Fertility Trends by Social Status

By Skirbekk, Vegard | Demographic Research, January-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Fertility Trends by Social Status


Skirbekk, Vegard, Demographic Research


Abstract

This article discusses how fertility relates to social status with the use of a new dataset, several times larger than the ones used so far. The status-fertility relation is investigated over several centuries, across world regions and by the type of status-measure. The study reveals that as fertility declines, there is a general shift from a positive to a negative or neutral status-fertility relation. Those with high income/wealth or high occupation/social class switch from having relatively many to fewer or the same number of children as others. Education, however, depresses fertility for as long as this relation is observed (from early in the 20th century).

1. Introduction

Before the onset of fertility decline, individuals of higher social standing have frequently been identified to have more children compared to individuals of lower social standing (Betzig 1986, Razi 1980, Sogner, Randsborg and Fure 1984). With a decline in fertility levels, however, high status has often been found to be associated with relatively low fertility (e.g., Coale and Watkins 1986, Cochrane 1979, Haines 1992, Jejeebhoy 1995), although some studies argue that the fertility-status relation remain positive (Fieder et al. 2005, Hull and Hull 1977, Stys 1957, Wrong 1958).

Italy is an example of a country where the status-fertility relation switched from positive to negative. Livi Bacci (1977) studies three Italian cities from the 15th to the 18th centuries and find a positive relation between status and childbearing outcomes for all of them. For example in Florence in 1427, poor 30-34 year old women had 3.0 children; the middle income group had 3.6, while the richest had 4.9 children. Observations from 20th century Italy, however, show a negative relation between fertility and occupational rank/educational length (FFS 2006, Jones 1982).

Bardet (1983) is a rare study that actually shows how the status-fertility relation between identical groups' switches from positive to negative over time. Bardet studies marital period fertility of four social classes from 1670 to 1789 in Rouen, France. The two lower classes, the Artisans and the Ouvriers, had about 6 children in 1670, decreased their fertility slightly first from around 1730, ending at around 5 children in 1789. However, the higher classes; the Notables, Boutiquiers and Employés, had more than 7 children in 1670, but substantially decreased their fertility from around 1700 and by 1789 had only around 4 children.

In spite of the considerable academic interest in the status-fertility relation, there exists no study that reviews more than a fraction of the available evidence. In this investigation a dataset several times larger than the ones used so far is collected.2 The dataset is used to study the impact of fertility variation by status over time and during the demographic transition. I investigate to which extent fertility decline is initiated by elites and later imitated by the rest of the population. I also test whether the status-fertility differences eventually converge when fertility levels reach replacement levels and below.

I conduct separate analyses of fertility by status measures (education, occupation/social class/rank in a social hierarchy, income/wealth) and world region. This is done to investigate how the same status measure can affect childbearing differently across periods and socio-economic circumstances. For example, being wealthy in a pre-industrial rural setting can have made it easier to set up a new home and marry at a young age, while in a modern urban industrialized context, wealth could be related to higher consumption aspirations, which ?may depress fertility. I also study fertility trends for all status measures combined. This is done to investigate how changes to the concept of status over time can have very different fertility implications.

I organize the article in the following way: I begin by describing how social status related to fertility in historical settings as evidenced by societal/legal descriptions and DNA analyses. …

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