Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

A Half Century of Fertility Change*

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

A Half Century of Fertility Change*

Article excerpt


JCFS first issues were published in 1970. This date, only two years after the publication of Paul Ehrlich's (1968) The Population Bomb and Garett Hardin's (1968) Tragedy of the Commons, marks the height of public and academic concerns about population growth and the threats it posed (e.g., Meadows et al. 1974). Most concern focused on the rapid growth rates in the developing world (often over 2% per year implying a doubling of population size in roughly a generation) that were caused by rapid mortality decline unmatched by fertility decline. Developed countries also had fertility well above replacement levels during the post-war baby boom. In 1 969 President Nixon commissioned a report on Population Growth and the American Future. In their letter of transmitía!, the Commission (1975) stated that "after two years of concentrated effort, we have concluded that, in the long run, no substantial benefits will result from further growth of the Nation's population." Since 1970 the U.S. population (at 205 million) and the global population (at 3.7 billion) have increased by factors approximating 1.5 and 1.8.'

Despite this population growth, academic and popular concerns on JCFS 's 40'h anniversary are quite different than those at its inception. A global fertility decline has left only a small set of countries and a few percent of the global population with very high fertility.2 The dominant pattern is fertility decline to low levels-with over half of the global population now living in countries with below replacement level fertility. Concerns of a population explosion are now geographically concentrated and are being supplanted by concerns of a population implosion (i.e., declining population size and rapidly aging populations). The over 75 articles on fertility in JCFS reflect these changes; its pages include articles on fertility that reflect shifting concerns: from high fertility (e.g., Caldwell 1996), to the pace of fertility decline (e.g. Aghajanian and Mehryar 2007), and finally to fertility below replacement levels (e.g., Mackey and Immerman2002).

In this review paper we document the remarkable fertility changes of the last four and a half decades. Reflecting the existing literature, we organize our discussion around 1) the fertility transition-the decline from high to low fertility in developing countries, and 2) fertility levels for post-transition (developed) countries. Our interpretation of these changes features both socioeconomic changes and changes in perceptions about appropriate family sizes and the needs of children. We begin with a broad description of fertility change. Notes on data sources, measurement and analysis decisions are available in the Appendix (e.g., countries included/excluded and those classified as developing and developed).


With the years 1960-2005 on the x-axis, Figure 1 shows the dramatic change mentioned above for 103 counties that contain 83% of the world's 2000 population. The y-axis shows the total fertility rate (TFR), the most widely used measure of fertility; the TFR can be interpreted as number of births a woman would have if she experienced the age-specific birth rates of a particular calendar year throughout her lifetime. There are two solid bold lines. These lines show weighted (by 2000 population) averages of the TFR for developing and developed countries. The lighter shaded lines show the estimated trend for each of the 103 countries.

Figure 1 has two impressive features. The first is pervasive and secular decline captured by the two bold lines that represent aggregate trends for developing and developed countries. Over this period, the developing country average declined from approximately 6 (6.06) births per woman to roughly two and a half (2.54), and developed country levels declined from approximately three births (2.91) to less than two (1.70). The second key feature is the TFR range-in 1970 from over eight births to less than two (8. …

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