Understanding Fertility within Developed Nations

The increase in women's status may eventually reverse fertility trends in Europe and Japan … In particular, men in all high-income countries appear to be taking on a larger share of household duties, which could lead to a large positive increase in fertility.

There's reason to hope that advanced nations facing demographic decline -- such as Japan, Spain, and Italy -- could see their populations rebound. A big catalyst for the change: husbands beginning to do more housework and child care.

That's the surprising conclusion of Will the Stork Return to Europe and Japan? Understanding Fertility within Developed Nations (NBER Working Paper No. w14114). Co-authors of the study, Bruce Sacerdote, James Feyrer, and Ariel Stern find that where men perform relatively more of those chores -- and where female labor-force participation was highest three decades ago - fertility rates rose from their historic lows. This male-driven rebound in child-bearing already appears to have happened in the United States, the Scandinavian countries, and the Netherlands. Other nations may follow suit as women gain more status in the workplace through better job opportunities and higher pay. "The increase in women's status may eventually reverse fertility trends in Europe and Japan … In particular, men in all high-income countries appear to be taking on a larger share of household duties, which could lead to a large positive increase in fertility," they conclude.

This represents a dramatic reversal from initial stages of a demographic transition, in which fertility falls as women have higher relative wages outside the home. In the United States, for example, women in the 1950s and 1960s earned low wages (relative to men) outside the home and were expected to shoulder all the household and childcare duties. In 1955, American women averaged about 3.5 births apiece. But as more women entered the workforce and their job opportunities and pay rose, so did the opportunity cost of staying at home. Fertility plunged. By the 1980s, the U.S. fertility rate had fallen by nearly half from its mid-1950s level -- to 1.8 births per woman.

The rest of the developed world shared the same pattern. By 2005, total fertility rates were as low as 1.3 children per woman in Italy, Spain, Germany, and Japan - far beneath the population's replacement rate of 2.1 children. "The last 30 years have witnessed a social change unprecedented in human history: a variety of high-income nations have experienced fertility declines so large that these countries are far below replacement-level fertility," the authors write. "While other cultures have had brief episodes of less-than-replacement-level fertility, this is the first time in recorded history that large populations with high and growing per capita income have failed to reproduce themselves over an extended period of time."

But some nations have seen a rebound, even as women's pay and job opportunities continued to grow and began to rival those of men. The authors surmise that with increased household bargaining power, which comes from more equal wages, women are able to push some (though not necessarily half) of household and childcare duties onto men. This, in turn, removes some of the disincentives to having more children. By 1995, for example, the U.S. fertility rate had recovered from its 1980s lows to roughly replacement levels.

This change in women's status is not just correlated with higher fertility, the authors contend -- it drives it. Other potential fertility drivers, such as population density and housing prices, don't appear to matter much, they find. However, government policies that ease the burden of childcare - such as tax breaks for families with children and publicly provided day care - do appear to play a role. France is widely credited with boosting childbearing from 1.7 births per woman in 1995 to 1.9 births today by boosting per-child subsidies 70 percent in real terms from 1980 to 2000.

"However, given the large cost of raising a child in wealthy, modern societies, it is somewhat hard to believe that the current subsidy levels can make a significant impact," the authors conclude. Peer effects may multiply the modest fertility effects of social programs because people tend to do what they see their friends and families doing. Also, even a small boost in fertility could convince societies and businesses to create more family-friendly programs and incentives, further boosting the number of births.

Such findings could have ramifications beyond Europe. Asian nations undergoing development are seeing their fertility rates fall even further and faster than the West did. Women in South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong average fewer than 1.5 children. "A massive convergence in national fertility rates is leading to a world that looks very much like the low-fertility European countries in terms of the number of children per woman," the authors conclude. "The social structure in these countries and the division of child care has led women to choose to have fewer children than did their mothers, but we see no reason why these social factors cannot also work in the other direction and lead to future increases in fertility. However, we readily confess that much remains to be learned about the effects of men's and women's allocation of childcare and household responsibilities and about the effects of pro-family government subsidies on changes in fertility rates."

-- Laurent Belsie

The Digest is not copyrighted and may be reproduced freely with appropriate attribution of source.
NBER Videos

National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-868-3900; email:

Contact Us