Academic journal article Demographic Research

Overview Chapter 1: Fertility in Europe: Diverse, Delayed and below Replacement

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Overview Chapter 1: Fertility in Europe: Diverse, Delayed and below Replacement

Article excerpt


Early in the 21st century, three-quarters of Europe's population lived in countries with fertility considerably below replacement. This general conclusion is arrived at irrespective of whether period or cohort fertility measures are used. In Western and Northern Europe, fertility quantum was slightly below replacement. In Southern, Central and Eastern Europe, fertility quantum as measured by the period total fertility rate (TFR) and its tempo-adjusted version was markedly below replacement; in many countries it was around 1.5, and in some populations it was as low as 1.3 to 1.4 births per woman. Throughout Europe, a historic transformation of childbearing patterns characterised by a pronounced delay of entry into parenthood has been taking place. This secular trend towards later childbearing has greatly contributed to the decline and fluctuations in period fertility rates. Delayed births were being recuperated, especially among childless women, but the extent of recuperation differs by country and region. All in all, despite a recent upward trend in the period TFR, European fertility early in the 21st century was at its lowest point since the Second World War.

1. Background

In contemporary Europe, fertility levels and trends are of grave concern-and for good reasons. There was not a single European country in 2005 with a total fertility rate at or above the replacement level (Eurostat 2007)3. In the absence of migration, sustained fertility at or below 1.5 births per woman would lead to such a rapidly declining and ageing population that, as a demographic outlook, it "might well be judged unacceptable" (Demeny and McNicoll 2006: 281). The resulting large proportions of the old and very old would signify major burdens for individuals and societies, including costly health care and large pension expenditures. In addition, any influx of immigrants large enough to offset very low fertility levels would be of dimensions likely to make their integration difficult, and could cause serious social and political tensions and problems.

There is a general consensus among scholars that "maintaining fertility at a level that does not fall much below a two-child average - say, around 1.7 - 1.8" (Demeny and McNicoll 2006: 281), would make population ageing and the eventual population decline easier to manage. It is within this framework that the present project has set out to assess and discuss levels, trends, and prospects of childbearing in Europe.

This chapter provides an overview of period and cohort fertility rates in Europe during recent decades, and discusses crucial relevant issues. Section 2 provides an overview of period fertility levels and trends during the past half century. Using period data, Section 3 discusses childbearing postponement, and the extent to which fertility delays lead to distortions in period total fertility rates. Methods that might be used to overcome these distortions are briefly reviewed and adjusted period TFRs for European regions are also presented. Levels and trends in completed cohort fertility rates are discussed in Section 4. In Section 5, childbearing patterns of cohorts that were in different stages of their reproductive periods early in the 21st century are utilized to illustrate the extent of actual recent birth delays and recuperation. Section 6 summarizes conclusions.

2. The spread of very low period fertility and the emergence of new fertility divides in Europe

As a consequence of the multiple constraints childrearing imposes on parents, combined with a smaller desired family size and a strong trend towards postponement of parenthood, many European countries have experienced a decline of the period total fertility rate (TFR) to 'very low' (below 1.5), or 'lowest-low' (below 1.3) levels. This process has been particularly rapid during the 1990s, when most post-socialist societies of Central and Eastern Europe joined the latter group during their complex societal transformation (see Overview Chapter 5). …

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