Baby bust: economic crisis causes fall in birth rates

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Young adults have the choice of postponing; if the crisis doesn’t last that long they can catch up and start a family later in life. However, whether this will be the case really depends on the length of the crisis.
Dr Michaela Kreyenfeld
As unemployment rates have risen, birth rates have fallen to lower-than-expected levels in many European countries over the last decade, suggest scientists in Germany…

Research carried out by demographers at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) and Leuphana University highlights the pressure that fertility rates have come under as a result of the global economic recession.

While the researchers found that the extent of the effect varied from country to country within Europe, their observations showed that previously increasing birth rates had halted or even gone into decline. On average they found that the higher unemployment became, the fewer children were born per woman.

Dr Michaela Kreyenfeld, Deputy Head of the Laboratory of Economic and Social Demography at MPIDR, spared some time to answer ScienceOmega.com’s questions about the research.

"Studies have shown that the Great Depression contributed to an increase in childlessness for birth cohorts of women who were subject to this economic recession during their reproductive years," began Dr Kreyenfeld, by way of explaining the historical influence of economic troubles on fertility. "However, even for this very severe economic crisis we don’t find very consistent results across different countries."

The collapse of communism in the early 1990s – the other major economic crisis of the 20th Century – also saw high unemployment rates alongside a decrease in fertility rates in the affected countries, as Dr Kreyenfeld pointed out.

"In general, we don’t see a very strong relationship between economic conditions and fertility for most countries," she added. "It seems from the research we conducted that whether economic downturns influence fertility really depends on the extent of the recession."

A striking contrast
 

Given the precedents set in these 20th Century downturns, it is perhaps unsurprising that joblessness in modern European countries can affect if and when women give birth. However, compared to countries like Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where unemployment has not risen by much, if at all, or has even fallen, the relationship is quite striking.

"My research is focused mainly on Germany and the Nordic countries. In these countries there is very little relationship between fertility development and economic conditions, so we didn’t expect the recession to affect fertility that severely," confessed Dr Kreyenfeld. "Against this background, the correlation that we found was much stronger."

Looking at the results in light of birth order, it became clear that the biggest drop was in first births and for women below the age of 30. It seems that recession has particularly affected young adults in terms of family formation, especially in those countries that have been very severely hit. It is not yet clear what the long term consequences of this will be.

"Young adults have the choice of postponing; if the crisis doesn’t last that long they can catch up and start a family later in life," Dr Kreyenfeld suggested. "However, whether this will be the case really depends on the length of the crisis."

Analysing data spanning the period from 2001 to 2010 (or 2011 in some cases), the team found that the consequences of the recession began to be felt in 2008, in terms of fertility rates at least, and that southern and eastern European countries – including Spain, Hungary, Ireland and Latvia – were the most affected. Demographic researchers are yet to figure out why some countries have fared so much better than others.

Not only family policies
 

"It’s a very open question," said Dr Kreyenfeld. "In eastern European countries, such as Lithuania for example, the fertility rate didn’t decline very much, but in neighbouring Latvia it declined very rapidly. It could be that the Lithuanian government was a bit more supportive in terms of family policy and that the welfare state was able to buffer some of the negative effects of the recession, but that factor is not systematic.

"It really seems that in countries where it is particularly hard for youngsters to enter the labour market – as in the southern European countries, where labour market institutions are very weak – the correlation between fertility and economic conditions is much stronger. It’s not only family policies but labour market policies that matter."

This study used national level, publicly available data from Eurostat, from OECD countries and from MPIDR and the Vienna Institute of Demography’s Human Fertility Database. What Dr Kreyenfeld and her colleagues would really like to concentrate on now is micro-level research on this issue.

"We have done a lot of research on Germany and the Nordic countries, but very little on southern European countries," she informed me. "The most important thing now is to conduct micro-level research to see how, at an individual level, people who are subject to unemployment respond this adverse economic situation in terms of fertility."


Read the full text of the paper, Fertility reactions to the ‘Great Recession’ in Europe: recent evidence from order-specific data

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