Academic journal article Demographic Research

The Mid-Twentieth Century Baby Boom and the Changing Educational Gradient in Belgian Cohort Fertility

Academic journal article Demographic Research

The Mid-Twentieth Century Baby Boom and the Changing Educational Gradient in Belgian Cohort Fertility

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

1. Introduction

In many Western countries, the transition from medium-high to low fertility that occurred from late nineteenth to the late twentieth century was interrupted during the period around the 1950s and '60s known as the Baby Boom. Increased childbearing during that era remains enormously consequential through its impact on current population aging. Yet, we know surprisingly little about the causes of the Baby Boom. At the time when it occurred, no one was expecting it. Today, most textbooks routinely ascribe the revival of fertility to the air of optimism and economic growth in the wake of the low fertility trough of the Great Depression. Yet, the recovery of fertility was already underway before and during the Second World War in most countries. Significantly, only a small part of the Boom can be explained by the timing mechanisms of postponement (during the Depression era) and recuperation (in times of post-war optimism). It also clearly involved a recovery of cohort fertility (Van Bavel and Reher 2013).

The end of the Baby Boom was just as unexpected as its start. Indeed, by the 1960s, pro-cyclical fertility was considered one of the most firmly based empirical findings in the social sciences. Around 1960, mainstream demography was predicting that further fertility increases would accompany continuing economic growth (Butz and Ward 1979: 318). That did not happen, however, and the post-hoc explanations given for subsequent fertility decline were very similar to the ones given for low and declining fertility before the Second World War (Van Bavel 2010).

There remains no generally accepted explanation for the Baby Boom. The existing literature addressing causal factors focuses primarily on the USA (for overviews, see Macunovich 1996; Emeka 2006). Most explanations emphasize the importance of the economic growth experienced by many countries in the aftermath of the Second World War, a period in which the relatively small cohorts coming into adulthood had ample economic opportunities in comparison to modest expectations. Easterlin (1961; 1987) emphasizes the importance of relative cohort size for fertility outcomes. Other explanations have emphasized the role of female labour, especially during the war (Doepke et al. 2007; or, more generally, Macunovich 1996); the links between fertility, income, and subjective well-being (Thornton 1978); the role of parents, especially fathers (Rutherdale 1999); or technological progress in the household sector (Greenwood et al. 2005). Most of the attention has gone to economic factors with less emphasis on the importance of ideational and cultural change (with notable exceptions, including Lesthaeghe and Surkyn 1988).

There are some indications for European countries that social differences became smaller during the Baby Boom era (Glass 1968: 118-120; Festy 1979: 167-168), while evidence from the USA indicates that the recovery of fertility was pervasive across educational as well as racial groups (Rindfuss and Sweet 1977). Also, it became evident that married women's gainful employment played an important role in explaining the social gradient in fertility, at least in a number of countries, with working wives having lower fertility (Glass 1968: 120). But most studies about the Baby Boom use time series of country-level indicators of fertility, leaving the social heterogeneity of reproductive change within countries unaddressed.

This paper addresses this important gap in the literature by investigating fertility differentials by women's level of educational attainment. To date, we lack insight into the relationship between women's education and fertility trends during the Baby Boom era. This was an era when female participation in higher education started to expand in many countries (Schofer and Meyer 2005), including Belgium, the focus of this analysis (Vanherck and Verbruggen 1991). Given what we know today about the negative relation between women's educational attainment and fertility (Lappegård and Rønsen 2005; Balbo et al. …

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