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Why just looking at the number of children isn’t enough

Understanding the fertility of immigrants from low-fertility settings

Woman sitting on couch with 5 children

Source: krakenimages 

In the context of ageing societies, demographers and policymakers alike have become increasingly interested in immigrant fertility as a counter to the depressed birth rates and to help slow population ageing – for example by reducing dependency ratios for future working-age cohorts. There are two important factors that may have significant implications for social policy in this regard: (1) the quantum, which refers to the number of children born from immigrant parents and (2) the tempo, meaning the timing of births to immigrant parents. While previous research has tended to focus on one or the other, Eleonora Mussino, Ben Wilson and Gunnar Andersson (Stockholm University) aim to examine the adaptation of both the quantum and tempo of immigrant fertility from low-fertility settings in Sweden in their latest study in Demography.

To this aim, the authors focus on the fertility of immigrants who were born in low-fertility origins and migrated to Sweden as children. Through this, they can also distinguish between child migrants by age at arrival and also compare them with ancestral Swedes, the second-generation and immigrants who arrived as adults.

For most low-fertility origin groups, child migrants tend to have an average fertility quantum (number of children) higher than that of immigrants who arrived as adults in Sweden, but often considerably lower than the two-child average for native Swedes. For the second generation, the authors typically observe depressed rates on their quantum measure relative to natives. However, unlike previous research, they confirm that this is evident when the focus is on children of immigrants from a wide range of low-fertility countries, including compared with child migrants from the same origin. Regarding fertility tempo, findings indicate that childhood age at migration matters – at least for most child migrants from low-fertility origins. Lastly, when looking at the role that the country of origin plays, they find that while there appears to be evidence of adaptation in behaviour for some groups, there is considerable heterogeneity.

These findings provide evidence against the impact of childhood socialisation in relation to national averages and national norms and rather support the potential role of cultural entrenchment. This entrenchment may be determined by a range of different explanations. It may be because of exposure to preferences, values and norms (relating to childbearing) that are different from those typical in Sweden – for example, via the influence of peers, role models, community environments, parents and other family members. At the same time, it could also be because of factors that are unrelated – or not primarily related – to an individual’s cultural background: for example, differential fertility among the second generation may be because of difficulties in balancing a working career and family formation.

In addition, conclusions about the second generation also depend upon whether we look at quantum or tempo. We might expect that the fertility quantum follows from postponed parenthood (relative to ancestral Swedes), but while there is evidence of this for several groups, such as second-generation women with a Polish background, there is also evidence to the contrary – for example, for those with a Finnish background. In this case, the authors’ findings may relate to the contextual similarities between Sweden and Finland, which may make social, cultural and economic integration easier than for immigrants from other low-fertility origins and their descendants. The postponement of parenthood among some second-generation groups, compared with both ancestral Swedes and child migrants, may relate to delays in partnership formation among the second generation that have been observed in other research on Sweden.

Overall, the authors find that adaptation and socialisation are not ubiquitous and that they take different forms when applied to the fertility of immigrants from low-fertility settings. Although there may be some adaptation of fertility tempo, their results for fertility quantum run contrary to their expectation that Sweden provides an ideal environment for women from low-fertility origins to meet their fertility ideals.

Author(s) of the original publication
Eleonora Mussino