countries by the end of the 20th century (see, for instance, van de Kaa 2001:316-318). A crucial contemporary issue is whether the two-child family norm will last, or whether it will be replaced by societies in which large proportions of parents will decide to have only one child, or no children at all.

The focus will be on actual completed family size distributions and trends. Analyses of desired or ideal family size are not included because these have been dealt with quite extensively in recent literature (for instance, Goldstein et al. 2003; Fokkema and Esveldt 2005; Testa 2006)

2. The data

The analysis of parity distribution in this chapter is conducted with cohort data. Such an approach has the advantage of reflecting quite adequately lifetime developments experienced by families and by women. At the same time, it should be taken into account that statistical information about the contemporary status is outdated. A reliable picture is based on data of cohorts that have completed their childbearing. These data provide an adequate tool for analyzing trends, but the end point provides information about generations that were in their prime childbearing years one, two, or even three decades ago.

Data used in the overview analysis are from the country chapters complemented by those of the Observatoire Démographique Européen. The pathways of constructing parity distributions depend on the data available in the respective country. …

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