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Understanding Low Fertility in Postindustrial Countries

What Explains the Gap between Fertility Ideals and Intentions?
Copyright: Milkos

Fertility rates in many postindustrial societies are now below 1.5 children per woman. At the same time, the majority of young adults throughout the postindustrial world say that a family with two children is ideal. Many young adults say they would like to have two children, but expect to have fewer. What explains this gap between fertility ideals and intentions?

Brinton and colleagues explore the ideals-intentions gap in four postindustrial contexts: two countries with very low fertility (Japan and Spain) and two with slightly higher fertility (the U.S. and Sweden). These countries differ in their gender-role ideologies, labor market institutions, and family policies—three factors known to influence fertility behavior. The authors draw on over 200 in-depth interviews with native-born, urban, highly-educated men and women age 24-35 who were in stable partnerships with no children or one child at the time of the interview.

Their results indicate that the gap between ideals and intentions is greater in countries with very low fertility (Japan and Spain) in comparison to the U.S. and Sweden. But ideals and intentions among female interviewees revealed some surprises. Notably, American and Swedish women are as likely to report an ideals-intentions gap as Spanish women, and Japanese women are the least likely to report a gap.

The reasons for the ideals-intentions gap vary across contexts. American and Swedish women are more likely than those in Japan and Spain to cite work-family conflict as a reason. Living in a context where paid parental leave is scarce and market-based childcare is expensive, American female interviewees expect to take on the primary childcare role. Their frustrated fertility ideals appear to stem from the fact that while gender egalitarianism is prevalent, it is not fully reflected in institutions and policies. On the other hand, interviews with Swedish women reflect the strong social norm that men and women should be equally engaged in paid and unpaid work. This expectation ironically puts pressure on women to obtain a job with a permanent contract, which in turn sometimes tempers their fertility intentions because of the time required to secure such a position.

Brinton and colleagues’ results also suggest that gender inequality is more important in generating low fertility intentions among female Japanese than Spanish interviewees. The persistence of traditional gender roles leads Japanese women to assume that they will be the main caregivers and to generally accept men’s long work hours. The Japanese interviews reveal very little negotiation of household gender roles, and women have relatively low fertility ideals as well as intentions. In contrast, precarity in the Spanish labor market, even for the highly-educated, means that economic uncertainty is more important in informing interviewees’ fertility intentions than gender inequality. Spanish interviewees consider female employment to be necessary for the household, and this leads many interviewees to have lower fertility intentions than ideals.   

Taken together, these results suggest that gender inequality affects fertility intentions in complex ways among the highly-educated in different postindustrial contexts.

Author(s) of the original publication: 
Xiana Bueno and Mary Brinton