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Jürgen Dorbritz (2000)

European Fertility Patterns*

In: Zeitschrift für Bevölkerungswissenschaft, Vol. 25, 2/2000, p. 235-266, Opladen: Verlag Leske + Budrich, ISSN: 0340-2398

This article is intended to use the total fertility and first marriage rates, mean ages at birth and at first marriage, proportions of children born to unmarried mothers, as well as childlessness, in order to identify patterns in family formation in Europe. The database used is that contained in the annual Council of Europe publication entitled Recent demographic developments in Europe.

Apart from the exceptions constituted by Turkey, Albania and Georgia, all European countries are so-called low-fertility countries, where women give birth to an average of fewer than 2.1 children in their lifetime. This is the predominant common characteristic that has formed during Europe's second demographic transition. However, the fertility decline has already taken a varied course in terms of the point in time at which it set in and its intensity. It commenced in Western and Northern Europe, these countries being followed by Southern Europe and, finally, by the reform states in Central and Eastern Europe, where this process came underway in the nineties. In Western Europe, a stable, low level was established once fertility had stopped falling. Northern Europe experienced limited growth once again, whilst fertility declines in Southern Europe and in the countries in transition led to an extraordinarily low level. Apart from eastern Germany, the lowest-low fertility countries in Europe are currently Lithuania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Spain and Italy.

The only area in which Europe shows uniformity is in the trends – in addition to low and in some cases still falling fertility and marriage rates, these are the increasing average age at a family formation, a rise in the ratio of births out of wedlock and childlessness. These trends too have progressed at a variety of levels, and have started and been concluded at different times. As with fertility decline, the trendsetters were as a rule the countries of Northern and Western Europe (in the out-of-wedlock birth ratio: Northern Europe, with childlessness: Western Europe), followed by Southern Europe. The change in the reform states of Central and Eastern Europe started very late, namely on their entry into the transformation phase in the nineties.

The analyses show very clearly that there is no really European pattern in family formation. What was discovered was a broad diversity of interplay between fertility and marriage frequency, average ages at birth, out-of-wedlock ratio and childlessness. What one does notice is that the change in family formation patterns in Europe has not yet reached a conclusion. This applies in particular to the reform states, for which virtually no future trends can be forecast. This however also applies to the rest of Europe. There is also an upward trend in the average age at family formation; the link between marriage and the birth of children is becoming less strong, and childlessness appears to be growing.

The change in fertility patterns has led, amongst other things, to a weakening of classical demographic links, such as between age at family formation and the number of children, and between marriage and fertility, or the link between the birth of children and being married. The countries of Northern Europe show that it is possible to reach higher total fertility rates in the face of a low marriage frequency and late birth of children. Some countries in Southern Europe are examples of how a stronger trend towards marriage can go hand-in-hand with a very low fertility.

There is at present no indication of a renewed rise in fertility in the European low-fertility countries. The situation in the low-fertility countries has already been stable for quite some time, and a downward trend has been observed in the countries that have higher birth rates. This also includes the fact that the increase in the birth rate in Northern Europe is likely to remain a temporary effect. The presumed increase in childlessness also does not lead one to anticipate a renewed increase.

* Original title: Europäische Fertilitätsmuster (full text in German only)

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