Tracking Trends in Low Fertility Countries: An Uptick in Europe?

(September 2008) Following publication of the 2008 World Population Data Sheet, PRB has made a major update to its table of total fertility rates (TFRs) in countries with low or very low birth rates. The newest tabulations suggest that fertility may be rising in some countries. Have TFRs bottomed out? Are government policies to boost birth rates finally producing results?

The TFR measures the average number of children a woman would have during her childbearing years given current age-specific birth rates. Because rates likely will not stay the same throughout a woman’s reproductive lifetime, the TFR does not measure the completed fertility for a specific group of women. TFRs only indicate the pace of childbearing for a certain time period, usually a year. Women within a given birth cohort may delay childbearing, temporarily lowering the TFR for a time, and then have children later in life. But, in many of the low fertility countries, fertility has been low for a sufficiently long time that it seems clear that the actual number of children will remain well below two per woman.

The TFR remains a convenient indicator of current trends and an essential ingredient for population projections. Over the long term, TFRs below 2.1 children per woman can eventually lead to population decline because couples are not replacing themselves in the population. Many European countries have been far below the 2.1 replacement level for years and some are experiencing population decline as a result.

In low-fertility countries, concern over unprecedentedly low fertility generates nearly daily stories in newspapers and more countries are taking measures to encourage couples to have children. The countries’ fears are now familiar: annual deaths outnumber births, so populations (especially national ethnic groups) will decline; more countries have aging populations that could reach unheard-of proportions in the future; and countries may have little choice but to accept more foreign immigrants than they would like.

During the 1990s, nearly every European country set an all-time record for low fertility rates. TFRs as low as 1.2 children per woman, and even slightly lower were recorded in Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Ukraine. These European countries were joined by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, also with TFRs of 1.2 or lower. An even longer list of countries had TFRs slightly above 1.2.

At the other end of the TFR scale are countries of Northern Europe such as Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, along with France in Western Europe, with TFRs closer to two children per woman.

Many reasons are given for very low fertility and the causes certainly vary from country to country. The rise in living costs and the need for two-earner families play a large role, particularly where childcare needs of two-earner families have been neglected. Changing values that place more emphasis on consumer goods and travel play some role. In Eastern Europe, economic collapse following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in 1989 caused among the sharpest declines in TFRs. Is fertility now rising in some of these low fertility countries? Have pronatalist measures, where they exist, had any effect?

Recent TFR trends in some European countries suggest that the answer may be a very qualified “yes.” Northern European countries have long been noted for their generous support of families with children, partly to ensure equal rights for working men and women. But fertility is still subject to economic influences. In Sweden, the TFR fell to its lowest point in the country’s history, 1.5, during the deep economic recession and high unemployment in the 1990s. Sweden’s TFR recovered and is now one of Europe’s highest (see figure), which analysts attribute partly to the social and political support for parents.

Three Patterns of Fertility in Low-Fertility Countries, 1995-2007

Source: Population Reference Bureau, “Fertility Rates in Low Birth-Rate Countries, 1995 to Most Recent Year.”

Rising TFRs

Eight countries have seen their TFRs rebound 20 percent or more since their low point in 1995 or later. In addition to Sweden, they include Bulgaria, Russia, and Spain.

In Spain, all of the increase in the number of births in 2007 was due to foreign women. Births for Spanish women actually declined. Spain recently instituted a child payment of about US$3,500 to the parents of each newborn or adopted child; but that sum pales compared with the benefits provided in other countries.

In Japan, a small increase in births in 2007 was noted in the press but, as in Spain, the increase was due solely to a rise in immigrant (non-Japanese) births. Like many low fertility countries, Japan has instituted policies to try to encourage couples to have more children. The famous “1.57 shock” in 1990, when the very low 1989 TFR was revealed, led to Japan’s first Angel Plan in 1994. This began a series of programs to enhance childcare and parental leave options and to reconcile work and family life. Such measures were expanded up to the current New-New Angel Plan of 2004. Most of these measures, however, require the cooperation and financial support of private employers. The policies have not managed to raise the TFR from extremely low levels: Japan’s 2007 TFR was 1.3.

If any pronatalist programs have worked, Russia’s must certainly be a candidate. Russia’s fertility plummeted just as it did in the rest of the Soviet bloc countries after 1989. The TFR dropped to 1.2 by the late 1990s. In 2006, following President Putin’s labeling the low birth rate as “Russia’s gravest problem,” a new law provided a huge sum, about $9,600, to parents when they had a second child; the money cannot be used until the child reaches its third birthday. The TFR rose from 1.296 in 2006 to about 1.440 in 2007. In the first six months of 2008, births rose 8 percent over the same period in 2007, perhaps signaling another annual increase.

Holding Steady

Another group of countries have seen minor fluctuations in their TFR, but no clear trend. Germany’s TFR has remained fairly stable, but has seen a small increase that appears to be due to a new law which took effect on Jan. 1, 2007. Germans can now get monthly elterngeld (parent money) amounting to two-thirds of the salary of the parent of a new baby who stops working (up to $2,375, and 100 percent of the salaries of recent parents earning low wages). But all of the rise since 1995 has been in the states of the former East Germany. The TFR has been essentially static in the former West Germany. In both regions, however, couples appear to have waited until 2007 to take advantage of the new, more generous, family benefits, so the policy appears to be at least a temporary success.

Continued Decline

A third group of countries show continued decline. It is not clear when they will hit bottom, or how long they will remain there. Some of the most dramatic declines have been outside Europe, as illustrated by Taiwan’s plummeting TFR in the figure. Portugal is a European country currently seeing its TFR decline, if not as sharply as in some other countries. Moldova, Poland, Romania, and Singapore are others that have declined throughout most of the past 15 years. We will continue to track their fertility as rates become available.

Divining Future Trends

While countries certainly differ, the overall story seems to be the same. Countries whose policies recognize the need to accommodate two-earner families so that having a child is not an economic disaster appear to have had some success in raising TFRs. But the cooperation of society is also required. In Germany, it is often not socially acceptable to leave one’s child in someone else’s care the entire day; women who do are referred to as rabenmutter (raven mother). Such attitudes will have to change for Germany’s fertility to increase significantly. In Japan, the cooperation of employers in lightening work schedules and introducing more flexibility as well as childcare has been mandated by the government. But even these measures can be overshadowed by recessions and a lack of confidence in the economic future. It does seem as if the TFR has “bottomed out” in most low fertility countries. The question now is, if and when it does rise, how high might it go?

Carl Haub is senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau and holds the Conrad Taeuber Chair of Population Information.