Research Programme


Uncertainty in fertility intentions in Britain, 1979-2007

Maire Ni Bhrolcháin, Éva Beaujouan

Project summary


The aim of this study was to examine several aspects of uncertain fertility intentions, firstly by looking at the prevalence of uncertainty and how it varies with the definition used, and with question format. The factors associated with uncertainty at the individual level were also examined.


The study used a time series of repeated rounds of the General Household Survey (GHS) to study uncertainty in fertility intentions. Fertility intentions questions were asked in the GHS of all women aged 18-44 and ever-married women aged 16-17 from 1979-1985, and of all women aged 16-49 from 1986 to the present. Two measures of intentions were used in this study: whether a (further) birth is expected and, among those expecting a (further) birth, the expected age at next birth. The study examined the prevalence of uncertainty estimated from the General Household Survey 1979-2005/7, and how it varies with alternative definitions.


The study has shown that a substantial minority of women are uncertain in their expectations about future childbearing, with four in five women under 25 being unsure about their fertility intentions, and three in five women under 35.At the individual level, uncertainty varies largely with demographic status and life stage-age, partnership status, parity and time since previous birth.

Evidence from qualitative and quantitative studies, particularly in relation to pregnancy intentions, reinforces the reality of uncertainty about reproductive prospects. However, the findings of this study also suggest that the measurement of fertility intentions needs improvement.

Current ideas in demography about individuals’ reproductive choices assume the existence of clear preferences and intentions, and that decisions are taken either according to a full-blown rational choice model or in a means-end framework of some kind. The existence of substantial uncertainty is inconsistent with such accounts. Thus, the research team have since been working towards a new theoretical approach to fertility preferences and intentions, suggesting that preferences and intentions are not well-articulated at younger ages, but are constructed in interaction with experience and the developing life-course.



Ní Bhrolcháin, M., Beaujouan, E. and Berrington, A. (2010) Stability and change in fertility intentions in Britain, 1991-2007 Population Trends, 141,13-35, 

Beaujouan, E., Brown, J. and Ní Bhrolcháin, M. (2011) Reweighting the General Household Survey 1979-2007 Population Trends, 145, 119-145.

Ní Bhrolcháin, M. and Beaujouan, E. (2011) Uncertainty in fertility intentions in Britain 1979-2007. Vienna Yearbook of Population Research Vol. 9, 101-134.


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