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  FERTILITY  -  Europe is running low on children

It is almost as if Europe were wearing away, its population growth which is slowing every year. We know the figures: 2.1 children per woman are needed to replace the previous generation. In 2003, European women gave birth to an average of 1.5 children (compared with 1.8 in 1990) and there were more deaths than births. Although in many EU countries, this trend can be traced back to the 1970s, in the central and eastern European countries, it is since 1990 that it has really accelerated. Coupled with this low fertility rate is a fall in the number of marriages – but no slowing of the rising divorce rate.

Europe is running low on children
© Frédéric Thiry
"The principal factors responsible for falling fertility are modernisation and individualisation as well as the desire to study, pursue a career and achieve a certain standard of living before starting a family. Life in large towns and cities and a decline in religious beliefs are further contributory factors to this fall in the number of children,” is the conclusion reached in the study drawn up for the European Population Conference 2005, published by the Council of Europe.(1) However, there are many demographers, sociologists, political scientists and psychologists who believe the situation (and its undercurrents) to be much more complex.

The birth rate was one of the questions studied by the Dialog project, a major European study that aimed to provide a comparative analysis of attitudes to demographic change (see box). The study’s findings confirm what researchers had suspected for a number of years, namely that the number of children born does not reflect the number of children people actually want. People would like to have more children, if only…   

Delaying the firstborn
This trend for smaller families is linked to the relatively late age at which women give birth to their first child, for which there are a number of reasons. Dragana Avramov, Director of Population and Social Policy Consultants (PSPC) and a Dialog partner, believes that “this trend is hardly surprising given various social conditions – the prolongation of studies, difficulties in finding stable employment, the high degree of work-related stress, and inequality between men and women in both the professional and private sphere. The labour market continues to be organised on the basis of gender criteria and social policies do not give enough support to families. When a woman waits until her late thirties before having her first child, she is likely to have a lower fertility rate. In addition, many people get used to a life without children or are content with just one child.” 

The parents interviewed as part of the Dialog project gave a number of reasons for their decision to limit the number of children, such as their age, limited financial resources, difficulty in juggling family and working life, and more individualistic reasons (“I would not be able to do all the things I used to do”). Fear of the future – what kind of world are we heading for? – is also mentioned regularly.(2)

The interviews also showed that, just about everywhere, people would like to have more children than they do. This is true in Germany, Flanders (BE), the Netherlands, Austria and even more so in the central and eastern European countries, Italy and Cyprus. “In Estonia, for example, the average fertility rate is 1.37 children per woman, which is 35% below the level needed for the replacement of generations. But if women had the number of children they would like to have, we would clearly exceed this level.” 

So does this mean that, to reverse the trend, all governments need do is to implement the right policies? “These concepts dominated the political debate at a time when countries were still seeking to increase the size of their population. Today, the problem facing many European societies is a very different one. People are finding parenthood a difficult task to assume in a climate of social insecurity. This is expressed in many former communist countries in particular, and it is there that we find the lowest birth rates in Europe. At the individual level, this refusal to have children can also be a source of anguish and a sense of dissatisfaction and regret, especially at a later age. For society, this lack of fertility also speeds up the process of population ageing.”

Judicious measures… and the economics of time
The northern European countries seem to have found an effective combination of positive measures – equal opportunities on the labour market, family aid policy, tax measures, good childcare facilities, etc. – to enable women to have the number of children they would like to have. Elsewhere, the most frequent measure applied is the option of working part time, but this often perpetuates professional inequalities and does not solve the problem of falling fertility rates. 

But there is no panacea. “Measures to benefit families must be diverse, be a part of a wider policy and meet the desires of the population. In the transitional countries, for example, we see a greater need for direct financial aid to parents. But differences between countries are not the only ones. Populations are socially heterogeneous and measures must take into account cultural sensitivities and the various sections that make up a population.”

The Dialog researchers believe that a mix of judicious measures – a combination of tax regimens, childcare facilities, flexible working hours, education and housing policies – could boost the birth rate by between 7% and 15% throughout Europe.

“One important factor over which people have little control is time,” stresses Dragana Avramov. “The prolongation of education, sometimes lengthy periods of unemployment, a successful career, delayed parenthood, the build up of pressure at around the age of 40, and the many years of inactivity following retirement are all factors in the malfunctioning of the ‘economics of time’ in our modern societies. It is not enough to encourage fertility, however well-balanced the measures are. There is a need to reflect on this issue of time, viewed in terms of life capital.”  

Fertility rate of Europeans – comparison between 1960 and 2003
Fertility rate of Europeans – comparison between 1960 and 2003 © Source: Eurostat
In 1960, nearly all the Member States reached the level needed for the replacement of generations. In 2003, the picture was very different.
© Source: Eurostat

(1) Charlotte Höhn, Demographic Challenges for Social Cohesion: a review and analysis of the work of the European Parliament Committee on population 2001-2004, Council of Europe publications
(2) This is raised most often in six countries (EE, DE, HU, RO, SL, CY), while such fears are much less evident in Finland, Italy and the Netherlands.

  Dialog – The lessons  
  What future will demographic trends bring and what will be the consequences for the family, children, equal opportunities and the ageing of the population? And what do people expect from social and family policy, the public authorities and private initiative? With the support of the European Union and the Robert Bosch Foundation, and coordinated by the Federal Institute for Population Research (DE), the Dialog project presents a comparative analysis of attitudes to demographic change in Europe. As the name suggests, the partners want to use their findings as a basis for dialogue between the general public, policy-makers and researchers. The final aim is to assist decision-making in the field of demographic and family policy.

In partnership with institutes of demography or universities, surveys based on about 34 000 interviews (18-75 years) were conducted in 14 countries: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and Slovenia. This comparative analysis showed major national differences in attitudes to the family as well as to work, with the most marked divide between western and eastern Europe. At the same time, there are differences in sensitivities within these two major regions.  

Dialog – Population Policy Acceptance Study (PPAS)



  The French exception  
  France (population 62.9 million) – which was not included in the Dialog survey – has one of Europe’s highest fertility rates. The Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes Economiques (Insee) recorded over 800 000 births in 2005, despite the fall in the number of women of childbearing age (20-40 years). The third highest in Europe, after Cyprus and Ireland, the French fertility rate is 1.94 children.

The average age for women to have their first child is close to 30 (29.7, compared with 28.9 a decade ago) and 48.3% of babies are born to couples who are not married.

French women share with the Spanish the European (EU-15) record for longevity: 83.8 years.


  Children welcome  
  The desire not to have children is rare – fewer than 10% of those interviewed by Dialog – but notably higher than the average in Germany (15.4% of women and 22.5% of men), the Netherlands (12.5 and 17% respectively) and Belgium (10.4 and 15.3% respectively). More than half those interviewed would like to have at least two children and, in Cyprus, this climbs to three or four (where the average birth rate is 2.4). ‘Large’ families (more than two children) are also desired in Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary and the Netherlands. This desire is generally more marked among women, except in Cyprus, Lithuania and the Czech Republic where it is men who prefer larger families.