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Home > Activities > Committees >Low Fertility (1999-2001) > Seminar Report

International Perspectives on Low Fertility: Trends, Theories and Policies

Tokyo, Japan, 21-23 March 2001
Organised by the IUSSP Working Group on Low Fertility in collaboration with
the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (Japan)


The IUSSP Seminar on Low Fertility was held in Tokyo, 21-23 March 2001. Papers were sought that: 1. applied demographic methodologies to cross-national comparisons of low fertility, 2. described and explained low fertility in particular national or regional settings, 3. took a more theoretical approach to the explanation of low fertility, and 4. drew implications for policies to address low fertility.

The conference opened with one minute of silence in remembrance of distinguished demographers Britta Hoem and Gérard Calot who have recently passed away. Britta Hoem was to present a paper at the conference while Gérard Calot had coauthored a paper presented by Tomas Frejka.

Sessions 1 and 2: Overview and theory

Tomas Frejka (with Gérard Calot) presented a paper on changes in childbearing age patterns in countries with low fertility. Taking a cohort perspective, Frejka showed that the completed family size of successive cohorts is falling in most low-fertility countries. This is due to large declines in fertility at younger ages which are not compensated by increases in fertility at older ages. It is highly unlikely that cohorts born in the 1960s and 1970s will reach replacement-level fertility. Falling fertility is the result of deliberate decisions to have fewer births but also a postponement of births by individuals that results in many planned future births never occurring.

Chris Wilson spoke on global convergence of fertility to below-replacement levels and the implications of this for theories explaining low fertility. Around 1950 there was a large degree of heterogeneity with regard to fertility: developed countries had progressed considerably while developing countries were on the cusp of progress. In 1950-55 the 'median person' lived in an area where the total fertility rate was 5.4 births per woman. By the year 2000 the median person lived in an area where the total fertility rate was 2.3 births per woman. We need broader theoretical frameworks that account for the wide range of economic and social circumstances in which low fertility may occur, and theories that explain why some very poor people have low fertility.

Peter McDonald considered a number of theoretical frameworks used to explain the phenomenon of below-replacement level fertility. These included rational choice, risk, gender equity and relationship theory. He concluded that all of these theories are valid and that the extent to which they apply depends on the society under consideration. The theories are not mutually exclusive and it is likely that multiple theories will explain low fertility in particular settings. McDonald agreed with Wilson that the enormous variety of contexts in which low fertility occurs clearly calls for differing theoretical frameworks. A grand theory of low fertility is not required.

Nancy Folbre presented a model of intergenerational and intergender resource allocation that explains some aspects of the distribution of the costs of children. The allocation of resources between children, adults and the elderly, and between men and women, is determined by a social family contract that resides in legal rules and social norms. This contract shapes the economic context in which decisions about whether and when to have children are made. An increase in the parental costs of child rearing may result in women and couples choosing to have fewer children than they might otherwise have had. Folbre called for a better understanding of the ways in which the model parameters change over time and pointed out that we must now confront the question: 'How should the costs of child rearing be distributed?'

Session 3: Fertility postponement

Hans-Peter Kohler's (with José Antonio Ortega) presentation focused on a new set of period parity progression measures used to account for tempo distortions and the fertility ageing effect caused by delayed fertility. Traditional period measures of fertility may lead to an underestimation of the long-term level of fertility because of delayed births. The fertility ageing effect results from a fall in higher parity births due to a differential delay of childbearing across parities. Kohler applied these new measures to Swedish fertility over the period 1970-99. He predicted that in the future there will be no substantial increase in childlessness but a substantial decrease in higher parity births, with progression to a second child emerging as a key determinant of fertility levels.

Ron Lesthaeghe discussed fertility trends in six Western European countries. In all six countries, period fertility was well below replacement level in 1999. Lesthaeghe considered the extent of recuperation of fertility at higher ages by comparing the fertility of particular birth cohorts with a 'benchmark' cohort, that is, a cohort in which fertility was not postponed. The degree to which falls in fertility at younger ages were recuperated at older ages varied considerably across countries. The countries under consideration were heterogeneous with regard to many of the standard variables used to quantify the second demographic transition, such as leaving the parental home, cohabitation, exnuptial fertility and fertility postponement and recuperation. Lesthaeghe concluded that cohorts with currently incomplete fertility are unlikely to reach replacement-level fertility.

Session Four: Norway and France

Marit Rønsen highlighted differences between relatively high fertility in Nordic countries and very low fertility of many other European countries. One reason for higher Nordic fertility might be the 'relative generosity of Nordic family policies'. These policies reduce both the direct and indirect costs of having children and therefore may result in women having larger families than they might otherwise have had. Rønsen then turned to the fertility trends and family policies of Norway. Family benefits available in Norway include shared parental leave of one year (at 80 per cent salary), subsidised childcare and cash benefits to parents not using subsidised childcare. Research suggests that increased childcare supply and the extension of parental leave have positively influenced fertility. Rønsen indicated however that generous family policies do not guarantee high fertility, pointing to Sweden as an example. Good family policies are necessary but not sufficient.

Laurent Toulemon presented a paper on the reasons fertility in France is still relatively high. Even though period fertility is below replacement level, at around 1.8 births per woman, natural increase is still high because of the large number of women of childbearing age. Cohorts born between 1945 and 1960 have completed fertility of around 2.1 births per woman. It is possible that the 1970 cohort will have more than 2.0 births per woman on average and there is no reason to expect any dramatic changes in French fertility in the short-term future.

Session 5: Italy

Rossella Palomba spoke on the pathological postponement in Italy of family formation and entry into adult life generally. In Italy the fall in fertility is associated with rising age at leaving home, declining nuptiality (with low rates of cohabitation), high youth unemployment and prolonged education. An 'unbreakable chain' exists in which childbearing follows marriage, which follows independence from the family, which follows employment, which follows completed education. Successive cohorts are achieving each link of this chain later in life, leaving fewer years for childbearing. Many young Italians remain in the parental home even after financial independence is achieved. These young people enjoy minimal restrictions on their comings and goings, limited domestic responsibility, and have their household expenses paid by their parents, making it 'almost unreasonable' to leave home.

Gianpiero Dalla Zuanna (with Alessandra De Rose and Filomena Racioppi) sought to explain how fertility fell in Italy despite limited use of modern contraceptive methods, and why this pattern of contraceptive use existed. Traditionally, the main method of birth control was coitus interruptus, backed by abortion. Fertility fell because of increased use of effective contraception and a reduction in the time women were at risk of pregnancy. However, modern methods such as the oral contraceptive, IuDs and safer sterilisation procedures had limited uptake among married couples. This may be because motherhood has traditionally been the central role of women in Italy, and these methods render women infertile (albeit temporarily in the case of the pill and IuD). Methods such as coitus interruptus and condoms, that relate only to sexual intercourse and that maintain reproductive potential, were preferred.

Session 6: Central and Eastern Europe

Dimiter Philipov examined two possible explanations for the abrupt fall in fertility that occurred in Central and Eastern European countries in the 1990s. The first of these explanations is that the fall resulted from social and economic hardships experienced by many after the collapse of totalitarian regimes. The second is that the fertility decline was due to ideational change. The lack of data makes it difficult to assess the validity of these explanations at a regional level and for subpopulations, and whether they interact and how. However data available suggest that economic factors are more important in South-Eastern and Eastern European countries than in Central Europe while ideational shifts have taken place all over Eastern Europe.

Alexandre Avdeev considered whether period fertility decline in Russia reflects a 'real' fall in fertility or whether it is due to changes in the age pattern of fertility, with completed cohort fertility remaining relatively constant. Between 1987 and 1999 the total fertility rate fell from 2.2 to 1.2. Cohort analysis and observed changes in first, second and third birth rates strongly support the hypothesis that fertility change is not simply a result of delayed childbearing, but is due to real fertility decline, with a shift from two-child to one-child families. The economic and social crisis of the early 1990s has accelerated the second demographic transition in Russia.

Session 7: Canada and Australia

Roderic Beaujot (with Alain Bélanger) presented preliminary results of a qualitative survey carried out in 2000 in London, Canada. The survey obtained respondents' views on family elements such as unions, children and the division of labour. One aim of the project was to identify cultural norms and perceptions of the costs and benefits of given behaviours, such as having children. The survey found that most people want children and organise their lives in order to make this possible. The survey, along with research on childbearing intentions, supports the hypothesis that cohort fertility will stabilise at around 1.7 births per woman. However, fertility at younger ages may continue to fall because of norms favouring later childbearing and childbearing in secure relationships. If this occurs, the degree of recuperation at older ages will depend on relationship stability, the desire for children and the preparedness of individuals and society in general to make accommodations for children.

Rebecca Kippen considered the hypothesis that the decline of fertility in Australia in the 1990s was due solely to changes in age-specific first-birth rates, resulting from delayed parenthood and increased levels of childlessness. She found that recent falls in Australian fertility were driven by changes in first- and second-birth rates, rather than first-birth rates only, while rates for higher-order births remained relatively constant. One implication of this is the increasing prevalence of childlessness and one-child families in Australia. Kippen then used these rates as the basis of four different projections of fertility and considered the likelihood of each of these projections given past fertility trends.

Session 8: Japan

Kiyosi Hirosima criticised standard fertility decompositions that indicate fertility decline in Japan is the result of falling marriage rates rather than declining marital fertility. An alternative decomposition based on cohort fertility was used to conduct 16 simulations. These simulations showed that 57 per cent of the drop in the total fertility rate over the period 1970-2000 resulted from a fall in cohort first-marriage rates, 13 per cent from an increase in mean age at first marriage, 25 per cent from a decline in the level of ever-married fertility and 5 per cent from a delay in ever-married fertility. Therefore 70 per cent of fertility change was driven by changes in nuptiality and 30 per cent by changes in marital fertility. This highlights the importance of policies that target both late marriage and couple fertility in Japan.

Shigesato Takahashi gave an overview of postwar fertility trends in Japan. The decline in fertility since the mid-1970s is largely due to a fall in marriage rates, rather than a fall in marital fertility. Completed fertility of couples married for 15-19 years has been stable at around 2.2 children per couple since the early 1970s. Examination of the impact of changes in cohort marriage formation on period fertility shows that over the period 1973-80, the total fertility rate dropped as a result of declines in cohort marital fertility. However over the period 1980-97, the total fertility rate fell because of cohort marriage postponement and an increase in the proportions never married. Takahashi concluded that if the postponement of marriage ends, and if proportions never married stabilise, some fertility recovery can be expected in Japan.

Hiroshi Kojima considered four possible determinants of attitudes toward low fertility and family policy in Japan. These determinants are: 'felt needs' (those who benefit from policies are more likely to favour them), 'media influence' (those more heavily exposed to the mass media are more likely to be influenced by its messages), 'traditionalism' (people with 'traditional' characteristics are more likely to favour pronatalist policies) and 'anti-government' (people with certain demographic, socioeconomic and regional characteristics tend to oppose interventionism). Data used were from the 1990 and 1995 PUBLIC Opinions Surveys on Population Issues, conducted by the Institute of Population Problems. It was found that most of the results were explained by at least one of the above four determinants.

Miho Iwasawa examined change in the meaning of marriage in Japan. until the 1970s/80s, marriage was synonymous with leaving the parental home, living with a partner, a regular sexual relationship, childbearing and, for women, leaving paid employment. The transition from unmarried to married was extremely significant. It meant financial stability, social trust and emotional satisfaction. However these links have weakened in recent times. In particular, marriage is no longer a required precursor of an intimate relationship. Formal marriage is being replaced by non-cohabiting partnerships. Research indicates that this trend will continue in the future. If this is the case, and if norms against exnuptial births remain strong, then childbearing will continue to be postponed or avoided to a significant extent.

Session 9: Asia

Makato Atoh (with Vasantha Kandiah and Serguey Ivanov) pointed out that below-replacement fertility is not limited to Western societies. Seven countries and areas of East and South-east Asia now have fertility at or below replacement level: Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and China. In each region, fertility decline occurred at a time of economic growth and social change, although the timing of transition and the level of development at its onset differed. Fertility in the future will be influenced by several factors, including the degree of fertility recuperation at older ages, the success of pronatalist (or antinatalist) policies, and the degree to which traditional family systems persist.

Zhongwei Zhao discussed low fertility in urban China. Fertility patterns and reproductive behaviour are reflected in four interrelated 'lows': low period and cohort fertility, low proportions of women having two or more children, low proportions having no children and a low mean age of childbearing. The consequences of this very low fertility are rapid population ageing, localised labour shortages and a profound impact on people's life course. However the maintenance of current family planning policies may result in significant changes in fertility in the future. This is because current policy allows a couple to have two children if both partners come from a one-child family. The majority of urban young people now satisfy this criterion, which may lead to an increase in the number of two-child families in the future. This could help China achieve a 'demographic soft landing'.

Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi spoke about prospects for below-replacement fertility in Iran. Fertility has declined sharply in Iran since the mid-1980s, with the total fertility rate dropping from around 6.3 in 1986 to 2.6 in 1996, when at least four Iranian provinces experienced below-replacement level fertility. The onset of this decline coincided with the introduction by government of family planning programs, after a decade of pronatalist policies. It is possible that Iran as a whole may experience below-replacement fertility in the near future. However, given the massive population momentum inherent in Iran's current age structure, further reductions in fertility would be needed to keep the annual number of births constant. Abbasi-Shavazi concluded that this would be a more useful policy target than replacement-level fertility.

Session 10: Discussion and synthesis

David Coleman provided a summation and analysis of the papers presented at the conference.

Papers presented at the IUSSP Seminar on Low Fertility

Tomas Frejka and Gérard Calot
Cohort childbearing age patterns in low-fertility countries in the 20th century: Is the postponement of birth an inherent element?

Chris Wilson
Implications of global demographic convergence for fertility theory.

Peter McDonald
Theory pertaining to low fertility.

Nancy Folbre
The distribution of the costs of children.

Hans-Peter Kohler and José Antonio Ortega
Period parity progression measures with continued fertility postponement: A new look at the implications of delayed childbearing for cohort fertility.

Ron Lesthaeghe
Postponement and recuperation: Recent fertility trends and forecasts in six Western European countries.

Marit Rønsen
Fertility and family policy in Norway: Is there a connection?

Laurent Toulemon
Why fertility is not so low in France.

Rossella Palomba
Postponement of family formation in Italy, within the Southern European context.

Gianpiero Dalla Zuanna, Alessandra De Rose and Filomena Racioppi
Low fertility and scarce diffusion of modern contraception in Italy: a paradox to interpret.

Dimiter Philipov
Low fertility in Central and Eastern Europe: Culture or economy?

Alexandre Avdeev
The extent of the fertility decline in Russia: Is the one-child family here to stay?

Roderic Beaujot and Alain Bélanger
Perspectives on below replacement fertility in Canada: Trends, desires and accommodations.

Rebecca Kippen
Trends in age- and parity-specific fertility in Australia.

Kiyosi Hirosima
Decomposing recent fertility decline: How have nuptiality and marital fertility affected it in Japan?

Shigesato Takahashi
Demographic investigation of the process of declining fertility in Japan.

Hiroshi Kojima
Attitudes toward low fertility and family policy in Japan.

Miho Iwasawa
Partnership transition in contemporary Japan: Prevalence of childless non-cohabiting couples.

Makato Atoh, Vasantha Kandiah and Serguey Ivanov
The second demographic transition in Asia: Is it similar or different from that in Western Europe?

Zhongwei Zhao
Low fertility in urban China.

Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi
Below replacement fertility in Iran: progress and prospects.

David Coleman
Discussion and synthesis.


Rebecca Kippen

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