European Demography

Good News At Last?

Demographers, policy-makers, and ordinary citizens have long been concerned about the current demographic situation in Europe. European fertility has dipped well below a replacement fertility rate and inspired the term “lowest-low” fertility, referring to a total fertility rate (TFR) below 1.3.[1] The emergence of lowest-low fertility occurred relatively quickly. In 1990, no European country had lowest-low fertility, but by 2001, over 70% of Europe’s population resided in a country with fertility at or below 1.3.[2] Decades of low fertility mean that the European continent is now facing an ageing and shrinking population. The percent of the European population over 65 years old is projected to increase from 17% to 27% by 2050, and the total population of the continent is estimated to decrease from 745 to 716 million.[3] Several European countries can expect their populations to decrease by more than 15% by 2050.[4] Many fear that Europe’s declining population means her culture will fade and her global power will diminish. Some have even labeled the phenomenon the “death of Europe”.

This label, however, is a misnomer. The European population is indeed ageing and decreasing, but this demographic winter is not as severe as it first appears. Nor is low fertility and ageing a uniquely European phenomenon. Approximately 50% of the world population lives in a country with below-replacement fertility. Of the ten most populous countries with below-replacement fertility, only two (Russia and Germany) are in Europe.[5] Europe is anomalous only in that—unlike many other populations that have experienced lowest-low fertility—its fertility has shown signs of recuperating.

Caution: Fertility in Europe May Be Higher Than It Appears

Much of the documented lowest-low fertility in Europe was the artifact of measurement issues rather than an accurate reflection of real decreases in completed cohort fertility. An increase in the average age at first birth created many years during which few babies were born. During these years, observed fertility decreased. As those postponed children were finally born, however, fertility recuperated.[6] During these years when women were postponing their fertility, the European population seemed poised to decrease drastically. If, however, you want to know how many births a woman in Europe had over her lifetime—whether or not she had enough births to replace her and a partner—counting births per year is only slightly useful.

Demographers like to know what is happening now and what is changing from one year to the next, but women have over 30 years to have children (from age 15-49 are generally considered women’s childbearing period). If demographers waited until women were done with childbearing before counting how many children the women had, we would have to wait for each cohort of women to reach their 50s before receiving information on their fertility. Such an approach would make most fertility data obsolete before it was collected. Instead, demographers estimate how many births a woman would have over her life if she experienced current age-specific fertility rates for her entire reproductive life. They observe how many births occur to 15-year-olds in each year and how many 15-year-old women there are in a population. They observe how many occur to 16-year-olds and how many 16-year-old women are in the population, how many occurr to 17-year-olds, etc., all the way to age 49 in order to create age-specific fertility rates. From these age-specific fertility rates, they say “if these rates—measured this year—stayed constant for a woman’s whole reproductive life, how many children would the woman have over her whole lifetime?” This is the “Total Fertility Rate” (TFR). Now, no woman actually lives her whole life with these rates because age-specific fertility rates change from year to year. Women who are 49 today experienced different birthrates when they were 15 than 15-year-olds do today. Generally, however, this approach works very well—demographers can estimate fertility in an intuitive way. It is easy to conceptualize an estimate of how many children a woman has over her lifetime, but it is not intuitive to say whether 60 births per 1,000 20-year-old women is high or low (it is low).

The TFR fell below 1.3 in many countries in Europe, yet most cohorts of women in Europe will finish their childbearing years having had more than 1.3 children. Here is how this phenomenon is occurring: imagine a fictional population in which all women have their first birth at age 20 and then their second at age 25. Then, imagine that a new group of 20-year-olds decides to have their first birth at age 30 and their second birth at age 35. That means that, for ten years, when demographers come into the population to count how many births these women are having, they count zero. When demographers sum up the age-specific fertility rates to estimate the total fertility rate, these women have contributed a lot of zeros to the numerator. During these years, the TFR dips very low. “A very low TFR! The population will shrink very quickly!” To a certain extent, this is correct; if a whole generation of women experienced these age-specific rates for their whole lives, they would have very few children, and the population would shrink very quickly. However, as mentioned before, the TFR is a synthetic measure. No woman actually lives her whole life subject to these rates because fertility rates change. Sure enough, after ten years of observation, these women have their first child—at age 30. They have their second child at age 35. Even though both the younger generation and the older generation completed their childbearing having given birth to two children, postponing fertility created an artificially low TFR. This postponement effect made completed fertility in Europe seem lower than it is.

Changing the timing of births makes the year-to-year estimations of completed cohort fertility move around even if completed cohort fertility does not change. This phenomenon is called a tempo effect—referring to the effect of timing on the TFR. A change in how many births a woman has over her lifetime is a quantum effect—referring to quantity—on the TFR. As a result, demographers have a tempo-adjusted TFR.[7] A decomposition of the adjusted-TFR shows that both tempo and quantum effects occurred in Europe in the last 30 years.[8] European fertility dropped because women postponed their fertility but also because they are having fewer children.

European completed fertility today is lower than it was in the 1960s, even after adjusting for postponement.[9] European women are having fewer than 2.1 children, and most will finish their childbearing having given birth to an average of 1.6, 1.7, 1.8, or 1.9 children. The decrease in completed fertility partially derives from postponing fertility. Fecundity decreases quickly as women age, and fertility postponed is fertility lost. Postponement can decrease fertility at the macro level, too. Even if women who postpone their fertility finish their reproductive years with all the children they intended, the cohort of women below them will have matured in a population with few children. The new cohort of women form their childbearing intentions and expectations in this child-poor society and therefore have lower intended fertility than the cohort above them. Norms, infrastructures, expectations, and desired fertility adjust to this child-poor setting. This is called the “low fertility trap,” and it has occurred in Europe.[10] Part of Europe’s measured low fertility is in fact the genuine product of low fertility.

Total fertility below 1.3 children per woman (lowest-low fertility), however, was almost entirely the artifact of period postponement. You will be hard-pressed to find a large population of women in Europe who will complete their childbearing years having borne an average of fewer than 1.3 children. The mean age at first birth in Europe increased from 26 to 30 years old between 1990 and 2010.[11] As the increase in the age at childbearing has slowed, period fertility has risen. Period fertility has been rising in Europe since 2001, and the number of countries with lowest-low fertility in Europe peaked in 2003.[12] The difference between a completed total fertility of 1.3 and 1.9 (only six tenths of a baby!) is actually quite monumental for a population’s future. It is the difference between a population halving time of 45 years versus 230 years.[13] In Europe, the lowest-low recorded fertility was the result of postponement and measurement, not from actual decreases in completed cohort fertility.

Europe’s fertility recuperation—rather than its low fertility—makes Europe anomalous when compared to very low fertility regions. As of 2009, only one European country (Moldova) still had lowest-low fertility. Many East Asian countries experienced lowest-low fertility but without a recuperation.  Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan, for example, are low and either not recovering or are even still falling. By 2008, only 4 million of the 88 million people living in a lowest-low fertility country were European.[14] If we were to include Chinese provinces with lowest-low fertility as distinct populations, this pattern would increase even more dramatically.

Low Fertility in Europe: Something Old and Something New

Low fertility in Europe is not new. Even before the first demographic transition, when fertility and mortality were high, European fertility was relatively low. Before the first demographic transition, the fertility of European populations ranged from averages of about four to six children per woman.[15] (Of course, many women had more than six children, and many women had fewer than four, but the average fertility for the population ranged from four to six.) In contrast, other pre-transition societies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia ranged from six to eight children per woman. All of these fertility rates are well below the average biological maximum of about 15-20 children.[16] Europeans, like most historical populations, regulated their fertility through social norms. European fertility was regulated first by access to intercourse, which was tied to economics (the ability to provide for a family before getting married) and by strong social institutions and norms which effectively enforced the prohibition of intercourse outside of marriage. Pre-transition Europeans limited fertility by restricting having intercourse to the confines of marriage, although they left fertility unregulated within marriage. Other societies had similar taboos; many tended to regulate fertility within unions. For instance, societies might prohibit a mother’s living with her partner after a birth until the child is old enough to walk (spacing behavior), or women might cease intercourse once they become grandparents (stopping behavior). These behaviors tended not to be for the express purpose of limiting childbearing but instead served other social purposes; nonetheless, those types of norms kept fertility well below the biological maximum in most societies for most of human history. Although most pre-transition populations regulated their fertility, European fertility has always stood out as relatively low.

Nor is declining fertility in Europe new. Fertility in Europe has been declining since the onset of the first demographic transition, the transformation from high mortality and high fertility to low mortality and low fertility. As infant mortality declined, women had fewer births to have the same amount of adult children. As fertility declined to an average of two children per woman, war or economic depression sometimes pushed fertility below-replacement. Several European countries at the beginning of the twentieth century already had fertility levels that were below-replacement levels.[17] Europe has been part of the first demographic transition for well over a century.

Demographers initially hypothesized that the first demographic transition would end with stable populations. They anticipated that fertility would decline to about two children per woman as couples realized that two children was the new replacement level of fertility. Demographers anticipated that populations at the end of the first transition would look like a lower fertility and lower mortality version of the pre-transition population.

But something new happened on the way to a stable population.

This new thing is the second demographic transition (SDT). Like the first demographic transition, the second is also a global phenomenon. It refers to the fundamental re-negotiating of value orientations around sex, marriage, community, and fertility. In the first demographic transition, mortality changes preceded fertility changes, but people’s relationship with fertility remained the same. In the second transition, however, a shift in worldviews precedes new fertility patterns. People change their fundamental relationship with fertility. In this second transition, people dissect the ties between sex, childbearing, and marriage. Lesthaeghe describes the change: “during the first transition couples chose to adopt contraception to avoid pregnancies; during the second, the basic decision is to stop contraception in order to start a pregnancy.”[18] In the second transition, fertility is now a derivative of self-expression and self-fulfillment; “Fertility is now merely a ‘derivative,’ the outcome of prolonged ‘process of self-questioning and self-confrontation by prospective parents . . . [in which] the pair will weigh a great many issues including direct costs and opportunity costs, but their guiding light will be the outcome of self-confrontation. Would a conception and having a child be self-fulfilling?”[19]This new fertility weltanschauung drives fertility below what is necessary for a stable population.

In second demographic transition societies, economic well-being only sways fertility behavior on the margins. Fertility ticks up and down slightly in response to the economy, but the compatibility of childbearing with self-expression has replaced economics as the driver of macro fertility trends. Government policies which try to increase fertility with cash bonuses have therefore been unsuccessful.[20] At most, these bonuses influence the timing of childbearing; some couples who wanted to have a(nother) child anyway may have the child earlier to receive a cash benefit. But cash incentives have not made substantial increases on the average completed family size. The policies which seem to increase fertility are policies that make careers (not just jobs) compatible with childbearing. Money and jobs boost fertility in societies where the sentence “I can’t afford to have a child right now” means: “I can’t provide the material conditions and economic security necessary for a child right now.” That is, people respond to cash subsidies for childbearing if the main reason they’re not having children is a lack of money. SDT countries, however, are high-income countries, and their low fertility was generally preceded by an increase in the standard of living. The logical conclusion is that a lack of money did not cause low fertility in these countries. Instead, these countries experience a shift in what it means to be able to afford a child. The sentence “I can’t afford to have a child right now” in SDT societies means: “Having a child now would cost me my career, self-expression, or self-discovery.” In these societies, therefore, policies which promote third-party child care, renegotiating gendered household tasks, and flex time increase fertility more than cash subsidies do.

Even the policies that do boost fertility, however, do not boost fertility above replacement levels. Such policies work by helping women achieve their desired fertility. They help women combine childbearing and second demographic transition values. This is nontrivial, because the new social-institutional settings of SDT countries prevent women from achieving their desired fertility.[21] Yet women’s desired fertility in these countries is still generally only one or two. The first child allows a person to reap the emotional and identity benefits of being a parent. Second children tend to be “family building” children and allow for balancing a family’s sex composition. Higher parity births, however, generally served economic functions, which are now obsolete in countries holding SDT values.[22] Policies have increased fertility from 1.5 to 1.9, but seem unable to bring levels above replacement. 

A Way Forward?

Many people who worry about Europe’s demographic situation are more concerned with the loss of a way of life, associated with low fertility, than they are with the age structure of the population itself. Indeed, the SDT is defined as a new regime that is

governed by the primacy of individual choice . . . a corollary here is the disengagement from civic, professional, and community networks. It is likely, however, that such networks were partially substituted by more expressive (fitness clubs, meditation gatherings) or more affective (friendships) types of social capital. Values of work and socialization equally display a profound shift in favor of the expressive traits. . . . All elements typical of conformity (obedience, order and neatness, thrift and hard work, traditional gender roles, religious faith) and those linked to social orientations (loyalty, solidarity, consideration for others) have gradually given way to expressive traits that stress personality (being interested in how and why, capability of thinking for oneself, self-presentation, independence, and autonomy).[23]

People who are concerned with a change of a way of life in Europe are tapping into something real.

When people reminisce about higher fertility populations, they mention many other components that are related to—but distinct from—fertility itself. For instance, they remember neighborhood children playing outside together, part of social networks that were closely tied to a location (the block or the neighborhood). They remember how all the mothers on the block knew each other, and how children walked to and from school unattended—dense networks of familiarity and high levels of social trust. They talk about how couples used to go on “proper” dates, and how others would gossip if they stayed out too late—informal control structures. Sometimes they talk about several generations of people living under the same roof and remember old women chatting on front porches while keeping an eye on grandchildren playing in the yard—intergenerational interactions and less social stratification based on age. These components—social networks, familiarity, social trust, and intergenerational interaction—all interact with fertility, but they are substantively distinct from fertility.

The disengagement from community networks preceded low fertility, and makes even moderate fertility very difficult. In the SDT regime, individual parents are left to fill the void left by the disintegration of dense community networks. Instead of receiving child-care support from your grandmother, your mother, your in-laws, your siblings, or a friend from church (whose child also goes to the same school as yours), your only care support network is now one you or the government pay for. Instead of gaggles of children of many ages running around together with the older children teaching the younger children, parents are left driving their children from one after-school “activity” to the next. If this is the only way your child receives exercise, stimulation, and socialization outside of school, middle-sized or large families become very difficult.

Instead imagine that all your children’s social communities were in the same place. Imagine that this place also happened to be the same place as your social community. In such a context, having more children would be easier and therefore more desirable. Substituting community networks with self-expressive leisure precludes the resurgence of higher fertility. The shift in worldviews that defines the second demographic transition did more than lower desired fertility. It lowered desired fertility by changing the social structures that facilitated raising children.

This is good news.

It is good news because it means that low fertility in Europe runs downstream of a culture shift. It means that turning back the undesirable parts of the second demographic transition can be accomplished by ordinary people, not by one or two magical policy packages.  It means that everyday people can shape the course of a continent simply by engaging in their community, knowing their neighbor, and acting selflessly toward their neighbor.

I am not aware of any movements in Europe that are deliberately rebuilding “village-ness”, but I do know individual people in Europe whose lives have that effect. Some of them have more than two children, and some of them do not. Arguably, people who join religious communities—despite their vows of celibacy and TFR of zero—are helping rebuild a society conducive to childbearing by sustaining community life.  Individual people in Europe are building and buttressing a worldview and a way of life that is upstream of reproductive behavior.

Demography is important, but demography is not destiny. Human populations are composed of individuals, all of whom have free will. This free will is what determines our destiny; demography merely shapes our choice set. Now—as always throughout human history—selflessness and love are what change the world. In the timeless words of St. John of the Cross, “the least act of pure love is of more value than all the other works put together.”

Anne Morse is pursuing a Ph.D. in demography at Pennsylvania State University.

[1]     H.P. Kohler, F.C. Billari, & J.A. Ortega, “The Emergence of Lowest-Low Fertility in Europe During the 1990s,” Population and Development Review 28.4 (2002): 641-80.

[2]     Tomáš Sobotka, “Is Lowest-Low Fertility in Europe Explained by the Postponement of Childbearing?” Population and Development Review 30.2 (2004): 195-220. 

[3]     U.S. Census Bureau, Demographic Internet Staff, “International Programs, International Data Base,” Information Gateway, U.S. Census Bureau, June 27, 2011, Web, accessed June 12, 2017.

[4]     DeSA, U.N. “World population prospects: the 2012 revision,” Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, New York (2013).

[5]     Ibid.

[6]     Sobotka, “Is Lowest-Low Fertility in Europe Explained by the Postponement of Childbearing?” 

[7]     John Bongaarts and Griffith Feeney, “On the Quantum and Tempo of Fertility,” Population and Development Review 24.2 (1998): 271-91.

[8]     Tomáš Sobotka, “Does Persistent Low Fertility Threaten the Future of European Populations?” Demographic Challenges for the 21st Century: A State of the Art in Demography, Conference Organized as a Tribute to the Continuing Endeavours of Prof. Dr. Em. Ron Lesthaeghe in the Field of Demography, eds. Johan Surkyn, Patrick Deboosere, and Jan Van Bavel (Brussels, ASP/VUBPRESS/UPA, 2008), 27-90.

[9]     Ibid.

[10]   Wolfgang Lutz, Vegard Skirbekk, and Maria Rita Testa, “The Low-Fertility Trap Hypothesis: Forces That May Lead to Further Postponement and Fewer Births in Europe,” Vienna Yearbook of Population Research (2006): 167-92.

[11]   “OECD Family Database,” The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, available at, accessed June 12, 2017.

[12]   Joshua R. Goldstein, Tomáš Sobotka, and Aiva Jasilioniene, “The End of ‘Lowest-Low’ Fertility?” Population and Development Review 35.4 (2009): 663-99. 

[13]   Ibid.

[14]   Ibid.

[15]   Charles Hirschman, “Comment: Globalization and Theories of Fertility Decline,” Population and Development Review 27 (2001): 116-25.

[16]   James W. Wood, Dynamics of Human Reproduction: Biology, Biometry, Demography (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1994); John Bongaarts and Robert E. Potter, Fertility, Biology, and Behavior: An Analysis of the Proximate Determinants (Cambridge: Academic Press, 2013).

[17]   Sobotka, “Is Lowest-Low Fertility in Europe Explained by the Postponement of Childbearing?” 

[18]   Ron Lesthaeghe, “The Unfolding Story of the Second Demographic Transition,” Population and Development Review 36.2 (2010): 211-51, at 213.

[19]   Ibid., at 217.

[20]   Jan M. Hoem, “Overview Chapter 8: The Impact of Public Policies on European Fertility,” Demographic Research 19.10 (2008): 249-60.

[21]   Peter McDonald, “Low Fertility and the State: The Efficacy of Policy,” Population and Development Review 32.3 (2006): 485-510.

[22]   Philip S. Morgan, “Is Low Fertility a Twenty-First-Century Demographic Crisis?” Dem­ography 40.4 (2003): 589-603.

[23]   Lesthaeghe, 218-19.