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Fertility in Europe:Cloudy past and uncertain future

30th June 2010 1pm, University of St Andrews, Arts/003

Tomáš Sobotka, Vienna Institute of Demography

This talk takes a broad perspective on contemporary and likely future fertility trends in Europe. While recognizing that fertility rates in Europe are generally low, I argue that the overly negative attention to the issue of falling fertility rates and the likely population decline in the last decades has often been exaggerated. Several interrelated developments suggest that low fertility should not be an important issue of public concern in most parts of Europe:

  • Fertility rates have increased in most countries of Europe after 2000, especially in 2005-8
  • Except for a few countries, cohort fertility rates have never fallen to very low levels below 1.5 and are unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future
  • The 'gap' between intended and realized family size is smaller than frequently argued
  • The number of surviving children per mother is not in many countries much below its levels a century ago
  • In addition, immigration often effectively serves as a partial 'replacement' of births presumably 'missing' due to low fertility
The recent increase in period fertility has been to some extent a foreseen consequence of the diminishing postponement of childbearing towards later reproductive ages, but it was also marked by new developments. It was the first concerted rise in fertility rates across the developed world since the 1960s, occurring at the time of relative economic prosperity. Fertility reversals were particularly strong in some regions that have seen several decades of very low fertility rates, including East Germany, and parts of Italy and Spain. This recent trend clearly showed that fertility rates may increase in tandem with rising female labour force participation. A number of developed countries, including the United Kingdom, now have period fertility around two children per woman, i.e., close to the level of population replacement. In addition, there are clear signs of stabilization in completed cohort fertility rates among the women born in the 1970s, bringing to an end a long term fall in average family size. At the same time, important and persistent regional differences in fertility exist across the developed world and our understanding of these differences as well as fertility trends and reversals is partial at best. Fertility-related theories are often focused on one particular factor or mechanism and there have been only few efforts to assess them critically or to test their usefulness for explaining fertility reversals and for projecting fertility. The gap between the insights and conclusions provided by individual-level studies and those offered by aggregate-level analyses remains wide. >From this view, the future fertility developments are uncertain. I outline some important trends and issues that need more attention. In the short-run, economic crisis may dent fertility rates in Europe. In the long-term perspective, I argue that fertility is likely to be higher than at present and that European fertility levels may stay above the levels in some other global regions, especially East Asia. At the same time, analyzing fertility in isolation is not sufficient for assessing its likely societal effects as population trends will be critically influenced by both fertility and migration developments as well as interrelations between them. Societal adjustments to population ageing should focus much more on other factors like healthy ageing, increasing human capital, reducing unemployment and encouraging and enabling women to participate fully on the labour market rather than trying to increase fertility rates.