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Didn’t plan one but got one

Unintended and sooner‑than‑intended parents in the East and the West of Europe

In European demographic research, panel surveys have been extensively used to analyse the realisation of short-term intentions to have a child. The evidence shows that in post-socialist countries, women tend to have fewer children than they actually want in the short-term in comparison to other European countries. However, much less is known on whether a similar geographical pattern exists for the realisation of intentions to postpone or forego (further) childbearing.

To better understand the role of this geographic factor, Zuzanna Brzozowska, Isabella Buber-Ennser and Bernhard Riederer (Vienna Institute of Demography, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Wittgenstein Centre, Vienna, Austria) analysed two panel waves of the Generations and Gender Survey (GGS) in six countries: Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland in Eastern Europe and Austria, France and Italy in Western Europe. Based on the short- and long-term fertility intentions expressed by adult respondents at the first survey wave, the authors classified the births occurring between two waves as:

  1. Intended: those who had intended to have a child at wave 1 and had a child between waves 1 and 2;
  2. Sooner-than-intended: those who at wave 1 intended to postpone (further) childbearing but had a child between waves 1 and 2;
  3. Unintended: those who at wave 1 had intended to forego (further) childbearing but had a child between waves 1 and 2.

They found that among respondents who had the same partner at both survey waves and a child between the two survey waves, around 10% of Western Europeans and 30% of Eastern Europeans experienced an unintended or a sooner-than-intended birth. This regional difference is largely driven by the share of unintended births, which is clearly higher in post-socialist countries, and less due to sooner-than-intended parents. However, the geographical pattern weakens (for women) or entirely disappears (for men) when anticipated costs of having a child are taken into account, as they are systematically higher among Eastern Europeans.

In all analysed countries, the anticipated costs and benefits of having a child are among the main factors associated with experiencing a sooner-than-intended or an unintended birth rather than an intended one. Respondents who intended a child at wave 1 and realised that intention by wave 2 expected the highest benefits and the lowest costs, whereas the unintended parents assessed the benefits as lowest and the costs as highest. Unfortunately, the data does not allow to assess whether births were wanted at the time of conception.

Results also show that already having two or more children makes it more likely to experience an unintended or, only in the East, a sooner-than-intended birth rather than an intended birth. This pattern may be seen as a manifestation of the two-child norm, which may make parents of two children more reluctant to explicitly admit that they would like to have more children. It is possible that individuals who would like to have more children but feel they lack the resources or the support to do so might declare that they do not intend to have an additional child and yet not be fully committed to that intention.

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Zuzanna Brzozowska