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M.A. Sociology - European Societies

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2nd exercise: European Fertility Rates and Population Change

The aging of societies and low fertility rates are among the most important challenges in the contemporary Europe. They are given closer attention in the second-semester module “Social Structure of the European Societies”.

Before starting looking for causes and solutions to social problems, it is important to become acquainted with the terminology used to analyse the phenomenon and with relevant data on the topic. In the upcoming exercises you will have a chance to explore these steps on your own.

Exercise A

There are numerous ways to statistically describe a population. Important indicators regarding fertility are – among others – the total fertility rate (TFR), the crude birth rate, the net reproduction rate (NRR), and replacement rates. Although they all relate to the same phenomenon, their calculation – and therefore their precise meaning – differ slightly. This has consequences for their usage: depending on the context, one index might be more meaningful than another one.


  • To the right you can see the general definitions of the four abovementioned indices. Please read them carefully and critically assess them for the case studies listed below.
  • For each statement choose “right” or “wrong” depending on what you believe is true.

The total fertility rate refers to female children only in the calculation of the index.

The total fertility rate refers to the total number of children born by a woman, sons and daughters alike.

The replacement fertility is higher in the developing countries due to the lesser chance of offspring surviving into adulthood.

Early mortality negatively affects the replacement rate because not all children will live long enough to reach the reproduction age, and some women will die before reaching the end of their reproduction age. Therefore, the replacement fertility is normally set at 2.1 in industrialized countries, and higher – between 2.5 and 3.3 - in developing countries.

(Source: Espenshade, T. J, Guzman, J. C., and Westoff, C. F. (2003). "The surprising global variation in replacement fertility". Population Research and Policy Review 22 (5/6): 575.)

If the actual reproductive performance in a given society is exactly at its replacement rate, the population growth (not taking into account migration) will be close to zero.

Zero population growth is a condition of demographic balance where the number of people in a specified population neither grows nor declines. If in a given society women bore just enough children to replace themselves and their partners, then the total population size will remain constant.

The crude rate birth is a measure that provides more information than total fertility rate because it takes into account only women in reproductive age (18-45).

The crude birth rate provides just the number of births per 1000 of a population, irrelevant of the age structure and reproductive opportunities. The total fertility rate on the other hand is a more precise indicator, as it is not influenced by e.g. the number of elderly in the population and takes into account only women in their reproductive age, i.e. the part of the population that is able to bear children.  

The net reproduction rate is a better indicator to be used in countries like China or India where the populations’ sex ratio is distorted and significantly fewer females are being born.

In societies where there is a significant gender imbalance in favor of men, some of them will remain childless as there are not enough females to became their partners. In such situation examining the net reproduction rate will provide better information on the reproduction trends there.

You will receive feedback to each answer when you click on the icon .

Exercise B

On the right you can see a graph with 1980-2008 total fertility rate trends in several European regions (Scandinavia, continental Europe, Southern Europe, Netherlands and Luxembourg, Ireland and United Kingdom, the new member states of the EU since the 2004-2007 enlargements) and the USA. You can click on the graph to get a larger version. 

You can see substantial changes over time in some of the regions and rather stable trends in others.


  • What is the most important message from the figure?
  • Try to critically assess the information given in this figures and answer the questions below.
  • There is only one correct answer to each question.

Which regions experienced the sharpest decline in fertility between 1989 and 2000?

New member states. The fertility rate declined from about 2.0 to about 1.3 in this period. The fertility rates in the Netherlands and in Luxembourg remained rather stable, rising only slightly. The TFR in the South of Europe and in the UK and Ireland declined more rapidly before 1989, and only modestly between 1989 and 2000.

Which of the European regions had the highest total fertility rate in 1994?

Scandinavian countries. In 1994 the fertility declines in the British Islands as well as in the Central European countries were already in place and in this year Scandinavia slightly topped the United Kingdom and Ireland for a short time.

Which of the regions had its total fertility rate close to the level of replacement rate in 2008?

Great Britain/Ireland. After a decline of the fertility rate throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the two countries started to experience a fluctuation around the value of 1.8 and since 2005 a rise can be observed. All other regions have fertility rates below the replacement level.

Which of the regions had its total fertility rate below the level of replacement rate in 1980?

Scandinavia. In 1980 there were three regions where the fertility rates were above 2.0: Southern Europe, Ireland and the United Kingdom, and the future New Member states. TFR of the Scandinavian was around 1.6 in 1980.

You will receive feedback to each answer when you click on the icon .

Exercise C

As you have seen in the previous example, the total fertility rates in most Europe do not reach the replacement rate. This means that the populations of European societies are shrinking and that women have fewer children than needed for a stable population.

But what is the reason for that? Do women have fewer children because they do not want more children, or do they actually want to have children but struggle with external constraints that hinder their opportunities to have them?


  • The table on the right reports the declared ideal number of women aged 18-39 and the actual average number of children women have in each listed country.
  • Have a closer look at the numbers provided and answer the questions below.

If all women in the EU countries had as many children as they wished, the fertility rates would meet the threshold of the generational replacement.

The declared ideal number of children in all EU countries is 2.11 on average, ranging from 1.91 2.65. In most countries, women wish to have between two and three children on average. The only exception is Romania.

The only country where the actual number of children born per woman exceeds the declared ideal number of children is Turkey.

Only in Turkey the number of children women report as their ideal one (2.24) is lower than the average number they have (2.5).  

On average, the post-communist countries have higher total fertility rates and a higher ideal number of children, compared to the old member states of the EU.

On average, the women in the new member states have fewer children than women in the old member states, whereas the ideal number of children is virtually the same. None of the post-communist countries, , have an average ideal number of children above 2.18. Only two older member states have values lower than that: Austria (1.70) and Germany (1.75).
The differences are even more pronounced regarding the actual fertility rates, again with the exception of Austria and Germany.

You will receive feedback to each answer when you click on the icon .

Exercise D

As you have seen in the previous table, women have fewer children than they wish to have.
What could be reasons for it? Do they have families later and not always manage to have as many children as they wish before they reach the end of their fertile age? Or do more couples suffer from infertility, maybe due to industrialization and other factors? Are women preoccupied with their career and postpone having children until it is too late? Do they not find partners sharing their wish for children? Are there not enough child care facilities and not the right policies to support young parents?


  • Let us have a look at the participation of females on the labor market. Some people say that women who participate in the labor market reorient their goals and focus less on their roles as home-makers and mothers. If this was true, a higher fertility rate should be observed in countries where the traditional model of stay-at-home mothers and bred-winning men is predominant.
  • To test this hypothesis, we can compare the level of female employment in each EU country with its total fertility rate and see if they are related.
  • Have a look at the graph on the right that shows exactly this relation and answer the questions below.

Do the data support the hypothesis that high female employment prevents them from having more children?

No. Surprisingly, there are not only more children being born in the countries with more women staying at home but actually the opposite effect is observable: in countries where female employment is higher, more women on average decide to have two or more children.

The r²=0.31 means that 31% of the variation in fertility rates between countries is explained by the female employment rates.

The coefficient of determination r² is a measure of the strength of a linear relationship between two variables.
A value of 1.0 indicates a perfect linear relationship, a value of 0, none. In reality these are rather rare cases as the social world is complex and various factors can influence a given phenomenon independently.

The outliers like France or Ireland that have higher fertility rates than their female employment rates would predict, must have other factors positively influencing the fertility rates.

Apparently, there are some factors in these countries that improve their total fertility rates. Which are they, cannot be concluded from the graph provided. Testing the impact of multiple factors would demand using multivariate statistical methods, e.g. regressions. Possibly, religion or family-related policies may play a role.

You will receive feedback to each answer when you click on the icon .