Diversity across Low-Fertility Countries: An Overview

Fig. 1.1
Trends in total fertility rates in selected countries, 1980–2010 (For China, National Bureau of Statistics data in China chapter, this volume; for other countries, World Bank 2013)

The papers in this volume were initially presented at a conference with all the authors present. The authors were asked to describe the institutions, history, culture, and policies of their countries that might be affecting fertility, negatively or positively, intentionally or inadvertently. Discussions of each country paper as well as cross-country comparisons revealed that what is seen every day may not be noticed. And if noticed, the implications and ramifications may not be evident, especially if the effects are inadvertent or “it is the way it always has been.” The chance for “outsiders” to probe country “insiders” about why fertility might be as high or low as it is resulted in insights that would not have been possible without such exchanges. The revised papers in this volume and this introductory chapter reflect the rich discussion that occurred, filling a gap in the literature by contextualizing the childbearing choices that women, and couples, make within the environment of a particular country. There are many illustrations in these chapters of one general hypothesis: Any factor that makes it easier to combine parenting, and particularly mothering, with other roles leads to higher fertility, and conversely, any factor that makes such role combinations more difficult results in lower fertility.

In this introductory chapter, we explain a few technical terms that run throughout the papers and then highlight some of the factors that support or constrain fertility across countries. Throughout this introduction, we use country names to refer to the chapters that follow.

First, Some Definitions

We begin by noting a few issues of definition that permeate the chapters. We address these issues in non-technical language. Readers interested in technical details are urged to consult standard demographic texts (such as Preston et al. 2001 or Wachter 2014) or journal articles on specialized topics (such as Bongaarts and Feeney 1998 on tempo distortion in period total fertility rates).

The total fertility rate (TFR) is a measure of fertility for a particular time period, usually a year. It has the useful property of not being distorted by the age structure of a population in a particular year. The TFR is the number of children a woman would have in her lifetime if she experienced the age-specific fertility rates that existed in the year for which the TFR was calculated. As such, it is expressed in an easily understood metric: number of children per woman.

Replacement-level fertility is the TFR that would produce a population growth rate of 0.0 if it were experienced for a long time and there were no change in mortality and no in- or out-migration. For most purposes, 2.1 is a reasonable approximation of replacement-level fertility. It is larger than 2.0 because some female births do not survive to childbearing age.

Tempo distortion occurs whenever women are having children at either earlier or later ages than they had previously. If births are occurring earlier, tempo distortion will result in a higher TFR even if women are not having more births throughout their lives. And conversely, if women are postponing births, the TFR will be lower even if women are having the same number of births as previously. To intuitively see this, imagine a population where all women had twins at age 25 year after year—the TFR in that population would be 2.0. If for some reason these women postponed having their twins until age 26, during the postponing year the TFR would drop to 0.0 even though the actual number of children women in this population were having over their lifetimes would not change.

Although the language of causality is frequently used in these chapters, the papers do not represent empirical tests of causal hypotheses. Rather, the authors were asked to describe the institutions, history, culture, and policies of a country that might be affecting fertility. As such, it is important to recognize that what is being presented is a series of hypotheses rather than causal analyses.

Why the Concern about Low Fertility?

Why should we be concerned about very low fertility, that is, total fertility rates of 1.5 or below? The main reasons are that sustained very low fertility leads to population aging and eventually to population decline. To see this intuitively,3 imagine a population where couples are having fewer than two children; that is, they are not replacing themselves. As this continues, and in the absence of extremely large-scale immigration, the number of children in the population becomes smaller and smaller. The shrinking is occurring at the youngest ages, and hence the average age of the population becomes older. As these smaller numbers of children grow up, the number of working-age adults also decreases. To put the population decline in perspective, a “stable” population (a population with no in- or out-migration as well as unchanging fertility and mortality rates for several generations) with a total fertility rate of 1.5 will be reduced by half in 64 years. If the total fertility rate is 1.9, it takes 230 years for the population to shrink by half (Toulemon 2011). To put the aging issue in perspective, in South Korea (Chap. 6, this volume) the proportion of the population age 65 and above is expected to climb from 10 % in 2009 to 30 % in 2037.

Why care about population aging? The principal concern here involves the mechanisms countries use to fund their social security and social welfare systems, and especially the provision of support to the elderly. With rare exceptions,4 benefits for the elderly are funded by taxing the working-age population. As the elderly become a larger share of the population and the working-age population that pays taxes shrinks, governments are faced with reducing benefits for the elderly, increasing taxes on the working-age population, or some combination of the two. All these options are unpopular with the electorate. If a country has not yet put in place an income and benefits plan for its elderly, as is the case with China (Chap. 2, this volume), adult children who need to support their aging parents might be unwilling to take on the extra burden of raising children, creating a positive feedback loop that leads to further fertility decline. Another concern, sometimes mentioned, is that young adults bring creativity, inventiveness, and vigor to a society, and that aging societies will experience a loss of vitality.

Why be concerned about a shrinking population? One reason, and perhaps the worst reason, is nationalism. There is a nationalistic pride in having a growing population, although this sentiment is typically left unspoken. Additionally, there are economic concerns. Typically, the domestic market is responsible for the largest share of a country’s economy, and as the number of consumers declines the economy is also likely to decline. There are also military concerns related to having a sufficient number of able-bodied young people to staff an army. Stephen (2011) estimates that by 2020 South Korea may not have enough 20 year olds to maintain the size of its armed forces. On the other hand, many environmentalists would be pleased to see the population of their country shrink. This is mentioned in the Netherlands chapter in connection with concerns about the very high Dutch population density.


Numerous aspects of work and work settings influence childbearing decisions. The long work hours for employed women and men in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea make it difficult to be in the mother and father roles. Both employers and co-workers commonly expect a worker to be on the job for long hours, often with little regard for the family responsibilities a worker might have. And a long commute can increase the hours devoted to a job. In many cases, mothers of young children are forced to leave the labor force. In Japan especially, but also to some extent in the other three countries, married women find it difficult to obtain a regular job, with benefits and opportunities for career advancement, when they return to the labor force after their children reach school age. Instead, they are likely to find jobs with little security, few (if any) benefits, and relativity low pay.

In these East Asian societies, cultural expectations are that women are fully responsible for housework and childcare regardless of whether or not they are employed outside the home. Long hours at work plus commuting time also make it difficult for men to help with domestic tasks, even if they wished to. There are signs that some of these problems related to work and family life are starting to occur in China as well. The double burden of work and domestic responsibilities makes the “marriage package” particularly unattractive for women.

The Netherlands provides a contrasting example. Women and men have a government-protected right to work part time, with no wage discrimination and with the same benefits as full-time workers, including healthcare, pensions, and related benefits. In a situation characterized as “unequal pay for unequal work,” 61 % of women and 15 % of men were working part time in 2005, clearly indicating the popularity of part-time jobs. The Netherlands still has a male-breadwinner model, maternity leave is short, and childcare is generally only used on a part-time basis. Yet fertility levels in the Netherlands are fairly close to replacement.

In Australia and the United States, which also have fertility near replacement level, labor markets tend to be more flexible than in East Asia. Part-time positions are available, although not with the guarantees and benefits found in the Netherlands, and re-entry into the labor force is easier than in Japan or South Korea.

Job insecurity and precarious work is a growing issue in all the countries covered in this book, mostly due to the forces of globalization. The current situation is more of a shock in countries such as Japan and South Korea—which had a system of lifetime employment, seniority-based pay raises, and company-provided on-the-job training—than in countries such as the United States and Australia, which never had such a high level of job security. There is evidence from the Netherlands (Chap. 9, this volume) and Japan (Chap. 5, this volume and Piotrowski et al. 2014) that uncertainties regarding employment lead to a substantial postponement of marriage and childbearing.

The Marriage-Childbearing Link

The contrast in the levels of non-marital fertility among the countries described in this volume is sharp. In Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, about 2 % of births occur outside marriage, while in Hong Kong it is about 5 %. In these Asian settings, the marriage-fertility link is strong, and a principal purpose of marriage is to have children. Indeed, marriage is frequently postponed because young women and men are not ready to have children. Marriage and fertility are linked together as a “package,” and social norms and legal systems tend to disadvantage children not born within a marital union,5 keeping non-marital fertility low.

In the Netherlands (Chap. 9, this volume), by contrast, about 20 % of births occur outside of marriage. In the United States and Australia, the percentage is closer to 40 (Carmichael 2014; Monte and Ellis 2014). To the extent that the flexibility of having births within or outside marriage results in higher fertility, then the strong norms against non-marital fertility in the Asian countries are likely one factor contributing to their low fertility levels.

Gender Equity

Gender equity, both in the domestic realm and in the labor force, is hypothesized as an important factor differentiating economically advanced countries that have fertility levels close to replacement from those whose fertility is much lower (Esping-Anderson 2009; McDonald 2006). China, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea all have a patriarchal culture, with considerable gender inequality within families. Wives have primary, almost exclusive, responsibility for household tasks and childrearing duties, while husbands tend to spend relatively little time on either. In these Asian countries, there is also overt and inadvertent discrimination against women in the work force. Although patterns vary, employers tend to hire men for key jobs in their companies because it is expected that women will leave the workplace when they become mothers. And given the very long work hours in Asian companies, the lengthy work day tends to discriminate inadvertently against mothers of young children. Fertility in Asia’s developed economies is much lower than in Australia or the United States, where the women’s movement has been stronger, there is more equitable sharing of domestic tasks, and there is less discrimination against women in the work place—all consistent with theoretical arguments about gender equity.

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Jun 25, 2017 | Posted by in GYNECOLOGY | Comments Off on Diversity across Low-Fertility Countries: An Overview

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