Academic journal article Demographic Research

Family Size and Intergenerational Social Mobility during the Fertility Transition: Evidence of Resource Dilution from the City of Antwerp in Nineteenth Century Belgium

Academic journal article Demographic Research

Family Size and Intergenerational Social Mobility during the Fertility Transition: Evidence of Resource Dilution from the City of Antwerp in Nineteenth Century Belgium

Article excerpt


It has been argued in sociology, economics, and evolutionary anthropology that family size limitation enhances the intergenerational upward mobility chances in modernized societies. If parents have a large flock, family resources get diluted and intergenerational mobility is bound to head downwards. Yet, the empirical record supporting this resource dilution hypothesis is limited. This article investigates the empirical association between family size limitation and intergenerational mobility in an urban, late nineteenth century population in Western Europe. It uses life course data from the Belgian city of Antwerp between 1846 and 1920. Findings are consistent with the resource dilution hypothesis: after controlling for confounding factors, people with many children were more likely to end up in the lower classes. Yet, family size limitation was effective as a defensive rather than an offensive strategy: it prevented the next generation from going down rather than helping them to climb up the social ladder. Also, family size appears to have been particularly relevant for the middle classes. Implications for demographic transition theory are discussed.

1. Resource dilution and fertility decline

In his 1890 classic Dépopulation et civilisation, the French social scientist Arsène Dumont argued that adults with ambition tend to limit their family size because numerous offspring are an obstacle to success and achievement. For people who want to rise socially, he wrote, many children make inconvenient luggage (Dumont 1890(1990):77). The same holds for those who project their ambitions onto their children: numerous offspring dilute parental resources and therefore complicates or aggravates the social situation in the next generation (Dumont 1890(1990):73-91). Philippe Ariès (1980), referring to Dumont, argued in an article amply cited by demographers (Dalla Zuanna 2007) that the decline of fertility in the West is the consequence of the emergence of a child-oriented society. In such a society, parents' main investment consists of helping their children to get ahead. In the English-speaking world, Joseph A. Banks' Prosperity and Parenthood (1954) was instrumental in spreading the same ideas. Banks, who explicitly referred to Dumont's work, argued that social ambition was one of the motivating forces for family size limitation in the English middle classes.

In economics, the negative effect of family size on the future social status of children, due to resource dilution, is known under the heading of the quality-quantity trade-off (Black, Devereux, and Salvanes 2005; Maralani 2008). Becker (1991) calls proper consideration of the interaction between child quantity and quality "probably the major contribution of the economic analysis of fertility" (Becker 1991:135). Becker's economic theory implies that a reduction in the number of children raises investments in child quality, where quality is measured by the current as well as the future well-being of children, including their income when they become adults.

In a nutshell, the resource dilution hypothesis states that parental resources are finite and that additional children dilute the amount of time, money, and patience that each child receives from its parents. As a consequence of reduced parental investment per child, the opportunities to move up the social ladder, for example, through higher education are reduced (Downey 1995; Desai 1995; Maralani 2008). Historically, resource dilution is argued to have motivated fertility limitation as inheritance systems became more egalitarian and as education became more important in securing a good social position in terms of wealth and prestige (Van Bavel 2006; Dalla Zuanna 2007).

Despite its longstanding record in social and demographic theory, there is little direct empirical evidence backing the relevance of the resource dilution hypothesis for the historical fertility decline in Europe (Downey 1995; Haaga 2001; Black, Devereux, and Salvanes 2005; Dalla Zuanna 2007). …

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