CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1This open access book, edited by Michaela Kreyenfeld (Hertie School of Governance, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research) and Dirk Konietzka (University of Technology, Braunschweig), provides a comprehensive overview of childlessness in Europe. Against the background of (re)increasing levels of childlessness in many European countries, the editors bring together demographers and sociologists who examine its contexts, causes and consequences.

2The majority of articles in the book are country-specific analyses, covering the UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands. In addition, an article on childlessness in the United States puts European countries in perspective. Unfortunately, the book does not include any studies on Southern, Central or Eastern European countries.

3Its main strength is its comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach, which consists in bringing together (1) quantitative demographic analysis of the socioeconomic determinants of childlessness in European countries, (2) qualitative studies on fertility ideals and life course plans, (3) a descriptive overview of assisted reproductive technologies, and (4) a discussion of the consequences of childlessness in terms of well-being, old-age income and intergenerational transfers.

4The country-specific studies draw on various national data sources that provide substantial detailed information on educational patterns, employment and occupation histories, etc. In addition, most of the data sources provide information about partners, if existing. In most articles childlessness is analysed from a woman’s perspective, mostly for methodological reasons, but information about the existence of a (cohabiting) partner and his/her socioeconomic background is often taken into account in the analysis. This couple perspective leads to several interesting results. When comparing the different national studies, a common point that emerges is that childless women are increasingly partnered. As suggested by several authors, continuous birth postponement due to career investments, difficulties combining work and family life, and unstable labour market conditions may incur the risk for women of ending up (involuntarily) childless; however, these women are still often with a partner.

5It therefore seems that, in many cases, lack of a suitable partner is not the main reason for birth postponement and childlessness. For many women, barriers to realizing fertility intentions seem instead institutional. A clear distinction between institutional and individual determinants of childlessness is, however, quite impossible, as is distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary childlessness. This definition problem is highlighted in detail at several places in the book. Bernardi and Keim’s qualitative study of working women’s life course plans clearly illustrates a potential overlap between individual and institutional aspects of childlessness.

6The couple approach also reveals that there is a gender bias in the degree to which partner status, education and occupation explain childlessness. For France, Köppen, Mazuy and Toulemon find that for men, the differences in childlessness by socio-economic group disappear almost entirely once partner status is controlled for, while for women, the relative differences diminish but remain considerable. In the partnered women group, childlessness rates are still higher among higher-educated women and those with higher-level occupations. It seems that low social status and unstable economic conditions hinder men more than women when it comes to finding a partner, but they hinder partnered women more than partnered men when it comes to having children. Meanwhile, policy implication remains the same for both sexes: more stable labour market conditions would make it easier for both women and men to start a family, have children.

7The main weakness of the book is that only one article compares trends in childlessness across a large set of European countries. Bringing together data from 28 European countries, Tomas Sobotka demonstrates that the proportion of childlessness is U-shaped within the majority of European countries, with childlessness at its highest in the 1900 and 1970 cohorts and lowest for the 1940 cohorts. German-speaking countries have outstandingly high levels of childlessness for the younger cohorts, while CEE countries have the lowest levels, even though it is likely that childlessness will increase significantly in these countries in the very near future. Sobotka proposes the best possible measures of childlessness in Europe by combining different data sources (censuses, social science surveys, vital statistics) and discusses in detail the numerous methodological challenges involved in estimating childlessness. This methodological section is extremely useful for any researcher working on fertility in Europe.

8The need to draw on several data sources country by country to obtain good estimates of childlessness might explain why comprehensive international comparisons of childlessness are scarce in the literature. The data limitation might also explain why the book does not contain any studies of socio-economic differentials in childlessness based on comparisons of more than two countries. There is a lack of comparable international data combining good demographic and socio-economic measurements. The researcher has to choose between census data, which is not available for certain countries and time periods; demographic surveys (Gender and Generations Survey, Fertility and Family Survey), which often lack detailed information on socio-economic characteristics of all household members, including the partner; and socio-economic household surveys, such as the EU-LFS or EU-SILC, which provide comparable socio-economic variables but risk inducing biased estimates of demographic behaviour.

9This makes it difficult to quantitatively evaluate the correlation between institutions (policies, labour market conditions, gender and family norms, etc.) and demographic behaviour. Several articles in the book describe current family policy settings and discuss policy implications on a national level, but these discussions are not directly derived from quantitative impact analysis. By bringing together different country-specific case studies, the book illustrates the heterogeneity of childbearing behaviour across European countries. It becomes clear that a purely individual-level approach is not sufficient for explaining patterns of childlessness since those patterns differ by socio-economic group and country, as highlighted, for example, by Neyer, Hoem and Andersson. Institutions – education, employment, social policies and norms – must be modelled as potential determinants of individuals’ and couples’ childbearing behaviour. However, this multi-level approach is only possible if comparable individual data is available for a large set of countries.

10The difficulty of obtaining harmonized measures that cover both demographic as well as socio-economic aspects at the individual level for a wide spectrum of European countries might explain why the book does not contain a concluding policy chapter putting social and labour market policies and their impacts on fertility behaviour into a European perspective.

11Given the afore-cited limitations and constraints, this book on childlessness in Europe is as comprehensive as possible. The lack of comparative policy analysis points to the need for further collection and harmonization of European data containing both socio-economic and demographic variables.

Uploaded on on 26/06/2018
Distribution électronique pour I.N.E.D © I.N.E.D. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait