Program Description

The Laboratory
of Contemporary European Fertility and Family Dynamics


The general purpose of investigations in our Laboratory is to provide a better understanding of the differences in levels, trends, and patterns of fertility in European countries in our time. Why is fertility so much lower in East Germany than in surrounding countries, for instance, and why did it take such a dive at reunification? How much of the explanation rests on economic and political developments, how much on the adaptation of social policies to West-German rules, is this a case of relative deprivation, do differences in family structure and family size provide some of the answer, is this mainly a temporary postponement of childbearing activity while life adapts to suddenly changed circumstances, and how can we assess the relative impact of the various factors? Similarly searching questions can be asked about fertility trends and differentials between other countries. Why has fertility been particularly volatile in Sweden and relatively stable in Finland in a period where most visible aspects of public policy were the same in both countries and economic developments were rather parallel? What role has the stronger drive toward gender equality in the Nordic countries than on the Continent played in fertility developments? Why are fertility levels much lower in booming Northern Italy than in the more sluggish South of the country? What is happening in fact to family values in the previously so child-rich Mediterranean area? Questions like these are at the center of our interest.

In our search for answers we draw on a number of social sciences with different theoretical perspectives. We use and assess insights from economic theory, sociological endeavors, and political science. We draw on feminist perspectives, exploit psychological insights on demographic family behavior, and involve social anthropology, so far a largely missing discipline in the study of European population behavior. We use the latest demographic techniques, are alert to the role of the individual's social and political context, and draw on recent descriptive generalizations like the Second Demographic Transition. Our analyses exploit so far under-utilized population-register data for the Nordic countries and for occasional other populations, use social-security and health-care data for Germany, and will make use of existing and new sample surveys, both fertility and family surveys, reproductive and health surveys, and others. For the former communist countries in Europe we use data for periods both before and after the political changeover.


Family behavior

It is a natural feature of our program in family demography to give a description of recent developments in family behavior. In modern societies, developments in family dynamics (marital and nonmarital union formation and dissolution; childbearing; lone parenthood; and so on) are prime indicators of family welfare, for they reflect trends in the way the family functions as a social system and the social conditions of children's lives. Most family policies aim at improving the welfare of families and individuals, but they also affect (and their implementation and revision are affected by) people's demographic behavior in manners that may not always have been foreseen. The demographic effectiveness of family policies is a matter of contention, but for reasons that are still insufficiently clear, they seem to have had consequences that differ between countries. Their interactions with economic and political developments are insufficiently well explored. I am convinced that the roots of a better understanding of these phenomena lies in the interface between family policies on the one hand, and labor-force policies and working-life practices on the other. In what follows I will sketch some ideas about how one can search for causal explanations based on the rich data sets we have (or expect to get) at our disposal for European countries. I am sure that the sketch is incomplete and probably also colored by my personal biases . One of the purposes of our planning activities (and subsequent research) is to provide a better balance.


Demographic description of trends and patterns

We have considerable knowledge about the development of childbearing patterns and family unions in the national populations of the Nordic countries over recent decades. Much less detailed information is available for other countries and for populations of immigrants. Further description is therefore desirable. We need to provide more facts about developments in the formation and dissolution of nonmarital unions, the extent and duration of single parenthood, the role and circumstances of second and any later conjugal unions, the variability of children's family experiences, and other demographic features of family behavior. Such activities will provide benchmark information about family structure and family-related behavior well beyond what is available in official statistics.


Family and labor-force interactions

In many countries, but not in all, expectations about lifelong labor-force participation for most women have profoundly affected childbearing patterns and produced a new age-grading of early adult behavior. Inter-country differences in women's market work may be part of the explanation of fertility differentials between countries. In the Nordic countries, entry into motherhood has been postponed well beyond the time needed to complete an education, obtain a job, and establish income-related parental benefit rights. For a long time, subsequent childbearing was at ever-higher rates and with ever-closer intervals, but in the 1990s, the patterns became more complex. Postponement of the first birth and a greater speed of subsequent childbearing must have created a new situation for the employees and strongly affected the character and extent of labor supply. It must have had important consequences for the labor market that so many children were born by mature women with a long labor-market experience. Reversals during the subsequent years of economic downturn created new behavioral patterns. We need to know much more about how these things fit together, particularly as many other European countries have lower fertility as well as lower labor-force attachment among women. The situation in Eastern and Central European countries before and after the fall of the communist regimes needs particular attention.

The effect of economic developments and public policies need to be investigated further. What role does the institutional structure of day-care in the two parts of Germany play for demographic differentials between them and for the way they are different from other countries? To what extent do parents in different population groups and different countries develop different life strategies, and what is the interaction pattern between individual working-life and family-life developments? We know that the arrival of a child has a profound though possibly temporary effect on a woman's job behavior after the end of the parental-leave period. We are much less sure about the strength of the converse effect. Women's labor attachment has not had the simple connection to the fertility decrease in the 1960s and 1970s that one thought previously. Quite on the contrary, the relation between the two aspects of life appears to be quite complex. In fact, there are indications that women's investment in personal labor-market capital may have a very limited influence on continued childbearing. Strongly job-oriented mothers have had children after the first to the same extent as more home-oriented mothers, at least if their orientation is inferred from their own labor-force participation patterns. This is quite contrary to the predictions of human-capital theory and calls for further investigation.

It is important to study whether public policies have enabled men and women to combine family and paid work in a better manner in some countries than in others, and better in former communist than in Western countries. It is also important to find out to what extent new opportunities for women have been available throughout society instead of being a prerogative of the better situated. To provide better answers, we seek to establish a dual approach, where we utilize both large-scale statistical data and small-scale case studies. We also expect to benefit from such a dual approach in the study of further aspects of the divorce transition. Current legislation increasingly stresses joint custody and the preservation of family bonds in many (but possibly not all) countries, but the individuation of the child shows up in the emphasis of its rights as distinct from its parents' rights. Children are increasingly not regarded merely as property belonging to (one or another of) their parents but as individuals whose views must be heard and whose interests must be considered. Again, perceptions and behavior are related to employment behavior. Employed women have increased divorce risks, and common explanations include (i) the fact that they are less economically dependent on their husbands than the common housewife and (ii) that an uneven distribution of household chores may constitute a heavy burden to female job-holders, which may trigger an initiative to divorce. The extent to which women today actually consider their own future standard of living as single providers (and the standard of their children) and the extent to which such features appear (tacitly or openly) in any negotiations over the division of household work needs further attention and information different from hard-data demographic analysis. Similarly, we need to know more about welfare conditions and working-life adjustments after union disruption, and about the role of the workplace culture in facilitating post-disruption adjustment.

Finally, the possibility of combining information about a respondent's inter-municipal migration with other data opens up an exciting plethora of new research possibilities concerning the interaction between geographical migration, labor-force activities, and family dynamics. Questions concerning the decision processes that determine family migration immediately come to mind. Subtle issues concerning cultural learning and its impact on demographic behavior may be investigated; crudely put, one may ask questions like (i) whether people's manifest childbearing (or union formation and disruption) behavior is dominated by where they grew up or where they live, (ii) what the role of selective migration can be in this connection, and (iii) what features of the local culture are the most important determinants of demographic behavior.


The impact of education and social background

The analysis of family dynamics is concerned with how conjugal-union formation, childbearing, and union dissolution and re-formation varies over time and between social groups, how it is influenced by school enrolment, education, labor-force participation, and so on. We have insufficient knowledge about the role of students in changing union-formation patterns. There was a social gradient in the early spread of nonmarital cohabitation in the 1960s and 1970s, but it seems to have worked via differential enrolment in the educational system and via corresponding differences in educational attainment. The formation of consensual unions seems to have slowed down among young people in the 1980s, but we know much too little about it and we know next to nothing about the impact of education on any such development. It is common knowledge that highly educated women remain childless somewhat more often and longer than other women, but we know far too little about the mechanisms that bring this about (differential individual investment in education, in union formation, or in labor-force behavior). One commonly believes that the highly educated also have lower fertility after entry into motherhood, but in many countries this has turned out not to be correct. We need to know more about whether this is a function of country-specific family and labor policies and to what extent it extends across societies. So far, the influence of individual incomes and wages is largely uncharted. Income is an important part of the reward for competence and work performance, and the wage rate is one measure of opportunity cost. Perhaps the structure of such costs is different from what one has expected. We need to find out.


Gender equality

There is a strong stress on gender equality in the political rhetoric of some countries, and less in others. Even in countries that do stress gender equality, the operational meaning of the term varies from one country to the next. It is important to find out more about how such considerations interact with family dynamics. We need a better understanding of how work-place cultures mediate between gender-symmetric public regulations and gender-typed family behavior, particularly in stressed situations when both work and family make unusual demands on parents. To what extent do individual expectations about family roles determine a gender-specific early selection of education and occupation, and to what extent do family concerns make especially women change their occupation and choose lower career paths than men within each occupation? What is the balance between forced and voluntary choice in this connection? How do such patterns differ by social group and by educational orientation and educational level? How widespread are strong pro-equality attitudes in the various populations? Can we get a better picture of how structural limitations impinge upon individual attitudes in this field? How well adjusted to each other are the opinions about gender-equality matters expressed by partners in consensual and marital unions? How concordant are partners' plans about (further) childbearing or unmarried partners' plans about marriage, and whose opinion counts the most in subsequent behavior if the partners disagree?


Comparison across nations and between political regimes

Our access to similar data from several countries opens for an additional angle on the impact of the cultural setting and of differences in public policies. International comparisons will also be a major tool in our assessment of the impact of public policy on family behavior. We intend to combine current research based on register data for Nordic populations with survey data where they are available. Register data allow us to analyze small population segments that are hardly represented in normal surveys; on the other hand, register data are limited by their very restricted availability of nondemographic covariates as well as by the character of relevant policy revisions. In the West, reforms in the family area have often been introduced largely as an adaptation of the law to nearly autonomous (sometimes international) trends in population behavior, and this makes it hard to discern much direct effect of the reform as such. This is reinforced by the stepwise introduction of many reforms, and by the gradual realization of the opportunities offered among the users of the reform. Normally, each item also has a rather limited effect on behavior. In total, therefore, one should expect large parts of public policy to affect demographic behavior gradually and cumulatively over time. Except in a few dramatic cases (such as the marriage boom at the end of 1989 pursuant upon the reform of public widow's pensions in Sweden), we should expect policy reforms to take effect mainly by accumulation of several impulses that act together over time. Since different countries have different policies and since reforms in one country are definitely not introduced in lockstep with reforms in other countries, international comparisons provide some kind of natural experiments. What happened before and after the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe should provide us with particularly apt possibilities for analyses.

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