Academic journal article Demographic Research

The One-Child Family: France in the European Context

Academic journal article Demographic Research

The One-Child Family: France in the European Context

Article excerpt


This paper observes the change since the 1970s in the proportion of men and women having only one child during their reproductive life, and examines their sociodemographic characteristics. The aim is to explore the significant variables of the complement of the parity progression ratio to second birth (1-A1). First, we present the theories, findings, and results relating to the single-child family model in Europe. Then, we perform a multivariate analysis, with the dependent variable of the model being the fact of not having had a second child ten years after the birth of a first child in stable unions.

1. Introduction

When men and women are asked about their ideal family size or the number of children they would like to have, the answer is seldom one child. There are many prejudices, based on the work of psychologists, child psychiatrists, and other specialists, concerning the difficulties parents are supposed to have in successfully bringing up a child who is "deprived" of a brother or sister.3 And yet having only one child is much more frequent than generally supposed. In France, for example, this is the case for one woman in five, a proportion that has not greatly changed over time. The false impression of rarity is due to a statistical fact: since, by definition, the number of children from large families is large, we more frequently come across people from families of three children or more than those who are only children, and the latter have almost never represented more than 10% of a cohort (Toulemon 2001).

Why then, despite these prejudices, do so many couples only have one child? Although in some cases the reason may be "the vagaries of life" (late union, separation, difficulties in conceiving, etc.), comparison with the United Kingdom, where most probably the same "vagaries" occur but where the frequency of one-child families is barely half that of France, shows that the gap between the stated desire or ideal and observed reality is due, at least in part, to deliberate behavior.

In this article we attempt to determine who are the women and men who have only one child, by identifying the most significant criteria: What is the role of the biological or physiological factors related to late childbearing? What is the role of specific union histories with early union dissolution not followed by repartnering? To what extent can these men and women be said to have made a choice? Does this happen more frequently in particular socio-occupational categories? What is the role of cultural factors and the influence of family history, such as own sibship size? These questions about the socio-cultural factors that appear to favor one-child families in France are of particular relevance at a time when this family pattern is spreading across a number of Central European countries and in Southern Europe, notably Italy and Spain. The frequency of one-child families is one reason for the current low level of fertility in these countries, along with a high proportion of childlessness. Although research into the factors associated with childlessness is abundant and relatively long-established, only recently has the demographic literature featured articles devoted specifically to the characteristics of one-child families and the factors associated with the birth of a second child (see, for example, Jefferies 2001; Olah 2003; Kreyenfeld and Zabel 2005; Torr and Short 2004; Prskawetz and Zagaglia 2005; Gerster et al. 2007; Parr 2007). This recent surge in interest is clearly due to the rapid increase in the proportion of one-child families in certain countries.

In the first part of the article, we present an overview of the comparative frequency of childless women and one-child mothers in Europe, using the statistical data we have collected. We then review the various hypotheses that may explain why women and men restrict their number of children to one. Part three describes our data and methodology. …

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